Our Aunt Winnie had to make up the mixture of treacle and sugar in an old saucepan and pour it in a golden column from a spoon held high above to test its consistency.
We brushed the sweet sticky mixture on the trees in the early twilight and returned with nets half an hour later to collect the moths. In they came, gently fluttering, settling to drink at the trees with wings folded, camouflaged dull against the bark. Tiger and poplar moths, hawks, yellow under-wings, and small strange semi-moths with five-leaved wings, which were clearly not normal moths and could not be found in our insect books.
Over the years, long after this first coppice had been cleared, we collected and bred butterflies and moths, beautiful, exotic, ephemeral beauties in a myriad of forms. It is hard to realise today that in the Twenties the fields were full of butterflies, some common and some rare. Their shapes and colours were so familiar to us that we could tell them apart at fifty yards, floating and staggering in their erratic flight. Later we bought insect eggs from L. Hugh Newman, at the Butterfly Farm in Bexley, Kent. He was a real enthusiast who had transformed his house into a breeding centre for butterflies and moths to start a cottage industry and become known world wide for his insect eggs and nature photographs. On several occasions we bought eggs of the Comma butterfly as these seemed to be rare in Muswell Hill. Once I did see a Comma which may have been from our breeding, but no doubt most did not survive. Reintroducing a lost species often defeats experts and is well beyond any child.
In season we collected the more common caterpillars from bushes and trees and placed them in white muslin sleeves tied round their favourite food plants. Then, when the caterillars had pupated, they were placed in some sheltered corner to overwinter. I watched one goat moth caterpillar until it pupated and then kept it in a Palm Toffee tin in my bedroom for nearly another year, despite the pungent smell, before the moth emerged with one unfortunate wing damaged.
At this period, before the introduction of chemical sprays which have obliterated butterflies, the hedges and streets were full of caterpillars, so that sometimes one could not walk on the pavements without treading on looping caterpillars. In the first year of the Second World War there was a bounty on Cabbage White butterflies. A hundred for four pence. When the children were evacuated to the country I, as a young teacher, had to count tins full of mangled bodies, beaten down by children waving jackets iii the surrounding cabbage fields to save the crops. I was sad in some ways to pay out that bounty.
In 1942, sitting on the wing of a Wellington bomber in North Africa, replacing an emergency life-raft, I saw a swallowtail butterfly walk out of the cut canvas and fly off in the direction of the Suez Canal. To the amazement of everyone else, I slid down to the back edge of the mainplane, dropped off, and raced across the desert, following this wisp of England. The day before I had been on duty and had accepted the planes, newly arrived from England. The ten bombers, now being prepared to attack Tobruk, had been only a few days earlier in Norfolk among the swallowtail reeds.
Inside the wing, warmed by the Egyptian sun, the butterfly had emerged from its pupa and now its great wings were fluttering across the foreign sand of an arid desert, with the mirage forming across the Canal as it does each day at noon, so different from the lush wide reeds of Norfolk. The Suez Canal was hidden beyond a row of sand-hills, but in the mirage it appeared to float and shimmer on the horizon, offering water to a thirsty traveller. At twelve noon each day, the mirage of the Cairo to Suez train seemed to