Volunteer blog: Surveys that give winged wildlife a lift

Volunteer blog: Surveys that give winged wildlife a lift

Sonja HughesSonja is Volunteer Manager at The Dartington Hall Trust. She recently returned from managing community and healthcare volunteer projects in South Africa and Mozambique. More about volunteering at Dartington

More blogs from Sonja

Over the summer volunteer Vicky has been leading both our breeding bird survey and our butterfly survey on the Estate.

Meadow Brown butterly (usual culprit!)
Meadow Brown butterly (a usual suspect on the Dartington estate!)

Why do volunteers carry out these annual wildlife surveys at Dartington? Wild bird populations are an important indicator of the health of the countryside, and knowing to what extent bird populations are increasing or decreasing is fundamental to bird conservation.

As for butterflies, they react very quickly to change in their environment – such as climate change – which makes them excellent biodiversity indicators. That’s why counting butterflies can be described as ‘taking the pulse of nature’.

“I love it – I’ve always had a fascination for things that fly!”
– Vicky explains her passion to one of our Woodlands and Conservation volunteers.

I caught up with Vicky to find out the results of the 2015 wildlife surveys and to hear why she loves to be a part of it.

Breeding bird survey

Vicky, alongside another Conservation Volunteer, Lisa, carried out a weekly breeding bird survey from April to June.

The Estate has 45 bird boxes that are part of this survey. Every week, they recorded how many eggs were in each box, through to the number of hatchlings and finally the number of successful fledgings.

Says Vicky: “Unfortunately, it’s been a bad year for great tits and blue tits… A cold May meant lots of chicks died. On a positive note, we had 6 nuthatches that successfully fledged.”


Nuthatch chicks
Nuthatch chicks


Nuthatches at three weeks
Nuthatches at three weeks


Data collected has been sent to BTO and Devon Birds.

Butterfly survey

The Dartington butterfly survey is carried out from May to September. Vicky walked the same transect each week – a circular route that took about 1 hour 20 minutes to complete.

Silver Wash Fritillary
Silver Wash Fritillary

All along the route, she recorded the number and species of butterflies 2 metres either side of the path she walked.

To do the survey the weather conditions needed to be right and favourable for butterfly activity, not always easy in a typical British summertime – the survey requires humidity, sunshine and low winds.

The first week, Vicky recorded an incredible 245 butterflies. Describing her route, Vicky says:

“It sounded almost tropical…insects and grasshoppers playing their songs. The variety of bugs on the estate is incredible.”

Butterfly species Vicky recorded this year included:

  • Silver Wash Fritillary
  • Marbled White
  • Small Copper
  • Meadow Brown (aka the usual suspects – we find a lot of these!)
  • Small Blues
  • Gate Keepers (it’s been a particularly great year for these ones)
  • Painted Lady
  • Comma

Vicky not only loves nature herself, but she is sharing this passion with her son and his friends. “I always try to take youngsters with me. I like to teach them about wildlife…when they listen!”





Posted on

September 17, 2015


  1. Paul Simkins

    Great work! Bugs and butterflies are in rapid decline in the U.K. Lots and lots of patience and hard work needed in this area. Some species are very elusive, I have been trying for years without success.

  2. Robin Todd

    I went to DHS 1952-67 and lived in Dartington. Did a lot of birdwatching and some butterfly collecting. Am now in the US (Baltimore). Glad to hear that you are keeping an eye Dartington’s birds and butterflies. It will be interesting to watch for changes as the years go by. Hopefully positive changes.

    Best regards,

    Robin Todd


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