A Butterfly Transect Experience – by John Obee
As a member of Prestwood Nature, you will be familiar with articles and reports in our newsletter about the PN butterfly transect project. However, if you are not one of the trained transect walkers, you may not know what is actually involved in carrying it out. In this article I will try to give you ‘a feel for it’. I should point out that this will be a ‘fictional’ transect so it is not possible to be specific about butterfly sightings as they vary through the April to September period covered by our transect. I will however slip into typical expectations and some of my past experiences!
First things first. Are the weather conditions OK? Do they meet the stringent UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme requirements? Have we got the things we need, like identifying charts, a recording sheet and pencil and of course the more human necessities like water, coffee and a banana! It should take about 2 hours to do the 5km walk.
Down to the start at the Picnic Site near the bottom of Perks Lane. The first designated section of the transect (there are 15 to cover in a variety of habitats) is the steep short path up the hill through the site to the welcoming bench at the top (the views here are great!). As I climb, I record each butterfly seen in a stipulated imaginary vision ‘box’. This section is usually very productive with lots of sightings as the site is full of the plants and shrubs that butterflies like. After all, it is a ‘special’ wildlife site! In early summer I would hope to see Orange Tips and the capricious Painted Lady. A few weeks later, I would be disappointed not to see my favourite butterfly, the Small Copper.
At the top, switch recordings to the next section on the sheet and stroll back down the hill, albeit on a different path. As well as looking for butterflies, keep an eye open for other goodies such as birds, mammals, orchids and daytime flying moths.
At the bottom of the hill leave the picnic site and cross the road for section 3. This is another climb. Not so steep as section 1 but a lot longer! Sometimes the field on the right is planted with a cereal crop. With a hedge to the left, this path is a good place to see large numbers of Meadow Browns, Ringlets and Gatekeepers in high summer.
At the top, take a rest at the stile before going along a tarmac drive past Newhouse Farm and down to some white gates near Denner Hill House. (In the paddock on the right I saw three red kites at the watering trough a few years ago). This section usually yields a few whites and the occasional Small Tortoiseshell.
On into a darkish wooded section. Don’t expect to see much here, but it’s important to point out that many butterflies frequent trees. You never know, we might spot a Purple Emperor (I should be so lucky!). There is a badger sett on the path – indeed they have tunnelled under it. After a few hundred yards, there is a brief clearing with clusters of brambles and their attendant butterflies.
Leave the wood and walk along a stony path at Denner Hill. Once again, brambles on our right usually yield good recordings. I always stop and say hello to the horses in the field on the left – I really love horses. Now it’s down the lane past the farm. There are hedges on both sides of the path here and it is a haven for Speckled Woods in the summer period. At the end of this section, look out over Stony Green bottom.
Stop at the field gate and pour out the coffee. If I leave it on the gatepost to cool, it will be ready to drink by the time I have done the next section which is a short traverse through tall grasses by some pylons. There are often roe deer here in the shrubs at the top of the steep slope which drops away to the valley below. When the undergrowth is really tall and lush, all you see is their ears until your presence disturbs them and they go bounding away. Back to the gate. Do the recordings and have the coffee and banana!
Down the hill now on an overgrown path with a tall hedge to the right. There are always lots of small moths here and on the hedge-top yellowhammers, whitethroats and linnets sit and sing in the early spring/summer. Should get good recordings of butterflies as I go down. Pass through a hedge at the bottom and carefully cross the road.
Then climb a short steep hill up to Nanfan wood. This section is often close-cropped/grazed grass and the resultant habitat yields good clear sightings of butterflies including Common Blues. Take another short rest at the top and watch the mewing buzzards and ‘whistling’ kites above the steep valley before starting on the long woodland section of the transect.
Here there should be some Speckled Woods about and the occasional Large or Small White. After a few hundred yards turn sharp right and drop down through the fields with a field on our left. This is organically farmed and I saw old-fashioned stooks of wheat here in 2013. Reach the end of the wood by a lane. Lots of tall nettles here so a good chance of seeing Red Admirals and Peacocks.
Walk around Stony Green Bank, a small meadow which has a very friendly seat about half way round it! This is a pleasant little area which is full of flowers much of the time and a home to a lot of ‘meadow’ butterflies.
Now it’s down the lane to Hampden Road. This is usually a sparse section but Comma, Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell and whites are sometimes about along the deciduous hedges on either side of the lane. Saw a stoat here on the first of my 2015 transects.
Once on the road, I have to be very careful. It twists and turns, and it’s difficult to know which side of the road is safest. Continue to record of course, but without much expectation.
After a few hundred yards go through the kissing gate on the left and enter a small field, the traverse of which forms section 14 of the transect. This is usually a good place for Small Skippers.
Cross the large sloping Meadsgarden Field towards the Picnic Site in the distance. In my experience this field, often awash with ox-eye daisies, frequently produces the largest numbers of recordings on the transect. If a hay cut has not yet been taken, then it can be full of butterflies with Meadow Brown, Marbled Whites and Ringlets the most dominant. On reaching the Picnic Site, finalise my paperwork before setting off home.
As you can see, the transect is an interesting country walk. If you would like to accompany one of our volunteers or indeed be trained to become a transect walker yourself, then contact Prestwood Nature.