Off to School in a Heartbeat

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 10th August, & the Gazette & Herald on 8th August 2018)

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My dad failed his English so joined the police as a 16-year-old cadet

I was thrilled to learn that Heartbeat has been voted the greatest Yorkshire Television programme of all time by readers of The Dalesman magazine, which is fitting in the year that marks 50 years since YTV was born (It came third in the overall poll behind two wonderful rivals, Last of the Summer Wine (2nd) and All Creatures Great and Small (1st), both made by the BBC).

More than 3,000 people voted and, were he here, my dad would be amazed to know that the programme is still held in such high esteem more than 26 years after the first episode aired. Fans continue to visit Goathland, where the series was set, to rekindle their nostalgic memories about the lovable characters and beautiful locations featured in the show.

Heartbeat was based upon my dad’s Constable series of books in which he drew upon his 30 years’ experience as a rural policeman. He was born to write, and persisted despite a number of setbacks in the beginning. He didn’t do well in English at school and his teacher was less than encouraging about his writing abilities. But Dad possessed what you need if you are going to make it in the creative industries – a bucketload of self-belief. This took him far, including beyond his first 13 novel rejections. His inspiration was Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough, the highly successful author and Countryman’s Diary columnist who hailed from Westerdale on the North York Moors. In 1947, when Dad was just 10, the Major had presented him with one of his books, and I believe that was a turning point in Dad’s life as it made him realise that you could, in fact, earn a living through writing stories.

Dad used to say to me that if you were a male and came from the moors, you usually went in one of two directions, either into farming, or into the uniformed services. At first, Dad did try to buck the trend by asking for a job at the local paper, the Whitby Gazette, when he left school at 16. But they turned him down, and so, not knowing what else to do, he joined the police.

I think leaving school with few qualifications left a very deep impression on him as, after being rejected by the Gazette, and at first unable to immediately fulfil his ambition to write, he didn’t have many qualifications to fall back upon so had to do something ‘conventional’ to earn a living.

So I think it was that which made him believe that getting an education was highly important, and I now understand why he worked so hard to make sure we children went to good schools. In his column from 8th August 1978, he talks about the difficulty of motivating children from rural backgrounds to go to school before it was compulsory in the 19th century: “It must have been very difficult to encourage parents to send their youngsters to school when those same youngsters could be better employed in the house or fields working productively alongside their parents.”

It was only after the Agricultural Children’s Act of 1873 that things began to change, as it forbade children under the age of eight to work on a farm unless it was their own, which meant that children whose parents didn’t own a farm were free to attend school. Three years later, the law was changed again making it compulsory for children under 12 to attend school, with the exception of the six weeks during which the hay and corn needed to be gathered in, which is how the long summer school holidays covering July and August came about.

All working parents today will understand the mixed blessings of a long summer holiday. This year, for the first time in 18 years (thanks to my youngest finishing his GCSEs) I was able to plan and take a two-week holiday when most children were still at school. So by the last week of June, we were all free and hotfooted it to France while the going was so good.

While in France, like most of us Brits do, I worked very hard on my tan, only to come home and find I had no boasting rights to speak of as, thanks to this amazing spell of hot weather, everyone else was the same colour as me! Life just isn’t fair sometimes.

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.

That Old Chestnut

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 8th June, & the Gazette & Herald on 6th June 2018).

One of the best things about being a countryside writer and regular walker of dogs is that I have the enormous privilege (which I never take for granted!) of being able to get outside most days and appreciate the amazing county I am so fortunate to live in.

Today, as I write this, the sun is beaming down and I have been on two good walks where I took the time to really examine the rural world around me. At the moment, the footways and hedgerows are positively brimming with wild flowers and blossoms against a backdrop of vivid and vibrant greens and a walk surrounded by such natural splendour is truly therapeutic. To me, a few doses of this each week is as good as any medication.

And it isn’t just a treat for the eyes. Whenever I pass the stunning pink dog rose, the scent that fills the air is just sublime, and it never ceases to amaze me that such beauty can be found in our wild and uncultivated places.

