The Fall and Fall of Grassland Butterflies

Ireland’s Grassland Butterflies in serious Decline.

Recently Butterfly Conservation Ireland made its submission to Heritage Ireland 2030, the Irish Government’s invitation for submissions to the National Heritage Plan. This plan will contain the “strategic priorities which will guide and inform the heritage sector for the next decade”.  If our natural heritage really is to be “valued and protected for future generations” as well as  “cherished and enjoyed” funded measures will be needed, especially to protect grassland butterflies.

Grassland butterflies are a key indicator of the condition of our grassland habitats. The All-Ireland Butterfly Atlas 2017-2021 will tell us a great deal about the status of Ireland’s grassland species and about all of our other butterflies. However, we know from experience and from the Ireland  Red List No. 4 Butterflies published in 2010 by the National Parks and Wildlife Service that there is a great crisis developing. Four of the six butterflies which are rated as threatened under the criteria developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are grassland species. Four of the five butterflies rated as Near Threatened are grassland butterflies.

The European Dimension

The decline in grassland butterflies is not restricted to Ireland. The European Grassland Butterfly Indicator 1990-2011 published by the European Environment Agency (EEA) in 2013 contains the disturbing finding that since 1990, the populations of grassland butterflies monitored across 19 European countries have declined by nearly 50%. Seventeen species were monitored. The monitored butterflies classed as widespread species that also occur here are Orange-tip, Small Copper, Common Blue, Wall Brown, Meadow Brown and Small Heath. The specialist species monitored that occur in Ireland are Dingy Skipper, Small Blue and Marsh Fritillary. Five of these species are ranked threatened or Near Threatened on the Ireland Red List.

The EEA report states two main reasons for the declines. These are agricultural intensification in the flatter, more fertile areas and abandonment of traditional farming in areas of lower fertility. Both of these factors apply in Ireland. In the fertile drier grasslands south of a line from Dundalk to Limerick intensification involving the use of fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, re-seeding, ploughing of grasslands, drainage, hedgerow removal and the sinister destruction of remaining adjoining semi-natural grassland by spray-drift and nitrogen deposition from intensively farmed grassland. The nitrogen build up accelerates the growth of rank grasses and speeds up natural succession (scrub growth) cooling the micro-climate which delays or prevents larval development.

In the areas of poorer soils in western areas and on steep slopes where farming cannot be intensified farmers are abandoning the land which is reverting to scrub and eventually woodland. While there are butterfly winners in the changes to habitats, at least in the short and medium terms, the loss of habitat eliminates grassland butterflies, i.e. the majority of Ireland’s butterflies.

The EEA report offers solutions to the problems of intensification and abandonment. However, I believe that the solution offered to the massive biodiversity loss arising in intensively farmed areas is weak. It mentions the designated site network (sites designated as Special Areas of Conservation to protect certain species and habitats) avoiding fragmentation of habitats. Fragmentation means that disconnected habitats are increasingly distant from one another. As a result, the butterfly species that live on a site will become increasingly isolated from other individuals making recolonisation of a site where a population is lost (often by natural causes) impossible by the great distance between habitats. In this context, the report calls for conservation measures to take the wider landscape into account. What the report does not do is to offer ways of dealing with intensification itself even though intensive farming is clearly the destroyer of biodiversity in much of northern and western Europe.

The failure of the report to address this issue properly is a serious deficiency. It suggests a lack of interest in tackling this crisis. The issue of chemical inputs must be dealt with.  Furthermore, we are wasting vast amounts of food; maybe we are over-producing? Should some land be taken out of production? Or better still, managed in a traditional, pre-1970s fashion, to be gentler on our soils? We did not starve in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when massive chemical inputs were not present. Neither did our wildlife lack space.

As far as abandonment is concerned, the report makes some useful recommendations involving funding low-intensity farming. While these make sense for such areas they do not deal with the problem in the main farmed landscapes. This will require changes in outlook, in the way farming is carried out in these areas and funding measures.

What you can do

One way of driving the pressure for conservation is to clarify the extent of the problem. We can do our part in Ireland by helping to monitor butterfly populations. The butterfly records you send to Butterfly Conservation Ireland will feed into this process. Please look at the information needed to provide a valid record and how to send a butterfly record here:

Records

With the records you send us, we can provide the information needed to contribute to the All-Ireland Butterfly Atlas in 2021. This information will also be important to update the Red List, up for review in 2020. We will use the data to press the Irish Government and EU to implement nature-friendly policies to ensure that our natural heritage is “valued and protected for future generations” as well as  “cherished and enjoyed” by us today.

