Matthew Oates: A Paean to the Purple Emperor

Jul 9 2024

Oakes meets Oates to hear one man’s passion-filled past devoted to Great British butterflies

David Oakes

David Oakes


Matthew Oates


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About this episode:

Matthew Oates is a naturalist, nature writer, and poet with a lifelong passion for butterflies. In the short sward of the Cotswolds, Matthew takes David Oakes on a journey through his fluttery past. They discuss the writers who have inspired him, from Tolkien to Wordsworth and W.H. Hudson, and share stories of other notable butterfly enthusiasts, such as Sir Winston Churchill. Matthew explains his belief that true conservation is a blend of science and love. They also delve into the realities of developing a love for nature in the boarding schools of the Swinging Sixties – a time when his generation transitioned “from Molesworth to Jimi Hendrix in just three years,” leaving little room for butterflies or a life-defining obsession with the intoxicating Purple Emperor. Their conversation also addresses modern concerns for butterfly conservation, including pathogens and parasites, the risks of unsanctioned releases, and the importance of single-species ecologists – “insects shout loudest and first.” Ultimately, this is a discussion about the metamorphoses of both the past and the future.

David's thoughts:

I think a poet is surely the profession best placed to immortalise the butterfly. The butterfly is ephemeral, by evolution a creature constantly in a state flux, almost impossible to pin down (without literally, sadly, pinning it down); surely a wordsmith is the only person able to capture its essence. Photos look flat. Collected specimens devoid of spirit. Paintings or drawings struggle to capture its movement through time. And, scientifically – is a butterfly best considered as an adult, its caterpillar, or even its pupa or egg… What an amazing creature to try and encapsulate through art.

Matthew is a poet. I truly hope he will one day publish a collection of his poems, a brief snifter of which I’ve encountered elsewhere in his published works. I’m not one to normally push The Times as a newspaper to support, but Matthew’s nature diary is a piece of pastoral wonder that will no doubt be read alongside Thomas, Hudson and Clare one day. Matthew has spent so much time out in nature, more often than not seeking out his winged-friends, that he has witnessed change in a way most of us will only read about. He has witnessed flux in landscape-scale terms across the past fifty years, and yet remains positive about what could lay ahead. Voices like his are to be cherished like the creatures they champion.

His Imperial Majesty, the one and only Purple Emperor butterfly resting on some bracken!

His Imperial Majesty, the one and only Purple Emperor butterfly resting on some bracken!


Matthew Oates:
Twitter –

Butterfly Conservation –

Knepp Purple Emperor Safari –


“His Imperial Majesty” and “In Pursuit of Butterflies” by Matthew Oates

“Brendan Chase” by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

“Green Mansions” and “Hampshire Days” by W H Hudson

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