The last few weeks have seen the second and third of our formal Grafton Wood winter egg counts. Numbers of eggs recorded have generally been well up on last year, and in some cases in record numbers.

On Sunday 29th December we had our annual ‘New Year’ egg count. This event was as usual, very well attended, with the added attraction of not only mulled wine and mince pies, but this year with the introduction of homemade Sloe Gin as well!

The key search areas on this day were the Orchard and surrounding hedgerows. Some of these hedges, together with the areas searched on 17th November, constitute the ‘core Grafton Count’, a series of annual timed searches that consistently go all the way back to the 1970’s. Over 260 eggs were counted on the day at Grafton, with the result that the total ‘core hedgerow’ count of 234 (up from 183 last year) ended up as the highest since 2010/11 and the second highest since 2006/7.

A major highlight of the day (apart from the Sloe Gin) was the discovery of a cluster of six eggs on a small sucker growing in a ditch. This is the second time in four years that a ‘sixer’ has been found in the Grafton area. 

Last Saturday, our final organised weekend search of the winter took place with the aim of finishing our searches within Grafton Wood itself, along with carrying out a detailed search of a known hotspot area on the edge of the wood. A huge amount of management work within the wood - consisting mainly of widening the rides, cutting scallops into them and generally coppicing old blackthorn stands - has been carried out over the last few years with the aim of encouraging Brownies into the interior. So it was going to be interesting to see what effect this had had on egg numbers. Again, the event was well attended, attracting four new faces to our streakers group.

The results of this search were simply amazing! A record total of 170 eggs were found inside the wood which, when added to the 9 found on our first search in November, took the total ‘interior count’ to 179 - easily beating last years’ total of 86 which at the time, was the highest ever recorded.

However, this was not the end of our record breaking feats for the day. Over the last three years we have been monitoring a sheltered ‘paddock’ on the edge of the wood which, despite the presence of a lot of somewhat unpromising, old and overgrown blackthorn has consistently revealed surprising numbers of eggs and, last summer, sightings of both male and female adults. A detailed search of this area on Saturday gave us the staggering total of 198 eggs (compared to 40 last winter); which in turn took our total for the day to 368 - a single day record for Worcestershire!

Our total count now for Grafton Wood and the immediate surrounding hedgerows stands at 765 - the challenge is now on to reach the magic 1000.…..

Photographs courtesy of Mel Mason, Mike Williams and Gillian Thompson.

Egging Around West Sussex

I spent last Sunday and Tuesday (19th and 21st January) on the Knepp Castle Estate ‘Wildland’ project area, where I’m involved in the long-term monitoring of butterfly populations as they react to the process of re-wilding. Some species, such as Purple Emperor, are undergoing a ‘population explosion’ at Knepp, but, unsurprisingly, there are both winners and losers.

It appears that one of those species which doesn’t seem to enjoy re-wilding, at least under the current herbivore stocking densities, is the Brown Hairstreak. From a distance, the Knepp Estate appears to offer a fantastic home for this species, with many miles of blackthorn-rich hedges punctuated by potentially suitable master trees. Short, suckering growth can also be seen widely around the Estate, which appears ideal for the butterfly, until examined more closely.

These short suckers are actually composed of tough, old wood, now invariably caked in lichens. Younger shoots of fresh-looking, purplish-grey blackthorn on which female hairstreaks prefer to lay their eggs are all-but-absent. It appears that the free-ranging herds of Longhorn cattle, Fallow, Red and Roe deer, Exmoor ponies and Tamworth pigs are browsing off almost all the young wood suitable for oviposition.

This innovative re-wilding scheme often causes confusion amongst the public, as it is a project without any defined management outcomes or goals. The project seeks only to observe and measure the effects of a more naturalistic grazing regime, as the land is allowed to largely manage itself. This sort of re-wilding might provide an alternate approach to the use of land which is at best only marginally profitable for more traditional farming. Re-wilding does, however, bring the sort of benefits (Ecosystem Services) which we have traditionally undervalued, such as carbon sequestration and water purification.

The degree to which the blackthorn at Knepp is currently being browsed may reflect pressures more complex than livestock densities alone. One of the more spectacular (although almost certainly short-term) effects of ceasing to plough and fertilise arable land is the periodic dominance of some invasive plant species. Currently, large areas at Knepp appear to be under a monoculture of fleabane. This will reduce the available grass for herbivores, probably driving a greater reliance on the browsing of shrubs. Although heavier browsing of the blackthorn won’t be suiting the Brown Hairstreak, the development of sallow jungles elsewhere is certainly putting a smile on the Emperor’s face.