You can also make your own submission to Heritage Ireland 2030 before the March 31st deadline. For details of how to make a submission see https://www.chg.gov.ie/heritage/heritageireland2030/.   We ask that you call for funding support for the butterfly monitoring schemes and for conservation-orientated landscape management programmes such as the programme used in the Burren (see http://burrenprogramme.com/the-programme/our-approach/ ) to be extended to other areas of High Nature Value farmland. Another submission that can be made is to call for habitat creation/restoration measures in areas of intensive farming and for research on the impact of farming chemicals on butterflies and other invertebrates.

The Future

Finally, considering the past helps to focus us on what kind of future there might be. As a child of the 1970s, I never imagined the day that I would have to travel several miles from my rural home to see a humble Small Heath butterfly or that the cheerful Wall Brown would ever become a rarity. What will a nature-loving child of today be saying about these two butterflies in twenty years?

Small Copper female. This lovely grassland butterfly is in decline throughout Europe, according to the European Grassland Butterfly Indicator 2013. Photo J.Harding.

Butterfly Conservation Ireland Lodges Objection to Proposed Solar Farm

Butterfly Conservation Ireland has lodged an objection to a planning application to build roads and other infrastructure to service a proposed solar farm on Drehid Bog, Timahoe, County Kildare.

While Butterfly Conservation Ireland does not object to the solar farm project itself, one of the proposed 5 metre wide roads is to be located on an existing track and an embankment that currently holds the site’s most important butterfly populations. The site is best-known by butterfly enthusiasts for holding the only known population of the Small Skipper butterfly. This butterfly breeds only on the embankment.

Some rare moths breed on this embankment. These include the day-flying Forester Moth rated “Endangered” and the day-flying Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet which is rated as “Vulnerable” on the Ireland Red List No. 9 Macro-moths Lepidoptera published by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

The embankment on which the proposed road is to be constructed also holds breeding populations of Brimstone, Cryptic Wood White, Large White, Green-veined  White, Orange-tip, Small Copper,  Common Blue, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral, Marsh Fritillary (rated as Vulnerable on the Ireland Red List No.4: Butterflies 2010), Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown, Ringlet and Small Heath  which is rated as “Near Threatened” on the Ireland Red List No.4: Butterflies 2010.  Any widening on the track that opens out onto the embankment will remove habitat for the Green Hairstreak and the Large Heath rated “Vulnerable” on Ireland Red List No.4: Butterflies 2010. The Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIAR) submitted with the application does not refer to these species. Based on the EIAR submitted by the applicants and our records, Butterfly Conservation Ireland believes that a thorough study of the site’s Lepidoptera was not carried out.

Regarding birdlife, the red-listed Meadow Pipit and amber-listed Eurasian Skylark and Stonechat also breed on the embankment on which the access road is proposed to be built. A range of more common birds breeds on the embankment, particularly Grasshopper Warbler and Common Whitethroat. Unnecessary removal of habitat will impact on all these species.

There are many alternative locations on the bog for the proposed road. These will have much less impact on the site’s biodiversity. We are planning to meet with the consultants who prepared the EIAR to attempt to ensure that the area’s biodiversity does not suffer avoidable losses. We hope to be able to report a positive outcome.

Forester Moth, rated  “Endangered” breeds on the area earmarked for a road on Drehid Bog, County Kildare. Photo J.Harding.

 

Event Report

Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s first event of 2019 which took place on Saturday 16th February enjoyed the benefits of dry, mild breezy conditions at Lullybeg’s Crabtree Reserve. Our members took on a section on the southern end of the reserve where re-growth from a cutting that we made about four years ago was tackled.

This main habitats in the area are poor fen and dry/humid grassland. The fen area is rich in mosses and Ragged Robin, a lovely flower seen in bloom in early summer. The grassy areas are rich in fine grasses with a smaller area of dense, rough grassland containing Purple Moor-grass. Two years ago the Marsh Fritillary moved in to breed in this area. Small Heath favours the finer grassland. This humble little butterfly has been in decline on the reserve for the last five years so this action of restoring open grassland is a necessary step, along with the grazing on a section of the northern side of the reserve last autumn. The fortunes of the butterfly will be carefully monitored in the coming months.

