BUTTERFLIES once adorned our every town and country garden. Many of us remember watching those enchanting symbols of beauty as they flashed from bush to bush, sometimes resting on our finger tips, light as thistledown. It was an amazing sight to see a cloud of gleaming color, flying high overhead, as migration came and went. Over the years, various species like the swallowtail, papilio, and heath fritillary, were introduced to several districts, but their existence soon faded out. Their decline was largely caused by changes in farming, forestry, drainage and pollution, chemical spraying, and by the stealing of downland for more concrete motorways.
Yet deep in the heart of the countryside, on the mountains and lonely grasslands, and on the moors, butterflies still flourish. Some breed once a year, others twice a year. They are either strikingly handsome, with dark wings splashed with flamboyant coloring, or small and dainty as a whisper. Their lovely names speak for themselves - pale cloud, purple emperor, holly blue, eastern tortoiseshell, Camberwell, and beauty.
Apart from the moth family, only 68 varieties are now breeding in Britain. Like us, they have their likes and dislikes in flower fragrances; their favorites include nasturtium, white mustard, and even garlic.
The butterfly is one of the few insects harmless to man, plant, and animal. Television programs sometimes show where to find and lure them from their environment. This could well mean their extinction, since collectors are obsessed with possession.
I can still feel the overwhelming sadness upon seeing a collector open drawer after drawer of dead butterflies. Another bad moment was a visit to a natural history museum. But the butterfly has other enemies besides man, such as spiders and birds, to maintain the balance of nature. Nevertheless, there is now more hope for the butterfly than there has been for some time.
A few years ago, 50 American monarchs reached England. Excitement ran high when it was reported in 1962 that the large blue had been spotted in the Cotswolds, a variety long regarded as extinct in this country. At the same time, the local press received letters from residents claiming they had seen the peacock blue and small tortoiseshell in their gardens. The editor promptly replied, suggesting that people grow certain shrubs and bushes to create a butterfly garden, keeping a watchful eye out for them when the sun was shining; as coldblooded insects they shyly hide when the sun goes down. Since then, two red admirals have honored my own suburban garden.
Ever since Butterfly Year and those joyful-looking stamps, we have become more butterfly conscious; butterfly designs have appeared on clothes, jewelry, wallpaper, and gift paper. Instead of netting them, students are content to photograph them. Scientists are spending vast sums to discover a chemical that kills only specific insect pests, avoiding wholesale slaughter that would include the butterfly.
Englishman Robert Godden was four years old when his interest in butterflies began, a hobby that steadily grew. At the age of 20, he created World Wide Butterflies, at Compton House, Dorset. When opened to the public, it received tremendous publicity, touting the exotic, jungle-like conditions so natural to the rare butterfly. Compton House is indeed a ``must'' for all who love these messengers of joy.
The London Butterfly House in Syon Park, Brentford, is another young man's realized dream. Clive Farrell wanted to fashion a paradise filled with free-flying butterflies and moths from all over the world. One day when he visited Syon Park with his veterinarian brother, the manager became so interested in Farrell's ideas that he gave him a piece of land. In 1981 he opened the first Butterfly ``Safari'' Park in Europe there. Here, butterflies live out their lives in fearless splendor, instead of ignobly pinned down on paper or crammed into drawers.
The British Conservation Society, whose president is Sir Peter Scott, is a charity established in 1968 which now has branches all over England. It features lectures, exhibitions, field trips, and continuous campaigns to save threatened wild habitats. One recent attempt to reintroduce a Scandinavian butterfly into the West country has had encouraging results. As Sir Peter says, ``It would be a sad world without the butterfly.''
Doris W. Hutchings lives in Taddington, Middlesex, England.