Having discovered last year that Brown Hairstreak egg densities over much of the ‘Wildland’ area were much lower than initially expected (from e.g. satellite imagery of blackthorn distribution), this winter I am looking at comparable areas of food-plant just outside the fenced boundaries. One stretch of hedgerow within the project area which did yield a good number of eggs (23 per hour) last year, running along the edge of a public ‘green lane’, will now be surveyed annually as a ‘control’; this area produced 19 eggs per hour on Sunday. It would appear that browsing pressure here is much reduced, probably due to the regular passage of walkers and riders nearby. I even managed to see adult hairstreaks along this field margin last August.

Although more research is required to make a water-tight case, some of my results this year have fallen into a clearly developing pattern. A two hour search around the margins of four fields within the project area produced only two eggs, both being on new growth tight against the boundary fence. I subsequently found 20 eggs per hour on the other side of the fence, where the hedge-line runs alongside a road ditch.

I also surveyed another area of the Knepp Castle Estate lying outside the ‘Wildland’ project area, finding 16 eggs per hour along the picturesque banks of the upper Adur, where it runs close to Shipley Church and the famous windmill. Sadly, this former home of literary genius and Sussex-lover Hilaire Belloc is no longer open to the public, although its great frame remains an integral part of the very beautiful local landscape.

I fully expect future surveys to confirm this emerging pattern. I shall also be surveying local roadside hedges which have been flailed in an all-too-familiar fashion, to see how surviving egg densities compare with the heavily browsed ‘Wildland’ area.

Another Sixer!

I had a wonderful time sitting in a ditch last week, all in the name of our favourite Hairstreak! Richard Hadfield had found a rare cluster of 6 eggs at Grafton Wood on the annual egg hunt at the end of December and of course, i had to photograph them! Easier said than done though. They were about 15cm from the ground in a ditch flooded with water. Where better to spend a beautiful sunny afternoon??

I apparently provided some good entertainment for the rest of the group though - whom i might add opted to stay nice and dry at the top of the bank and laugh at my horribly freezing wet foot and soggy welly. Wimps! Follow my adventure below, photographs courtesy of West Midlands branch Brownie Champion, Mike Williams.

We later trekked into the wood itself to re-locate a nice quad of eggs to photograph. By the time we arrived, we were a bit muddy, having almost slid down a long muddy track on our backsides. This was turning into quite an adventure! The light was waning at this point so its possible i may go back and do it all again. I clearly enjoyed this experience more than i thought! :)

Please note: The author will not be held responsible for soggy socks, wellies or drowning.

1. Put waterproof trousers and wellies on. A wetsuit, mask and snorkel may be required if water is deep. Maybe even armbands. Lifejacket?

2. Descend the depths and tentatively ensure you're not going to sink up to your neck in mud. It is worthwhile having someone on standby incase they need to rescue you (after rolling around laughing at your predicament).

3. Move the blackthorn into position and tie the stem in place if need be.

4. Set up the tripod and camera, ensuring it doesnt sink. Probably best to hold onto it actually, just incase. You'll need a dedicated macro lens, like the Canon EF f/2.8 100mm L IS - highly recommended!

5. Use a remote shutter release if possible to reduce camera shake. If you're multi-talented like me, you can take photos via the remote with your teeth.

TOP TIP: Dont be stupid and kneel down in the water like i did or you'll get a welly full - waterproof trousers or not!

6. Try to get your lens as close to the eggs as possible (depending upon your lens' closest focusing distance) to ensure maximum magnification. You can crop the shot a little later on.

7. If the eggs are low down and shaded, try and place something like a green leaf in the background to lighten the shot and add a bit of colour. This will also eliminate any nasty dark out of focus background blobs.

8. Take your time setting up the shot. Ensure its exactly how you want it before taking 500 photos. Turn off AF (and IS if using a tripod) on the lens and use LiveView (if using a Canon SLR) to zoom in and manually focus the eggs.

9. Take plenty of shots and keep reviewing them to check composition and make sure they're in focus. If need be, adjust the focal ring to take shots of any out of focus eggs for focus stacking later on.

10. Be sure you're happy with what you've taken before moving away as any knock to your surroundings will completely ruin your cameras positioning and focus on the subject. You'll then have to re-position, re-compose and re-focus everything.

11. Once finished, get your camera to safety (most important thing) and then scramble (or swim) out of the ditch.

12. Empty wellies if need be, squeeze out soggy socks and let your mates take embarassing photos of you.

13. If required, get someone to assist you with putting your wellies back on - preferably someone you trust not to push you back into the ditch for laughs.

Hatched/Predated Egg Photos Required

Across in south west Wales, we started an occasional BH newsletter a few years ago and next edition is long, long overdue! A promised item is a photo gallery of hatched, predated or other currently non viable eggs. If anyone has any photos which they believe to be of such eggs, particularly where you believe you know the cause, do please let us know, so that we can try to achieve this little project. (I think David Redhead is in touch with Jim Asher, but all other contributions welcome). Richard Smith