Counting buttterflies because butterflies count (and so do moths)

One of the great joys of summer for me is the arrival of colourful butterflies, damselflies and dragonflies. We get fantastic numbers here. While Winnie the Pooh might consider that ‘nobody can be uncheered with a balloon’ ( and I agree with him whole-heartedly) for me the cheeriest thing has always been the sight of a butterfly, beetle, damselfly or moth on a sunny day.

With that in mind ‘Big Butterfly Count’ time of year is always one of my favourites. This is the 5th year that Butterfly Conservation have been running the programme and last year over 44,000 people took part and submitted their results. Hopefully this year there will be even more. Butterflies are a particularly good indicator of environmental decline or issues. Their short lifespans and fussy eating habits mean that any problems are quickly shown up in a reduction of numbers in particular species or groups of species.

In my busy days of often noisy pursuits, taking the time to spend 15 minutes counting butterflies quietly in the sunshine is a joy. Granted it was partway through a litter pick of mostly beer cans and filled doggy bags making me smell like a brewery, and worse, but taking the time to focus on the wildlife despite the mess we humans make can only cheer my day. Feel free to do the same, I thoroughly recommend it! The counting finishes this Sunday (9th August) but they give you plenty of time to submit your results which you can then take a look at online when all the data has been collated. You can go old school (-ish ) by printing the sheet from the website and input your results when you get home or download the free android or apple apps so you can complete the whole process on the go.

Poplar Hawk Moth visiting my trap

If you are a moth person ( or just a general bug-hugger like me ) you are very welcome to join me on Sunday September the 13th to see what my trap has attracted overnight. Counting moths on national Moth Night is obviously a little more involved than counting butterflies in a field in broad daylight, but my home-made Skinner trap usually gets good results ( weather permitting ) and I can pretty much guarantee that you will be surprised what turns up. Moth trapping provides a fascinating insight into what goes on in your gardens in the middle of the night and the visitors you get that you probably never see. Poplar Hawk moths, like the one in the picture, are regular visitors and one of the most spectacular with a wingspan of over 7cm. If you fancy coming along just give the office at Dapdune a call to book your place ( 01483 561389 ) so I know how many cups of tea and slices of cake I need to prepare. I think  we are asking for a donation of a couple of pounds  to cover baking supplies but they can fill you in on the logistics when you call. The more the merrier!


Searching for Spring and springing a leak


It’s true to say that no two days as a lengthsman are alike and yesterday was no exception. It started off peacefully, getting myself organised for a guided walk. The plan was to have a nice sedate walk looking for horticultural, ornithological and entomological signs that spring was ( or wasn’t ) upon us in the week of the equinox. All went to plan with the sun kindly coming out and making our celandine, catkin and bumblebee hunting a pleasure on a beautiful Sunday morning.

My happy mood was overtaken by a rapidly sinking feeling ( if you’ll pardon the pun ) on hearing that we had a breach in the bank above Papercourt Lock. Working on a Navigation that is the one thing you don’t ever want to hear. The implication if it is a major breach is that boats could be damaged and that there is not enough water left to get our repair equipment easily to site. That is before you even consider the issues for wildlife.

I rapidly made my way back to the start of the circular walk with my very supportive walkers in tow and put out boards to warn boaters that they wouldn’t be able to travel above Newark Lock. By the time I made it there the potential disaster had been averted so all there was left to do was help with a few more barrow loads of soil to level the surface and deliver some hastily grabbed mars bars. The Maintenance Team had been mobilised and with the help of Chris the Lengthsman stemmed the flow with clay, soil and some carefully placed skill and brute force. It turned out the water had made its way through holes in the piling and scoured out some of the bank underneath the surface and suddenly forced a way out. Having the luxury of an in-house team who can deal with these issues at a moments notice means we can get to these situations before they become major incidents and operational and financial headaches.

Like I say no two days are the same. Today it’s back to painting and mowing, if all goes to plan, but I know better than to count on it.

I know I should have grown out of it but..



… being the first set of footprints in the snow is still a joyful thing. It was a particular surprise today when I woke up at 4.30 to check the water levels, as the forecast had led me to believe that we were just due a bit of drizzle overnight. Growing up in Dorset I think makes you even more appreciative and inclined to get up at silly-o’clock to make the most of what you know is likely to be a fleeting visitor. I can’t claim to be the earliest riser on the Navigation as the Maintenance Team had already been at work for about an hour by the time my camera and I ventured outside. That said, at half past seven the 2 swans, 7 mallards, 1 wren and I had my bit of the river to ourselves. As the snow was still falling there weren’t any tracks to give away who else was around. I was heartened to see a bit later another 40-something, clearly old enough to know better, off out with a toboggan and no children. Some things you should never grow out of.


You know you haven’t had enough sleep when…..


…. you are talking to inanimate objects at 4 o’clock in the morning. To be honest the title could be the start of a book on the life of a lengthsman in the winter, let alone a blog post.

I found myself this morning cursing a windlass that was doing exactly as it should, but in my sleep-deprived mildly addled state I just couldn’t get it to cooperate. Don’t get me wrong, the weather is fairly calm now, but keeping the water levels within the required tolerances (at Walsham that’s only about 2 inches ) is always a 24 hour, 7 day a week job. Over the last few weeks most sleep has been grabbed in 1 1/2 hour chunks ( if you can have a chunk of sleep! ) and it begins to take its toll. I always explain the life of a lengthsman and weir keeper as having a baby that never grows up. It is definitely not sleeping through the night at the moment. The rain hasn’t been that dramatically heavy but when it falls on sodden ground, it soon makes its way into the navigation. That means that my colleagues and I are constantly glued to the weather forecast and twitching our metaphorical and literal net curtains, to check the water levels and see if the weirs need adjusting to compensate.

That is not to say that sleeping in your clothes and having to leave your warm bed for the cold, wet towpath doesn’t have its perks. I get to see stars, sunrises and wildlife that I would otherwise miss. However tired and grumpy I get I still can’t help but smile at the sight of every kingfisher, heron and frosty morning. That being said, if you see a baggy-eyed sleepy woman wandering along the towpath, please be gentle with me!


This is what an inch and a half of rain in 12 hours looks like….

Nov 24th 14

This might look at first glance, to those who don’t know the river here, like a peaceful scene but it’s not. The water is moving pretty fast and the river is definitely what I call ‘angry’. Under normal circumstances the small 4 – 6 inch drop in water levels in front of the bridge would be more like 4 – 6 feet. The navigation is usually considerably higher than the natural river where it splits here. At times like this, the weir keeping part of the job leaves me cat napping when I can between trips to the weirs to adjust the water levels every hour or so, day and night. The change in water levels between the Navigation and the natural river usually creates what a lot of the local children call a waterfall, with all the associated noise you can imagine of living within 50 feet of it. When the levels are high like this, it is almost silent.  

The river being this high does have some advantages. (I always try to find a bright side when there is one!..) Being up and about at anti-social hours means you get to see things that you might not otherwise. This morning it was a large group of Long-Tailed Tits in the forsythia in my garden that are usually just specks in the large oak trees opposite.