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Wall Wood and Hatfield Forest on a hot day represent wonderful habitats for butterflies on the wing

In the spring I paid a trip to Wall Wood, next to Woodside Green at Great Hallingbury, and thought the whole habitat looked great for butterflies. So, last Monday (July 19), I returned to the area.

I arrived around 11am, just as the temperatures were climbing into the mid 20s, perfect for butterflies – and I wasn’t disappointed.

I headed to bramble patches that were in flower, and here was a wide selection of insects I would anticipate finding in such a woodland habitat: green-veined white, large and small white, meadow browns, gatekeepers and speckled wood. Many in good numbers, particularly the meadow browns.

Young toad (49571904)
Young toad (49571904)

I followed the rides around the wood. Ringlet butterflies flicked low over the vegetation, their chocolate brown colouration helping to distinguish them from the similar-sized meadow browns. They are a typical species of such woodland rides, a very active butterfly.

I caught sight of something small on the mud in front of me. Upon closer inspection, it was a young toad making its way from the pond in the north-west corner of the wood. Splendid to watch as it headed off into the undergrowth.

Immediately after getting a few shots of this amphibian, one of my target species breezed by. A large orange butterfly, the silver-washed fritillary. It wasn’t interested in having its photo taken and moved on at considerable pace. I followed and eventually it settled upon a leaf, distant, but lending itself for a shot.

Nearby, a grey moth darted by and settled. It was a silver Y macro moth, a common moth often seen in flight during the day and easily disturbed from low-lying vegetation.

I came to a large area that had recently been coppiced. Willowherbs and ragwort were in full flower. I checked the latter for the striking yellow and black caterpillars of the cinnabar moth, but none was apparent.

Wild flowers seem to be having a really good year, with plenty growing most vigorously. I wonder if the decrease in air pollution from air traffic has anything to do with this? Also, I note grass verges are not being mown nearly as much as in previous years. There are many more plant species on roadside verges where just a 1m swathe has been cut to help with sight lines. I wholeheartedly approve of this development.

A white butterfly lingered long enough on a bramble flower to permit a photo: a green-veined white.

I stayed here a while, watching the coming and goings of insects with plenty of Apis melifera, the western honeybee, returning to the pink and white flowers.

Gatekeeper butterflies were the most common visitor, their orange and brown plumage helping to identify them from the similar meadow brown and, upon closer inspection, showing two white dots in the eye ring whereas the meadow brown shows just one.

I reached the end of the path and a gate took me onto the lane where I headed for the south gate into Hatfield Forest. Here, I was greeted by many more butterflies, so I did a 15-minute survey and sent off the records via an app for Butterfly Conservation's Big Butterfly Count. Anyone can contribute records via the easy-to-use app, downloadable from https://butterfly-conservation.org. Spend 15 minutes recording all the butterflies you see in your garden or park or just when you're out. The app will give you position as well and there are illustrations to help identify species.

Following this I sauntered along rides noting many more silver-washed fritillaries and a new butterfly for the walk, marbled whites.

I arrived at a point where lady’s bedstraw, knapweeds, thistles, umbellifers and brambles were all in flower, so I sat for a while to see what would be attracted here. A male large skipper arrived, followed shortly after by the smaller Essex skipper.

A mating pair of common blue damselflies (49571851)
A mating pair of common blue damselflies (49571851)

By now the temperature must have been pushing 30C (86F) so I headed along the ride to the café by the lake for a much-needed bottle of cold water.

I sat in the shade of a large oak and watched common blue damselflies and black-tailed skimmers over the banks of the lake. A pair of common blues were posing nicely in the mating position known as the “wheel position”.

On the water were mallards, greylag geese and several Canada geese but no hoped-for fishing common terns. Chiffchaffs called from the trees as I headed to the pond, where brown hawker dragonflies patrolled their territory, busily seeing off any intruders that dared cross the boundary.

I returned to the ride where I chanced to note a solitary six-spot burnet moth clutching to a grass seedhead. Startling colours of black and red spots, a well-marked insect. This is a day-flying moth so not found in overnight light traps, but a common creature of grasslands. My first of the year.

A peacock butterfly got onto the lepidoptera list, choosing a particularly dark spot to roost for a photo as a green woodpecker called. This was immediately followed by several jays having a vociferous disagreement, whilst overhead a red kite mewed its plaintive call.

I moved on and was soon overtaken by a large yellow and black beetle in hasty flight. Fortunately it soon alighted on vegetation, a Rutpela maculata, the yellow and black longhorn beetle. Also on this patch, many Episyrphus balteatus hoverflies nectared whilst the longhorn beetle busied itself munching pollen.

Another common insect found on many flowerheads such as ragwort and cow parsley is the common soldier beetle, Rhagonyca fulva, so-called because its red and black markings remind one of the soldier’s uniform of Victorian days.

By now I was back at the lane so I took a walk through Wall Wood and out onto Woodside Green.

A large thistle patch looked good so I retrieved my sweep net from the car and netted a good selection of insects, including a capsid bug (Deraeocoris ruber), many meadow plant bugs, several spider species and a few speckled bush crickets and common green grasshoppers.

A painted lady butterfly flew in to nectar and, after several failed attempts, I managed to get quite close for a pleasing photo of this most colourful insect. A migrant from northern Africa and the Iberian peninsula. They appear to be having a good year.

As with all natural history surveys, it is not only what you record that is important but also what you don’t discover. No small tortoiseshell, common blue and just one red admiral butterfly were noted, but maybe their numbers will increase as we move into August.

I had been out in the hot sun for a fair few hours and reached for another bottle of water I had left in the car, but it was far too hot to drink. I had left the car in full sun and the thermometer on the dashboard registered 37C (98.6F) as I drove off.

All in all, wonderful butterfly habitats, the temperatures encouraging many species to be on the wing and therefore easy to record for the Big Butterfly Count.

I plan to do several butterfly surveys around Millennium Wood at Little Hadham on Sunday (August 1) from 11am, weather permitting. Feel free to come along to help record the species we may encounter. I shall be supplying an identification guide so no need to worry if you are unsure of your butterflies.

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