Country diary: gripped by a grayling’s disappearing act

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The path ahead runs like a threadbare strip of carpet between low-lying vegetation. Scuffed by walkers, eroded by the elements and frayed by sheep, its worn matting of coarse grass scarcely covers the stony ground.

As I follow it up the slope of this west Dartmoor hill I can hear on all sides the pistol-crack of gorse pods popping in the heat, firing their seeds around them, and sunshine has set grasshoppers on the trail chirping in bursts that sound like tiny pneumatic drills.

Plenty of small heath butterflies flush in front of me, thumbnails of orange that settle nearby, and the occasional meadow brown. Then a larger butterfly takes me by surprise, rising suddenly and racing away on dark wings, twisting above the path before landing abruptly on a rocky patch of dry grass.

I pinpoint its position and approach carefully, but somehow can’t locate it. Only when it flies do I see that it was right where I was looking. And then once again it deceives me, touching down on the track a short distance ahead and seemingly vanishing.

This impressive master of camouflage is the grayling (Hipparchia semele), a species of open terrain that hides in plain sight. It collapses itself in two movements, like a foldaway seat-table on an aircraft, closing its brown-and-orange wings and sliding away the front half. With its prominent eye spots and colouring concealed, all that remains visible is the muddy grey underside of its hind wings. Their marbled and mottled patterning blends perfectly with pebbles, bark and bare ground in the places it inhabits, and wings are often tilted to catch the warmth of the sun, which reduces the shadow it casts.

A grayling

The grayling is a butterfly for the holiday season – a late-summer, hot-weather-loving species of Britain’s coastal areas and southern heathland sites. However, it is a disappearing act in more ways than one, having declined in many areas over recent decades.

I spot only a couple of graylings on my walk, and it feels like a triumph to eventually get closeup views – though who knows how many others I might have missed along the way. When it comes to a game of hide and seek, don’t expect to beat the grayling.

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