We managed to cut down to ground level all the sprouting scrub, leaving open grassland. It was hard work and we stopped for lunch to relax and catch up on each other’s news and views. Conservation is a good social as well as physical activity! Over the flight season, a weekly count will be taken at the cleared section as it represents section one of the transect that is run on the site. A report of the effects of this management will appear later in 2019.

On behalf of all our members and supporters, a special thank you for all who worked so hard on the site. Nature will thank us too in the months ahead!

Small Heath, rated Near Threatened in Ireland. © J.Harding.
Small Heath larva in its fourth instar. © J.Harding.

RAINFOREST OBITUARY

The following article was written for Butterfly Conservation Ireland in 2016 by Adrian Hoskins, a professional photographer and author. It is reproduced here in full as a reminder of what is at stake, and of the changes we ask all who love nature to make.

Rainforest Obituary

Adrian Hoskins F.R.E.S. is a professional wildlife photographer and author of “Butterflies of the World” and “1000 Butterflies” (both published by Reed New Holland). He is also the creator of the website www.learnaboutbutterflies.com, was a former Conservation Officer of Butterfly Conservation Hampshire, and has organised and led over 50 butterfly photography tours to various parts of the tropics.

The incredibly beautiful and species-rich rainforests of the tropics are rapidly disappearing. Paradise is being replaced by palm oil plantations, soybean prairies and cattle ranches. The cloud forests are disappearing almost as quickly, replaced by coffee, tea, rubber and eucalyptus plantations.

Let’s look at Malaysia and its world famous national park Taman Negara. Here, myriads of male butterflies descend from the canopy where they spend most of their lives, attracted down to the ground to imbibe mineralised moisture. At these times it is common to see swarms comprised of hundreds of turquoise-banded Bluebottle butterflies Graphium sarpedon and dazzling Orange Gulls Appias nero imbibing mineralised moisture from river sandbanks. Numerous other beautiful species such as Cyrestis Mapwings, Spindasis Silverlines, Parthenos Clippers and Cirrochroa Yeoman butterflies can be also be found along the shores. On the opposite side of Malaysia, in the foothills of the Cameron Highlands, the huge and incredibly beautiful iridescent green and black Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing Trogonoptera brookiana can be found, often in groups of 30-40, visiting hot springs, from which the males obtain sulphur and other minerals that are essential for reproduction. Inside the forest, stunning long-tailed hairstreaks such as the orange and white Branded Imperial Eooxylides tharis can be seen.

Such places are paradise to the nature lover, but they are just tiny remnants of the vast rainforests that once covered Malaysia. Nowadays these miniscule islands of forest are surrounded by vast oil palm plantations that stretch to the horizon almost uninterrupted in every direction. It brings tears to my eyes to even think about it.

Why has this happened? The public and the politicians have been fooled. Many believe for example, that by becoming vegetarian, and using biofuel, they are helping to save animals and wildlife, but nothing could be further from the truth. As a consequence of vegetarianism, the rush towards biofuel, and the near-abandonment of animal products in cosmetics, manufacturing and other areas, millions of hectares of rainforest have been cut down or deliberately set on fire to clear them and make way for oil palm and other monocultures.

Can you imagine how much cloud forest has been destroyed purely to satisfy our desire to drink tea and coffee? Can you imagine how much rainforest has been destroyed to produce the biofuel you put in your car, the aluminium from which your car engine is constructed, or the soybean-based food products that you eat?

Worldwide it has been estimated that 50,000 square miles of rainforest is deforested each year. Every second a slice of rainforest the size of a football field is destroyed. Every day 86,400 football fields of rainforest are destroyed. Every year 31 million football fields of rainforest disappears from what we so selfishly call “our” planet.

Rainforests are home to over 50 percent of the world’s plant and animal life. They are home to somewhere in excess of 15,000 of the world’s 19,000 butterfly species.

What can we do to prevent or slow down this greatest of tragedies? Governments are gradually setting aside small areas as national nature reserves, and a few private conservationists are trying to protect intermediate wildlife corridors, mostly in the form of ecolodge properties. But these tiny areas are constantly eroded away by urban development, agriculture or plantation-forestry. In truth, the little patches that still exist will probably be little more than wildlife theme parks by the end of this century.