One of the floral displays that most impresses me around this time of year has to be that of the horse chestnut tree (Aesculus Hippocastanum). I find it truly stunning. I play tennis for a village team, and right by the courts is possibly the most beautiful example I have seen. Last Monday night, I couldn’t help but look at it between points, it was so eye-catching (although I didn’t let it distract me too much to not win the match!) and it seems my dad felt the same way about these glorious trees. On 10th June 1978, he wrote: ‘One of the most striking of our trees is the horse chestnut, with its multitude of candles, as the flowers are so often called. No other tree can put on such a magnificent display of flowers, unless we include the cultivated ones.” And he is right. The sight of a horse chestnut festooned with countless cone-shaped blooms makes it appear like a giant candelabra lighting up the countryside.

At the start of the season, from a distance the blossom appears creamy-white, thanks to the yellow splash at the centre of each white bell-shaped flower head. These bee-friendly blooms are actually very clever, as once they are pollinated, the splash turns vibrant pink to alert approaching insects to the fact they have already been pollinated and so there is no point in visiting them. I’m sure our endlessly busy worker bees are very grateful for this time-saving tip-off. Once the flowers begin being pollinated, the whole tree appears to transform from creamy white to pale pink.

You will see a red variety of horse chestnut (Aesculus x carnea) dotted about the countryside and our open spaces, but is less numerous and generally much smaller than the common horse chestnut. It was introduced into this county from Germany in around 1820 as a hybrid between the common tree and the shrub Aesculus Pavia (or red buckeye). Like its larger relative, it also produces conkers in September and October, but they are usually smaller and housed in less prickly casings than the standard variety.

Both trees are beautiful when in full bloom, but which is your favourite? I must say, for me, the common white variety can’t be surpassed.

I’d like to say a couple of thank you’s here to two readers. I’m afraid I couldn’t decipher the name of the first (it might be AW Grant?) but they sent me a lovely card and in response to my question about butterfly names (May 2nd) they enlightened me on the fact that the Glanville fritillary butterfly is named after 17th century entomologist Lady Eleanor Granville, who was an expert on the creatures.

The second reader is Edith Bennison, from Stokesley, who sent me a lovely letter of condolence, and told a funny story to cheer me up about her son. He was on a visit to North Yorkshire Police Headquarters with his sister, when, much to his sister’s embarrassment, he told the following joke to the room full of policemen:

‘Where do policemen live?’

‘999 Letsbe Avenue!’

Edith says: “Well my daughter was hoping the floor would open up and swallow her…but the policemen just burst out laughing!”

Well that old chestnut certainly did cheer me up. So thank you Edith!

Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

ENDS

No need to get ratty

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 1st June, & the Gazette & Herald on 30th May 2018).

I was driving home late one night along one of our quiet country lanes when a great big rat dashed out of the verge and scurried across the road in front of me, its long pink rubbery tail illuminated by my headlights. This is not the first time it has happened, and I always experience an involuntary shudder every time it does.

It makes me wonder why I am so squeamish around rats. I don’t have the same feeling about mice – I recently caught one outside my back door that I found investigating my recycling boxes. I managed to trap it in a plastic tub, and it was so tiny and cute that there was no way I could possibly destroy it, so I released it into some nearby fields (I can hear the seasoned agricultural contingent among you groaning!).

But rats have always suffered from a ‘bad boy’ image, and are regularly depicted as the villains in children’s fiction. Famously they are the worst fear of George Orwell’s unfortunate hero from ‘1984’, Winston, who has to face them through a cage secured to his head in the dreaded Room 101.

It’s possible that this common fear stems from the belief that rats were to blame for the devastation caused by the Black Death. In the mid-fourteenth century, it killed 25 million people across Europe, and even more during later resurgences. The speed of the spread, so it was believed, was due to infected fleas that lived on rats.

But now we know they may well have been unfairly vilified, as a study published in January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS.org) showed that it is more likely that it was down to human fleas and body lice. Poor old rats having to shoulder the burden of that reputation for so long!

