I saw my first butterfly of the year yesterday. It was a peacock, bouncing around in a small, scrubby patch of hedgerow as if it was on a bungee cord. They're nearly always the first species I see, those and small tortoiseshells. They steal a march on most of their competitors by overwintering as hibernating adults, rather than as larvae or eggs. It means they're ready for action on the very first warm day of the year, taking advantage of the early spring flowers to feed up, so they're ready to mate.
There's another butterfly that does this too - the gloriously named brimstone. But sadly it's not made it this far north yet. It was one of my favourite butterflies when I lived down south - a flying primrose. Seeing one skitting down a sunny woodland ride on a late February morning would light up my day, and I feel a pang of envy when I see reports of the first ones emerging each year.
In fact I miss those coppiced woodlands too. I miss the rides lined with oxlips, the bright patches of sun among the green shade of the hazel and chestnut stools, and of course the butterflies. Coppicing isn't something that really took off in a big way in Scotland. In many places people went into a wood and cut as they felt the need, rather than having an organised cycle of cutting sections of the woodland for charcoal, firewood, tools and hurdles as there was down south. I say was, because the ancient practise of coppice management has been abandoned in many woods due to lack of demand for its products. That's a shame, because butterflies like brimstones, peacocks, and many rarer species, thrive where woods are managed this way.
And so, when I went to Sainsbury's today I took some vicarious pleasure in buying a bag of barbeque charcoal. This, as they say, was no ordinary charcoal, this was charcoal made by a small producer in a small coppiced woodland somewhere in England. It's distributed by BioRegional, a social enterprise that helps sustainable businesses. It's supported by Butterfly Conservation, because every bag of charcoal that's sold helps keep another piece of coppice woodland from neglect or the bulldozer. And that means more butterflies.
Ironically, while coppicing for charcoal creates valuable habitat in the UK, natural forests in other parts of the world, especially Brazil and South Africa, are clearfelled to make the other 95% of charcoal that we in the UK burn each year, destroying the habitats of thousands of species in the process. And to add insult to injury transporting it to the UK chucks out many tonnes of CO2.
So if the recent sunny weather makes you feel like throwing caution to the wind and getting out the barbie, please try to buy the local stuff. Even if I can't be in the woods myself, it would be nice to think they'll always be there to revisit.