Counting butterflies at Madingley

Walking along a sunny woodland path and counting the number of butterflies that fly in front of you doesn’t sound like cutting-edge science, but if enough people across the country do this each year, then these records can provide vital information on butterfly populations. Butterfly transects like this were first established in the 1970s and there are now over 1600 throughout the UK, providing some of the best long-term evidence of changes in species’ abundance and distribution as a result of habitat loss and climate change.

At Madingley, alongside several other projects set up to find out more about species living in the hall grounds, we’re starting a butterfly transect next year. To make sure that everything’s ready in time, I’m finalising the route and testing it this summer.  Not only is developing a butterfly transect a great opportunity to learn identification skills and find out more about the different species found in your local area, but it is also a chance to contribute data to a nationally-important monitoring scheme.

Setting up a butterfly transect is quite easy. First of all you need to decide on a route (usually 2-4 km in length) that can be walked each week over the flight season of the butterflies (from the beginning of April until the end of September; a total of 26 walks). As this is a real investment of time, it is often best to share responsibility for monitoring with a group of people; at Madingley, I’m hoping to persuade some colleagues to help with the weekly counts! The transect route should reflect the different habitat types found in the survey area. We have quite a range of habitats at Madingley: everything from established woodland, to meadows, lake-sides and gardens. I therefore used a map of the grounds to decide on a route which included a representative portion of these habitat types, was about 2km long and could be walked in about an hour (ideal for an interesting lunchtime stroll). I then chose a fine day to walk the proposed route. I recorded the amount of time it took to complete the route, as well as points at which the route could be divided into different sections of similar habitat. I ended up with the map below, which shows the transect passing through a range of different areas and divided up into 12 sections of fairly equal length.

The Madingley butterfly transect route and a view from part of it.


From next month, I will start counting the butterflies I see along the route each week. To do this, I will simply walk the route at a steady pace on a fine day and record any butterflies which fly into an imaginary 5m by 5m square in front of me (for full butterfly monitoring methods see the Butterfly Monitoring Scheme website). This won’t make a full record for this year, but I’m hoping that this will give me a chance to iron out any problems and make sure that the route encapsulates the species diversity found in the Madingley grounds.

So why not set up your own butterfly transect? Butterflies are a great group of insects to get started with and there’s loads of information online about their biology and how to identify them (for example, see  the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme website). There are also other events you can get involved with to learn more about butterflies, such as this year’s Big Butterfly Count. At Madingley Hall, we are also running some courses in the next few months which will put some of this monitoring work in context and teach participants how to study some different groups of animals and plants. For example, see:

Conservation: from theory to practice

H is for Holly Hornbeam and Hazel

Wild at Madingley

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