The problem is human population growth and affluence. There are more and more of us, and each year we become more and more greedy. Entire mountains are levelled in Papua to extract the copper we use in our electronic gadgets, the aluminium used to make our car engines and the gold that our countries horde in ridiculous quantities allegedly to safeguard our economies.

The great jungles that once covered Malaysia will be almost entirely gone within the next 2 decades, replaced by oil palm plantations. The rainforests and cloud forests of South America, Central Africa, Indonesia, Papua and Australia are all under similar or even greater threat of annihilation.

I was asked to produce this article to suggest ways in which members of Butterfly Conservation Ireland can help with the conservation of rainforests. The plain truth is that nothing short of a total change in the way we all live will save them. We are all extremely wasteful, consuming vast amounts of goods that we don’t really need, and throwing them away as soon as they become outdated. We buy teak and mahogany furniture without considering the birds, mammals and butterflies whose homes we are destroying. They can live nowhere else. Once the forests go, the wildlife goes and will be lost forever. Extinct, never to return. Just memories in the pages of an old and dusty book.

If we really, truly, want to protect rainforests and the glorious butterflies that live within them, donating money to conservation groups helps a little, but in reality, is nothing more than a way of making us feel slightly less guilty about the destruction wreaked by our way of life. We need to live simpler lives, buying only things that we genuinely need, rather than trying to have the latest car, TV, camera or other manufactured product. We need to return to growing our own food in our gardens rather than consuming fast food. We need to return to traditional farming and forestry practices. We need to drive far less, or use public transport, which is far more fuel efficient.

Above all we need to realise that human beings do not have the right to rape our planet and destroy other life forms. Humans have been on Earth for not much more than a million years. Butterflies were here almost 300 million years before we evolved from the apes. It would be nice to think that they would still be here long after the human race has wiped itself out, but we need to totally change the way we live if rainforest butterflies are to stand any chance of surviving into the next century.

 

 

 

Prophets of Doom

In the early years of the twentieth century, Romanian diplomat Take Ionescu warned German Foreign Minister Alfred von Kiderlen Wächter that German armament building would produce disaster: “You are rushing directly into war with England”. In 1914, the UK declared war on Germany.

In March 1919, even before the Versailles Treaty was signed, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George wrote (in his Fontainebleau Memorandum) that creating small states containing German-speaking people on Germany’s borders would produce trouble.  Hitler later invoked the principle of national self-determination enunciated at Versailles to claim Austria and Czech and Polish territory on the grounds that ethnic Germans resided there.

On the night the Titanic sank in April 1912, Jack Philips, the Titanic’s radio operator signalled other ships to stop sending ice-berg warnings.   Philips replied to a warning from Cyril Evans, wireless operator on The Californian: “Shut up. Shut up. I am busy”.

We have a history of ignoring warnings. History teaches us to heed warnings, but we continue to pretend that everything will work out, or will not happen, or will not happen to us.

On December 3rd 2018, some chilling warnings were given at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Poland. One warning was provided by the World Meteorological Organisation. The 20 warmest years on record have been in the last 22 years and the warmest four years have been the last four years. It was also announced that Carbon Dioxide (heavily linked with the rise in global temperatures) emissions are rising again. But the most frightening warning came from Sir David Attenborough:

“The collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon”.

We are looking at a rapid deterioration of our planet. We are consuming far too much. If we continue to pollute and exploit as we do now we will have done so much damage that life on earth will become impossible or very difficult within 100-150 years.  If every family on the planet consumed as much as the average Irish family, we would need the resources of three and a half planets to support these consumption levels (Revd Professor Michael Mullaney, Maynooth University).

The mass destruction, the rampant greed for more than we can ever need is a violating life on earth. What can mend that?

Conservation repairs our relationship with the natural world. Conservation of our natural heritage resources is the responsibility of everyone, not just professional conservationists.  Conservation can involve very elementary steps. Every time you see a new butterfly that developed in your garden take flight, you are part of the solution. Garden for nature by planting native plants and allowing them to grow as they do in the wild. Read good literature about how to manage wild spaces. Do not use chemicals in your garden.  Garden organically. Join a conservation organisation and get involved in its work.

