Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Guest Post: Our Role Model, Tom Skeates

It is with great pleasure that I republish (by kind courtesy) author Jacqui Knight's article on Tom Skeates, the West Auckland monarch butterfly enthusiast. Originally published in Issue 12 of Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand published by the Moths and Butterflies of NZ Trust.

Colour images taken from this blog. Historic images from Dick Scott's Fire on the Clay, supplied by Jacqui Knight.

A few years ago the Waitakere City Council paid tribute to some of the original settlers with beautiful artwork around the streets. Among those people recognised was one dedicated to Tom Skeates. 

If you’ve been enjoying rearing monarch butterflies for a few years you will have on numerous occasions had friends and family ask you how and when your hobby started. We may remember the event that triggered it – perhaps it was a child’s unanswered question, or you may recall a parent showing you the wonders of the monarch’s metamorphosis. 

We know that the first monarchs were reported in NZ in the 1840s, and that they flew/blew here. But few people know about Tom Skeates, who in the early 1900s worked so hard to ensure that the monarch was here to stay. 

Tom lived in the Waitakere Ranges, just north of Titirangi on the Scenic Drive. He bred monarchs inside his house, using both swan plant and Asclepias curassavica, the latter often referred to as tropical milkweed or bloodflower. 

His house was eccentric as Tom himself. It was built in a grove of tall native timber and in fact built around one particular tree. Sadly, the house was pulled down some years ago and all evidence of this treasure has been lost. 

As Tom bred more and more monarchs he would pack the butterflies into a purpose-built box, carefully padded, and take them by bus to various parts of the city to release. 

Many children would be invited to his home to witness the wonders of the monarch. Tom’s knowledge was extensive, and he was willing to share it. For many years, from about 1929, he learned about the monarch and contributed articles to newspapers and school journals. And an amazing fact is that the information he published seventy of so years ago is still verified by entomologists today – a rare thing indeed for someone unqualified as Tom was; he was way ahead of his time. 

According to the Auckland Star of 1939, he was ‘especially keen that the young should realise that the monarch is a valuable and beautiful addition to NZ’s fauna, and as such should be cultivated... as a lovely, harmless creature which does much to add to the beauty of our gardens, parks, and countryside’. 

As I talk to members of the MBNZT Tom’s name comes up time and time again. 

A few years ago I had a phone call from a very upset member in Taranaki who had bought swan plants from a New Plymouth hardware store but her caterpillars had then all died. I told her to move the caterpillars onto other plants, but also that the store should be warned as they would not want to be selling plants that had been sprayed. 

When I phoned the store to alert the manager we got talking about monarchs and the incredible journey that they take us on. He told me of his aunt, Kathleen Rothwell, who had known Tom Skeates personally as he had been a distant cousin. Kathleen then lived in Milford and remembered him well. 

She told me how he had visited schools and parks and released monarchs in the Auckland Domain and Albert Park. She told me “As a child, our family lived in the Waikato and I can remember one occasion when Tom came to stay,” she said. “He told us about the monarch and the next week we received a parcel – a tobacco tin containing monarch chrysalises, very carefully packed in cotton wool. 

“And that started a lifelong interest in these butterflies.” 

Another member that remembers Tom Skeates is Caryl Hamer: 

“Our family lived across the road from Tom Skeates,” she told me. “He and my mother were great friends and I remember her telling me that he’d rung up after midnight one night to invite her to come over and watch a Gum Emperor moth hatching. She did of course – and told us all about it the next day.” 

Caryl came across an article about him in a book celebrating the 125-year anniversary of Titirangi School which she attended as a child. 

“He came to NZ from Bristol, England and had a saddler’s and then an ironmonger’s shop in Auckland, before retiring to Titirangi to study and breed monarchs. The article noted that he ‘proved beyond a doubt that the monarch’s life was longer than the average butterfly.” 

Tom used to invite Caryl and her sister over to watch the monarchs wriggle their way out of their chrysalises. 

“He always let us use the thick grassy slopes behind his house to romp and roll down,” she said. “He also bought a section full of native trees up the road, making a series of wandering paths through them, with rough wooden seats where you could sit and listen to the fantails or watch the fat kereru balancing on the high branches. There was a wooden sign on the gate with ‘Paradise Regained’ on it.” 

“And I guess that’s exactly what Tom Skeates was all about.” 

Tom Skeates’ story is very well documented in Dick Scott’s book Fire on the Clay, a history of West Auckland. As Dick Scott says on page 159 of his book: “Tom Skeates’ vision was of a sky filled with a golden cloud of butterflies, a slow-moving cloud that gently rose and fell, and then came down to earth to touch man with its glow. He saw outstretched arms, softly brushing wings, and the eyes of children absorbed in the wonder of it all.” 

So perhaps as we work on looking after our butterflies and moths we aren’t as eccentric as some people might think. Tom was, after all, a pioneer in teaching others about Nature and metamorphosis. I am sure that he would approve of what we are doing today. 


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