Bishop's Stortford Independent Nature Notes columnist Jono Forgham goes for walk to Turner's Spring nature reserve and returns via Stansted Hall
Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford...
In the spring of 2018 I reported on a walk that was new to me, beginning at Birchanger village and following a footpath that runs parallel to the M11 all the way to Burton End. At the time I noted the pasture here appeared to be left on its own and mused that it may be good for insects in the summer. Consequently, last Monday I returned to repeat this walk all the way to the Essex Wildlife Trust Reserve of Turner's Spring and return via Stansted Hall.
The temperature was rising towards 20C-plus as I parked near Birchanger Social Club and joined the footpath east, near the village pub. This tarmacked section was bordered on both sides by plenty of plant life, but, concerningly, no butterflies. Hopefully, I mused, just too early for them.
I crossed the M11 on a large footbridge and turned left, heading north. After a short while the path is adjacent to the hard shoulder of the motorway and follows a direct route through uncut pastures full of wild flowering plants. Common centaury bloomed in the middle of the path, common milk pea, greater knapweed, lady's bedstraw and wild carrot galore. All excellent plants that butterflies require, as was, a little further along, huge amounts of bird's foot trefoil.
Time to halt and just see what was about. The sun reappeared from behind a cloud and, almost instantly, butterflies emerged from the grasses. Huge numbers of meadow brown and gatekeepers to begin with but on looking more closely at both the flower heads and stems, much more was to be found. The small, moth-like skipper species were fluttering through the undergrowth, occasionally alighting upon a leaf for a photo call. All three local species were present; large skipper with its black flashes on the orange upperwing along with the diminutive small and Essex skippers. These two are a little tricky to distinguish as they are very similar in shape and colour but the best way to identify the species is to check the tips of the clubbed antennae. Orange and black means small skipper whilst all black indicates Essex skipper.
My knees were taking a pounding as I knelt down with the camera to get a decent shot, only for the insect to fly off a split second before I had focused. I am sure a few drivers heading south on the motorway were distracted by the sight of a prostrate body lying full length in long grass! However, some success with the camera so I moved on, wading through scores more meadow browns.
In front, not far from the huge motorway sign indicating Junction 8, a red and black insect flew precariously in front on me. A hoped-for six-spot burnet moth, a day-flying species that associates with bird's foot trefoil and can often be found nectaring on knapweeds. I followed it until it landed, offering great photo opportunities. I followed another and watched as it landed next to a female and mating began immediately. I then saw the open pupa case from which the female may have just emerged. She will have crawled out of the case, climbed the stem where she pupated in June having overwintered as a caterpillar and emitted pheromones to attract a male. As I tried for photos, several other males arrived but too late. She had been claimed. Upon more wild carrot were insects such as the flesh fly and the well-marked Graphomya maculate.
After the path wound through a small spinney I was into another floral pasture and here more plants: Rosebay willowherb, bramble and some tansy. I checked flowerheads for nectaring insects, finding Rhagonycha fulva (red soldier beetle) and Oedemera nobilis (swollen-thighed beetle) as well as a single example of Rutpela maculata (black and yellow longhorn beetle.) Bees were also everywhere, with at least six species, all common and expected, including Bombus hypnorum (tree bumblebee) and Bombus lapidaruis (red-tailed bumblebee.) I checked the time and discovered that I had covered just one-and-a-half miles in almost two hours and managed to take over 300 photographs. I pushed on.
Just before the path emerges near the Forest Hall motorway bridge I noted marbled white butterflies and a few female common blues, which are, confusingly, brown! The wild carrot continued along the grass verge and there, nectaring happily, a superb brimstone butterfly, glorious sulphur yellow upperwings as he noted my approach and headed a little further away, but still affording me a photograph.
I continued into Burton End before picking up a footpath on the left after a few houses. The path starts as the drive to a property but soon skirts around a wheat field. Another first for the day, a brown hawker dragonfly as well as several red admirals. Both gone before a snapshot could record the event. Chiffchaffs and yellowhammers called from the hedgerow and it was then that I realised that I had made no bird notes for the whole of the walk so far. So engrossed in the insects! I recalled common buzzards overhead and that, apart from another calling yellowhammer, house sparrows in the village and a singing blackcap, was about it. Maybe the constant roar from the motorway deters songbirds who will be outdone by the traffic noise and therefore not attract a mate. Now, further from the runway and the motorway, the birds were again calling. A blackcap again and jays and magpies made the day list.
At the end of the path there is a short concrete path and, on the left, a tunnel under the motorway. I planned to use that later but I wanted to continue to skirt around the wheat field, so followed the path to the right. More butterflies as ringlets, several comma and a small copper were apparent, the latter on the hard bare ground in front of me. A large orange butterfly whizzed past before gliding along for another 50 yards; a silver washed fritillary, the first of three that I saw on the entire walk.
I entered Turner's Spring Reserve, a dark, somewhat mysterious and certainly silent woodland made up of old groaning hornbeams. A stream has carved out a V-shape valley along here but very little to see or hear. A nuthatch burbled and a few great tits called their disapproval at my presence. I stopped in the shade for a picnic and to compile an updated list of sightings. The sun was cloudless and I certainly enjoyed my cold soft drinks. My pedometer showed I had only covered three miles or so – it felt much longer. Must have been the constant crouching down for photos that had taken its toll.
Once replete, I retraced my steps to the tunnel and passed under the M11. I turned left on the wide track and headed towards Stansted Hall and Forest Hall School where I soon emerged. A common buzzard flew off from a dead larch and magpies hollered from the motorway verge on my left. A quick wander along the road past the church and left into Forest Hall Road brought me to the entrance to the new industrial and office estate. Here, a footpath takes the wanderer all the way through to Birchanger, emerging right next to the social club.
En route, I noted a dark black and white bug on an umbellifer; a Eurydema oleracea (crucifer shieldbug) along with both large and small white butterflies. A gap in the hedge gave a view of a field offering not only a crop of field beans but also huge swathes of camomile daisies. I checked for insects but only clocked another brown hawker dragonfly, and again it evaded photographic capture.
I regained the path and was soon back at the car having clocked up just over five miles in nearly five hours! So much seen and, in total, 17 species of butterfly, almost all along the section of the route by the motorway. Truly remarkable numbers of some species. Well over 200 meadow browns and gatekeepers, 30-plus peacocks, numerous skippers and double figures of the burnet moth.
Highly recommended wander for those keen to watch these colourful insects. The path can be accessed from either Birchanger as described earlier or by parking around Burton End and picking up the footpath 100 yards further on from the Forest Hall motorway bridge. You won't have to walk far on a hot, sunny day to see plenty. All records were forwarded to the Butterfly Conservation's Big Butterfly Count which is an annual event each July.