In my dad’s column from 3rd June 1978, he talks of the old custom of ‘rhyming rats to death’. I have to confess that I have never come across that phrase, but according to Dad, it was an Irish belief that rats in the fields and on rural farms could be rendered unconscious if you talked to them in rhyme. No particular poem is mentioned as having these soporific qualities, but Ben Jonson, the English poet and dramatist, wrote: “Rhime them to death, as they do Irish rats,” and Shakespeare also referred to the belief when Rosalind, in As You Like It, says: “I was never so be-rhymed since Pythagoras’ time, that I was an Irish rat.”

Dad also quotes this fascinating little ditty:

“The rat, the cat and Lovel our dog,
Rule all England under a hog.”

This seemingly innocuous verse was in fact a searing criticism of those in power at the time it was written in 1484, and was found pinned to the door of St Paul’s Cathedral and other prominent places all over London. The rat was King Richard III’s confidante, Sir Richard Ratcliffe, the cat was Speaker of the Commons William Catesby, and Lovel was Viscount Lovel, who had a reputation for being the king’s ‘lap dog’ or ‘yes man’. King Richard’s emblem was a white boar, hence the reference to a hog.

The poet was ultimately unmasked and found to be wealthy landowner William Collingbourne, a fierce opponent of the king, and he paid a heavy price for writing those few words as he was put to death for treason.

Despite the general dislike among the population towards rats, they are actually supposed to make very good pets. When I was at school, one of my classmates used to bring his white rat into class, and he was a most well-behaved and tame thing, who would sleep in master’s blazer pockets during lessons, so the teacher never knew he was there.

Domesticated rats are known as ‘fancy rats’, coming from the term ‘animal fancier’, and there are numerous professional breeders and a whole community of rat fanciers, with an estimate of about 100,000 pet rats in the UK. They have a reputation for being cleverer than a dog, and more hygienic than a cat. They are sociable, affectionate, trainable, and easy to keep, and if the National Fancy Rat Society (nfrs.org) is to be believed, they are the best of the rodent population to keep as a pet.

So I have one remaining question then – can you take them for a walk?

Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

 

From memories to remembrance

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 25th May, & the Gazette & Herald on 23rd May 2018).

Sometimes, researching material for these columns is a bit like being a detective. I read Dad’s words from the corresponding week 40 years ago, and that triggers off an idea which can require me to delve into the archives of cuttings and photographs that we have stored at my parents’ home. Usually this, along with a few targeted questions to my mum and siblings, and some rummaging around the internet, helps me to build up a picture of what was going on in the world at the time Dad was writing the column.

This week, I was reading his column from May 27th 1978, in which he talks about the visit by Prince Charles to Great Ayton. That is just about all he says about the visit itself, and he goes on to talk about the school in the village where Captain James Cook was educated as a young boy.

I then recalled having seen a picture in our archives of Prince Charles with my dad standing in the background and wondered if it was that same occasion at Great Ayton. If I could find it, then wouldn’t it be a good accompanying picture to this week’s column!

So I called my mum and asked about said picture, at which point she put me straight, “Oh no, that was Whitby up at the Captain Cook memorial,” she said.

Momentarily disappointed, I thought my quest had come to an end. But when I googled ‘Prince Charles visit to Great Ayton 1978’, the results also showed that his visit to Whitby was on 1st June 1978. And going back to the first paragraph of my dad’s column, he said the visit to Great Ayton was ‘on the following Thursday’, i.e. 1st June 1978 too, so of course Charles would be visiting both places on the same day! My quest was back on track.

The visit was part of the Royal Tour of Cleveland, which included celebrations for the 250th anniversary of Cook’s birth, and so Prince Charles was visiting some of the spots that were significant in Cook’s life. He unveiled a plaque at the Cook Memorial, which is where the picture showing my dad in the background was taken. Unfortunately I don’t possess an original, just a copy of the photo from the paper. Annoyingly, I couldn’t lay my hands on the original cutting either, despite raiding my dad’s mind-boggling collection of cuttings, and so had to continue my Poirot-esque quest for information elsewhere.

