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Develop your survey skills through the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme

Logo: Butterfly conservation

By Rachael Conway, Monitoring Officer

Woman holding a clipboard as she walks down a country lane
Carrying out a WCBS survey (Butterfly Conservation)

Data is the foundation on which conservation actions are built. Data enables us to do the research required to better understand species and habitats, so we may take the right action. Having skills and experience in data collation and submission are a great asset when applying for jobs in conservation. Undertaking a citizen science survey can give you real life insight into the identification of species, their lifecycles, habitats, and the challenges they face from climate change, biodiversity loss and other pressures. Nothing beats the learning experience of getting out into the field. In addition, most citizen science schemes enable you to use data visualisation tools and download your data so you can experiment with data analysis of your own.

Yellow butterfly resting on a pink flower
Clouded Yellow (Emma Smart)

The UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme is one of the longest running insect surveys in the world, and the resulting dataset is globally significant for research and conservation. We rely on 1000s of volunteers to gather data from survey sites across the UK. The dataset produced provides the government with official statistics. Volunteers who contribute to the UKBMS are providing data which is used for decision making, policy, research, conservation management and interventions. Most of our data is collated from weekly transects, these are surveys which follow a set route year after year, they are walked weekly for 26 weeks of the year, and require significant commitment from volunteers. These surveys tend to be located in areas of quality habitats such as nature reserves and protected areas. However, data from sites such as these don’t really provide a picture of what is happening to butterflies outside of these specialist habitats, for example on farmland, in conifer plantations or in urban areas.

The Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey (WCBS) is a landscape scale survey set up to assess how butterflies are faring in the wider countryside. The survey is conducted on randomly generated 1km squares, this random stratification ensures a more reliable picture of what is going on across these wider landscapes, otherwise surveyors would steer towards selecting sites where lots of butterflies are found! The survey is based on the Breeding Bird Survey methodology used by the BTO.

A stream running through a sunny woodland
"West Dipton Burn - geograph.org.uk - 2556083" by Mike Quinn (CC BY-SA 2.0).

On a day when the weather conditions are suitable for butterflies, surveyors walk two 1km lines along a fixed route through the 1km square and count all the butterflies they see in an imaginary 5m3 box. Two survey visits are required over July and August and normally take about an hour. They are a great way to discover new areas of your area and learn more about wildlife.

You can find out more about the survey here and these methodology and survey ‘set-up’ videos will give you a good idea of what’s involved and how to set up your square. Many squares have been walked and mapped in the past, they just need a new walker to keep up the good work, if you want to find out more about the available squares near you please contact your local WCBS champion.

WCBS is great for people who want to contribute to this incredible dataset, but don’t have very much time. WCBS surveys are undertaken a minimum of twice a year during July and August. It’s great if you can return to the square year after year, but it’s not essential. We are always looking for new surveyors to further build the dataset and help us fill data holes (areas where we have no or little data).

Small blue butterfly resting on a thistle
Holly Blue (Victoria Swann CCO)

If you are very short of time you might be interested in our one-off Holiday Squares surveys. These surveys are part of the WCBS and use exactly the same methodology. Through this element of the survey, we are aiming to increase the coverage of the scheme in the Wales, Scotland and Northern England. Many of these squares are located in popular holidaying areas and can be visited just once, or you can survey them more often if you holiday in the same location. Access the Holiday Squares page of the UKBMS website and pop in your postcode or holiday destination to see if there is a square near you.

An example of a lovely Holiday Square is NY8691 in Northumberland, located near the market town of Hexham, close to Hadrian’s Wall. This square has been surveyed once in 2012 and is ready mapped along the stunning ravine of West Dipton Burn. If you are planning a holiday in the North east and are interested in surveying this square, please access the ‘Holiday Squares’ page of the website to sign up.

In addition to WCBS surveyors, we are looking for volunteers, known as WCBS Champions to help coordinate the scheme. We currently have vacancies in the Highlands, Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Training, induction, and volunteer support is provided, you can find out more about the role here.

If you would like to find out more about these opportunities, please contact Butterfly Monitoring Officer, Rachael Conway at survey@butterfly-conservation.org

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Posted On: 01/04/2024

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