1st October 2021
When Ken Orpe first visited Friargate in May 1981 – an old railway site in the centre of Derby that had been allowed to ‘rewild’ (in today’s vernacular) after Beeching’s axe in the 1960s – the first butterfly he logged was a Wall Brown, basking on brickwork surrounded by an array of wild flowers.
That was the start of a self-confessed obsession with this particular species, but also the beginning of a voluntary career (almost full-time these days) that led Ken to become Derbyshire’s highly-respected butterfly recorder – and surely one of the country’s most dedicated recorders overseeing bands of volunteers annually carrying out 133 transects and 12 WCBS kilometre squares. In 2020 Ken and wife Pat inputted no fewer than 42,000 records.
“I began a transect at Friargate late in 1981 due to poor weather in April and May and the year’s total for Wall Brown that year was 70, with a maximum count of 18 on one day,” recalls Ken. “Two years later the season’s total count was 191 with a maximum of 41 on one day, though in nearby Breadsall Cutting that same year I counted 189 individuals, which I had no idea would prove to be my highest ever Wall Brown count.
“Though the species hung on there until 1999 (the site is now being redeveloped), it was already clear that Wall Brown was in decline. By 2000, the absence of this once-common species in lowland Derbyshire demonstrated this worrying trend, with records only coming from the Peak District.
“Around this time I started my Updates (which are sent to around 1,270 butterfly fans; if you want to be added, e-mail Ken at email@example.com)* in a bid to find out what was going on. By studying their flight periods and alerting our volunteers to the Wall Brown’s changing habitat – rocky outcrops around the 1,000-foot contour line – sightings continued in the Peak District, and the creation of Hoe Grange Quarry, with the help of Longcliffe Quarries and the county wildlife trust, has provided us with a good location for the species.”
Wall Brown hit its nadir in 2008 when just 37 butterflies were recorded from 19 Derbyshire sites, while even in central southern England large gaps were appearing on the distribution maps. By now Climate Change was being factored in, and certainly we don’t recognise seasons as we did in the 20th century – so Ken’s wonders if the Wall Brown simply decided enough was enough and that grasses on the ledges on rocky outcrops would produce the ideal micro climate for the eggs to be laid, with the pupae more readily protected by hanging from the roof of a mini cave.
Whatever the case, Ken admits he still has a lot to learn about this iconic Derbyshire butterfly. More generally, Ken is greatly encouraged by the growing interest in butterfly recording.
“Today it’s a far cry from the days when we were met by ‘Keep Out’ notices and barbed wire to prevent site access,” adds Ken. “Indeed, we are now actually asked to visit sites by companies whose management is keen to increase biodiversity. Now that is a big step forward.”
Ken and his wife, Pat, as well as being responsible for the records, still like to get out with the butterflies and are personally involved in several transect rotas.
* Recent Updates can be found HERE