What Dad fails to mention in his article is that at the time, he was press officer for North Yorkshire Police, and as such, was heavily involved in all royal visits to the region. Another search of the internet threw up some photographs from that day, and sure enough, Dad can be spotted lurking in some of them. It’s an odd feeling when you find photos of your loved ones that you never knew existed, and it added another small piece to the jigsaw of my dad’s life that I am piecing together now he’s gone. The pictures were taken during Dad’s thankfully short-lived ‘moustache’ phase, when, in his uniform, he wouldn’t have looked out of place next to a line-up of the Village People.

Dad worked for North Yorkshire Police for 30 years until he retired in 1982 to write full time. He was always very proud of his police career, and, as a gifted storyteller, particularly enjoyed his time as press officer. I was honoured to be invited along with my mum, sister and brother, to the North Yorkshire Police headquarters for a service on 13th May to remember the lives of those men and women who have either died during their service, or after they left. It was a very moving occasion, particularly hearing about the tragic cases of officers who had fallen while on duty.

One of the most memorable cases Dad dealt with while press officer was the hunt for killer Barry Prudom, who was on the run in North Yorkshire in 1982. Dad’s approach when dealing with the media in this case was quite revolutionary, and he received a commendation as a result, as well as a personal call from Scotland Yard to say it would be adopted nationally. So when the two officers murdered by Prudom were remembered at the service, it was especially poignant.

So please take a moment to remember, and never forget, the names of PC David Haigh and Sergeant David Winter.

Dawn – a chorus or a cacophony?

 

 

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The blackbird often leads the chorus, like an avian Gareth Malone
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And early bird in full song

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 18th May, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th May 2018).

The insomniacs and early risers among you will have noticed that as the mornings are getting lighter, so the noise produced by our energetic bird population is getting louder.

I have a love-hate relationship with the dawn chorus, depending how much sleep I’ve had during the night. If I’m well rested, then it’s like uplifting music to gently come round to. After a wakeful night, however, it’s more like an unpracticed school orchestra warming up in my garden.

Like the call of the cuckoo I mentioned last week, the arrival of the dawn chorus is another sign that winter is behind us. The chorus is predominantly made up of male birds looking for love, and those with the loudest songs quickly attract partners. The bird produces his tune from an organ called the syrinx, and a lusty syrinx draws the females like bees to pollen. His spirited birdsong saps much of his energy, and so not only does he have to be fit, but he must be an excellent hunter to ensure he has enough food to keep his strength up. So if he can be heard above the other members of the chorus, discerning females will assume that he is likely to not only father healthy chicks, but also be a reliable source of sustenance for the growing family.

The dawn chorus season lasts from late April through to early June, and once a bird has secured his lady love, he is no longer required to sing so loudly. So as the season progresses, fewer birds take part. It’s likely that you will hear the odd bird singing a lonely tune at dawn late on in the season, but sadly he’s probably been saddled with an inadequately-performing syrinx and as such, is destined to remain single and loveless.

As my dad explains in his column from 20th May 1978, there’s an order in which the birds sing the daily chorus, and more often than not it’s the blackbird who starts them off. He is one of our finest songsters and, like the bird equivalent of Gareth Malone, he leads the feathered choir melodiously towards the new day. Soon his contemporaries, such as the song thrush, the wood pigeon, the robin, the turtle dove, the pheasant, the willow-warbler, and the wren all join in.

As the sun comes up, the chorus diminishes, usually lasting from half an hour before to half an hour after sunrise. This is because that once the day has fully dawned, then the insects, seeds and nuts that the birds feed upon become easier to spot. The sounds that you hear during the day are mostly bird calls which are a type of communication, such as alerts to danger, disputes between rivals, or messages to one another.

There’s quite a difference between birdsong and bird calls. Calls are short, simple sounds, whereas songs consist of a more complicated and longer sequence of notes. There is some debate about whether birds can sing just for the sake or enjoyment of it. But when I watch a blackbird in full throttle near the top of the poplars by my house, he certainly looks to be enjoying himself.