We can be conservationists in our consumer choices. Buy what you need. Avoid excessive consumption. Steer clear of palm oil.  Rainforests and their inhabitants, people, plants and animals are destroyed to grow this crop. Make your purchases a moral choice. Governments must act too and will if enough pressure is applied. On your holidays, visit areas rich in wildlife. This encourages the preservation of such areas.

Unless we change our behaviour, we will all pay the price in the end. And so will our world.

The beautiful Garden Tiger moth is believed to be a victim of a warming climate. Its decline is being linked to milder winters, especially mild January weather. © J.Harding.
Desiccation of Common Hazel in the Burren following drought, July 1st 2018. © J.Harding.

 

 

Think Local, Act Local

December 1st is officially the first day of winter. The day began misty and mild clearing to a drier grey which later dissolved into a light rain as heavier cloud darkened the afternoon before petered out into twilight disconcertingly early. At least our winter moths liked the conditions which were accommodatingly mild allowing furry, thick-set December Moths and lightly built Winter Moths to gather on walls close to outdoor lights. While these moths are thin fare for butterfly and moth lovers, we are at least reminded that we still have signs of life, little pick-me-ups for the rather bleak weeks and months to come.

December Moth, which flies from November to January.

But this is not the time for lethargy. Winter is time for actions of a different kind. Now is the period for preparing sites for the coming season. Targets need to be met. These targets may include clearing dense bramble and thorn scrub invading a flowery track the runs through woodland, opening a glade in dense woodland to allow flowers to bloom or to reveal a gorgeous female Common Holly glowing green and red in dimming December light, removing non-native trees or shrubs which threaten to overwhelm native woodland or thinning dense growth to let light in to make the violet plants suitable for breeding by Silver-washed Fritillary butterflies.

Some of these actions are needed on the banks of the Royal Canal near Mullingar. Butterfly Conservation Ireland members along with the Westmeath Branch of BridWatch Ireland joined the effort to restore habitats with the Baltrasna Boreen Biodiversity Group, led by Lesley Whiteside. The high bank has a range of habitats, including native ash woodland, scrub consisting of willow, Common Holly, Guelder Rose, Common Hawthorn, Common Blackthorn and calcareous grassland containing Kidney Vetch, Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil and Autumn Gentian.

The steep site has four parallel paths, each quite different, offering different experiences; an encounter with badgers on one, Common Blues dancing around yellow blooms on another, water birds on a third and a brisk walk on the gravelled towpath on the fourth path. The site was grazed until the early 1990s but since it has developed woodland out of which paths and clearings are being carved to develop new habitats and increase biodiversity.

An early male Silver-washed Fritillary on June 28th at Baltrasna, County Westmeath.

To this end, overhanging branches were tackled along with dense scrub and a sinister invasion by cotoneaster, a non-native which causes great damage by carpeting good limestone grassland. Extensive clearing of dense scrub was achieved. By allowing in light the flowers will be able to blossom and the bees and butterfly species will be able to avail of their nourishment. It was a demanding job but much ‘heavy lifting’ is now done, making it easier to deal with younger scrub. We are looking forward to our outing there next spring/summer to see how the flora and butterflies respond.

Finally, there must be many opportunities for biodiversity-conscious local groups to get involved in such projects. With permission from landowners, some planning and research much can be achieved, for people and nature. A special thanks to the Baltrasna Boreen Biodiversity Group for looking after their butterflies so well in this intriguing spot in Westmeath.

The flower-filled track at Baltrasna, June 2018.

Photographs ©J.Harding.

 

Event Report

Lullybeg management day went ahead on Saturday 10th November. It was a wet start, with light rain for a time which eventually petered out. Later the sun broke through and we had quite pleasant conditions for our work.

We weeded a track on part of the butterfly transect where numerous birch seedling had moved in. These were pulled up by hand. A mattock was used to uproot three invasive willows, leaving the area open and ready to continue to receive full sun, flowers and butterflies in 2019.

Later we cut and piled scrub on the Lullymore to Lullybeg corridor. We created some scalloped edges to create additional warmth and shelter, providing the perfect warm-up zones for butterflies, moths and dragonflies.

The cattle continue to feed on the reserve and these have settled well. They are certainly disturbing the denser areas dominated by Purple Moor-grass, great for maintaining the flora on the site.

