On a balmy day, on 11 February, the Dartmoor Preservation Association conservation volunteers met at Hillbridge Farm for another day’s work on my land, Common Wood, near Horndon.  We were joined by Butterfly Conservation’s Megan Lowe and Simon Phelps of the All the Moor Butterflies project.  They work with landowners to try to improve the habitat for butterflies and moths, with particular attention to the threatened species of fritillary butterflies on Dartmoor, Exmoor and Bodmin Moor.

There were 16 of us, and we were joined by ten students and two tutors from Plymouth University on an occupational therapy course.  They wanted to do some volunteering and also to consider the positive effect which voluntary work has on mental and physical health.  I can’t recall there ever being so many people at one time at Common Wood.

7 students

Working on the slope of Common Wood

We worked a bit further up the slope than usual, removing the large, lanky gorse to create open areas for the caterpillars and butterflies to feed.  The species we hope to attract on this south-facing slope are Pearl-Bordered and Small Pearl-Bordered Fritillaries.

3 clearing gorse

Clearing gorse

We also opened up the bracken to allow light in; this will encourage flowering of the butterflies’ food plants (for example, devil’s bit scabious, bugle and betony).

1 Mike clearing bracken

Opening up the bracken

Claude and Chris did some strimming, to create pathways.

2 strimming


9 strimming a path

Strimming a path

We broke for coffee and for lunch, always a cheerful affair, and Elaine had baked cakes which were passed round.

5 lunch break

Lunch break

The students worked on a separate part of the slope, so they could see the difference they made.  It was truly impressive.  For many this was their first time volunteering; it is not the easiest place to start with the steep slope and rough terrain and they did a super job.

8 students

Students at work

At the end of the day we tidied up the slope.

10a Elaine tidying up

Elaine tidying up

We dragged the gorse down to the windrow, a natural hedge we had constructed above the leat.

11 windrow

Making the windrow

We had certainly made a difference.

4 clearing gorse

Near the start of the day

10 after

End of the day

The bank of gorse at the top of the ridge had gone, making it better for butterflies.

Bill spent some time looking for possible cairns at the top of the common and Claude did some strimming there.  I’ll write about the cairns in another blog.

On our way back we stopped in Marion’s river field, which she has for some years been managing in a manner which is friendly to Marsh Fritillary butterflies.  We hoped to see some caterpillars, since it had been a sunny day.  Simon had seen a number of butterfly webs in the autumn and knew roughly where to look.  We were delighted to find two clumps of caterpillars, looking like black velvet.

12 marsh frit caterpillars

Marsh fritillary caterpillars

There were some vestiges of the material from the webs in which they had spent the winter.

13 web material

Web material

It was a fascinating end to a great day of working for butterflies.

14 river field

Marsh Fritillary habitat