The dawn chorus is a phenomenon that happens all over the world, and the first Sunday in May is now International Dawn Chorus Day where we are invited to get up early and appreciate one of nature’s most entertaining performances. The day came about in the 1980s when broadcaster and environmentalist Chris Bailey hosted a birthday party at 4am specifically so that his guests would enjoy the dawn chorus, and it grew from there, with 80 countries now participating. Events are organised all over the UK by bodies such as the Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and the National Trust, so that we can all learn to appreciate the wonder of such a spectacle.

As I’m writing this a few days before Sunday 6th May, I’m yet to make up my mind whether to rise early or not, as in recent days, I have already heard the dawn chorus several times thanks to a doggie guest who seems to want to make sure I don’t miss it! So, as he will have gone home by Sunday, I might just take the opportunity to grab a much needed sleep in!

 

School bully of the bird world?

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Timeson 11th May, & the Gazette & Herald on 9th May 2018).

As I write this column (about 2 weeks before you will read it) I’m disappointed to have to report that I am yet to hear the uplifting sound of a cuckoo’s call. It is one of those quintessentially British sounds of the countryside that heralds the firm arrival of warmer weather and brings to mind things like afternoon tea, country fairs and cricket on the village green.

But, as my dad says in his column from 13th May 1978, it is a bit of a mystery a to why we associate this bird so firmly with our shores, as it is not a native, but merely an annual visitor who chooses to come here for the summer to breed when its own home in Africa proves too hot to bear.

The cuckoo is a bit like the school bully of the avian world. They pick on small defenceless little birds, like the dunnock or meadow pipit, and when they are not looking, hoick an egg out of the unwitting little birds’ nests and lay their own in its place. After about 12 days, the young cuckoo hatches, and immediately displays its bullying nature by chucking all the other chicks out so that it can have all the food to itself.

When all is said and done, the dunnocks and pipits must be a bit dim not to notice that their cute little fledglings have vanished and been replaced by a ravenous monster that looks nothing like them. But no, they keep on feeding the imposter until they are dwarfed by it, at which point it flies off without a backward glance or even a thank you. Unbelievable.

Cuckoos have always been notoriously difficult to spot, and even more so today, as they sadly find themselves on the RSPB’s Birds of Conservation Concern Red List, along with 66 other species. They have halved in number over the past 20 years, with an estimate of 15,000 breeding pairs due here this year.

One in four UK birds are of conservation concern and need some form of action to halt and turn around their decline. In 2015, there were a startling 20 new species added to the red list, which sees many familiar names under threat, such as the herring gull, kittiwake, nightingale, hawfinch, yellowhammer, house sparrow, tree sparrow, starling and song thrush to name just a few. Even more worrying is that some, such as the puffin, turtle dove, pochard and Slavonian grebe, are facing global extinction.

Like I mentioned last week when talking about butterflies, there are things you can do to help, such as to support the RSPB’s and other bird charities’ fundraising and conservation efforts, which are already seeing some successes. Bitterns were considered extinct by the 1870s, and yet now, their population is at the highest it has been for 200 years. Similarly the avocet disappeared from the UK in the 19th century, only to make a tentative return in the 1940s, and now, in a large part thanks to the RSPB and other conservation efforts restoring and preserving their natural habitats, their numbers are healthy again.

While I was writing this piece, I began to wonder about the word ‘cuckold’ and it’s relationship to the bird, and sure enough, they are connected. We are all probably aware that a cuckold is a man whose wife has been unfaithful, but the cuckoo connection stems from where another man’s baby is raised in the home and at the expense of the cuckold. He is a human dunnock.

The first written use of the term is recorded in a 12th or 13th century satirical poem called The Owl and the Nightingale (author unknown), and then it was used again by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Miller’s Tale in the late 14th century. Shakespeare was also very fond of it, and a good number of his characters were either unwitting cuckolds, or (rightly or wrongly) suspected their wives to have cuckolded them.

These days it also has the unfortunate fame of being a term in common usage in certain fields of pornography, a fact I only discovered by accident when researching this column. I won’t enlighten you on what eyebrow-raising websites I stumbled upon (albeit only on a Google search results list!), but needless to say, I swiftly changed my search criteria!

All a flutter in the garden

 

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Me, far left, with my siblings in our 1970s flower-filled garden
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My mum with my brother in the garden in front of a bed of nasturtiums
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The once common small tortoiseshell butterfly is now under threat

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Timeson 4th May, & the Gazette & Herald on 2nd May 2018).

It’s always a bit of thrill when I look back to my Dad’s columns and find myself mentioned. On 6th May 1978, the 10-year-old me had found a caterpillar and wanted to know which butterfly it would turn into. It was an inch long, had two sets of short legs, six at the front and eight at the rear, with rows of yellow dots running the length of its pale green body. The head was small and green too.

Dad couldn’t identify it at first glance, but, as is still the case today, his study was stuffed full of reference books which he called upon, and sure enough, within minutes we had identified it as the caterpillar of the Meadow Brown butterfly.

The Meadow Brown is one of the UK’s most common and prolific butterflies with mainly brown wings, in the middle of which are what look like beady black little eyes with tiny white pupils. The females can be distinguished by their obvious splash of orange towards the tips of the upper wings. They emerge from their chrysalis’ around late June and are active over the summer months.

Sadly, some of the 59 treasured UK butterfly species are not faring so well. In fact, butterflies are one of the most threatened groups of wildlife in the country, with two-thirds of their species in decline.

Last year, the small tortoiseshell, once one of our most populous varieties, was placed on Countryfile Magazine’s list of the ten most endangered animal species in Britain, alongside natterjack toads and red squirrels. The reason was its rapid recent decline of 77% over the ten years up to 2013. Year after year of wet springs and summers, which some attribute to global warming, have led to a serious decline in its natural habitat.

Other perhaps less well known species also fared very badly over the past couple of years. In 2017, the Grizzled Skipper and the Grayling suffered their worst year since records began. Grizzled Skipper numbers have halved since the 1970s, and Grayling numbers are down 63% over the last decade.

The Cabbage White was one of those I saw most often growing up, and so was sad to learn that it is in a state of long-term decline. I do remember a bed of nasturtiums in the back garden which used to be teeming with them. They’d lay their bright yellow eggs on the underside of the leaves, and then soon dozens of caterpillars would appear and feast on them, much to my mum’s aggravation.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The Red Admiral is up 78% compared to 2016, and the Comma is up an impressive 91%, with both increasing in numbers over the long-term.

The remedy for stopping the decline is pretty straightforward, if not always simple to implement. If their natural habitat is available, then the species will thrive. The thing is though, different species prefer different types of habitat, and not all are easy, or even possible, to replicate.

There are things you can do to attract certain butterflies to your garden and help keep numbers healthy. They need flowering plants right from early spring through to late September (the Internet is a rich source of recommendations), and if you choose different plants, you will attract different species. Place your flowers in warm, sunny spots sheltered from the wind, and put the same plants in blocks together. Increase the life of your flowers with regular deadheading and by mulching with organic compost. Avoid insecticides and pesticides, and also, if you’re buying compost, get one that is peat free. Peat, which is a declining natural resource, is an important habitat for a number of special animals and plants, including the Large Heath butterfly.

Sadly, it’s rather difficult for us to use our gardens to help the most threatened species I mentioned earlier, as their habitats are very different. The Grizzled Skipper thrives in woodland glades, wild grasslands, abandoned industrial sites and even rubbish tips. The Grayling enjoys coastal cliffs, dunes, salt marshes and old quarries. But what we can do is support conservation efforts by raising awareness, volunteering and fundraising.

I can’t end this column without commenting on the spectacular names given to some of these fluttering marvels. Who is responsible for Grizzled Skipper? Was it an old voyage-weary ship’s captain? And what about Mountain Ringlet and Glanville Fritillary? And you can only wonder how Cryptic Wood White and Purple Hairstreak got their names (Source: butterfly-conservation.com).