We took a break for lunch and watched the cattle which appeared very much in tune with their new surroundings. It gave a restful feeling to see them at ease, and a great feeling of optimism for the coming season’s butterfly populations.

Thanks to all who helped out, and we look forward to seeing you again in February 2019.

The Dark Green Fritillary thrived on Lullybeg Reserve in 2018. Disturbance of the soil by cattle will encourage its larval food plant, the Common Dog-violet, to produce new seedlings. Photo ©J.Harding

Conservation Grazing for Lullybeg Reserve

The summer of 2018 was warm, dry and created excellent conditions for vegetation growth, especially as the peat soil retained some moisture.

Now it is time to remove the heavy grassland vegetation,  reduce the density of the tuft-forming Purple Mor-grass, create soil disturbance to create warm, bare patches for germination of new flowers and provide good basking spots for adult butterflies and warm breeding sites for caterpillars and check the re-growth on coppiced willow. In short, it is time to introduce cattle to enhance the habitats on Lullybeg’s Crabtree Reserve.

The work on preparing the site for grazing took place, happily, in dry sunny conditions on Thursday 1st November. Ten hungry cattle were introduced and these explored the reserve before settling down to a good meal. Cattle are selective feeders, ideal for creating an uneven patchwork of sward heights which is perfect for all of Lullybeg’s grassland moths and butterflies.  Removal of dense vegetation keeps soil fertility levels low, allowing the flora, such as the range of orchids present here, to thrive. Without the intervention of livestock or regular disturbance by heavy machinery, dense vegetation dominated by ranker grasses develops, choking less robust plants and cooling the soil and herb layer, making breeding conditions less suitable or even impossible.  Just to show how dense grassland vegetation affects one butterfly, let us consider the habitat required by the Dingy Skipper.

This intricately patterned little butterfly (see photo below), rated as near threatened in Ireland lays its eggs on Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, a low-growing straggling perennial that dies back in autumn and re-sprouts in April. It must be unshaded for the Dingy Skipper to breed on it. The plant must grow in a warm area, usually with some shelter which means it needs to grow among dry dead vegetation or grow close to bare soil or rock that heats up in direct sunlight in order to be suitable for the butterfly. Plants shaded by tall grass or scrub are not used. Cattle grazing will pare back dense grasses and poaching will disturb the soil around the plants making germination of new foodplants possible and ensuring the conditions needed remain suitable. Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil is also used as a nectar source by the Dingy Skipper and by a number of other butterflies but butterflies rarely take nectar from plants in shadow. By grazing the vegetation, the cattle help to create open conditions to assist this lovely flower to thrive, ensuring that butterflies that use the plant for breeding and nectar, including the Common Blue and Cryptic Wood White, and day-flying moths such as the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth, Burnet Companion and Mother Shipton, will continue to prosper.

We know from post-management monitoring in previous years that the Dingy Skipper breeds in areas containing the foodplant that were cleared of encroaching vegetation the previous winter. The Dingy Skipper, along with many butterflies, are quick to exploit new opportunities. We look forward to next spring to see the fruits of our work!

Our thanks and appreciation go to our supporters and to Philip Doyle and his staff.

Conservation grazing on the Crabtree Reserve, Lullybeg. Photo J.Harding.
Dingy Skipper © J. Harding.
Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, the foodplant for a range of butterfly and moth species. ©  J.Harding.

Event Postponement

The weather forecast for Saturday, November 3rd 2018 is for high winds and heavy rain. We will defer the conservation management event planned to take place on November 3rd until the following weekend. The site management day will go ahead on Saturday, November 10th provided the weather is suitable.

We apologise for any inconvenience and look forward to seeing you soon.

Fragrant Orchid, Lullybeg Reserve, County Kildare.
Photo © J.Harding.

October Moths and late Butterflies

October 2018 continues mild, gentle and pleasant, easing the transition from the scorching summer to whatever winter holds. Whatever this winter throws at us, October is producing really impressive moth numbers. Among the selection being trapped are the following autumn species. These are subtly coloured, reflecting the earthy tone of the season. Late butterflies continue to be seen, especially Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell and Speckled Wood but there might be a surprise species flying, so keep looking.

Feathered Thorn. This moth flies from mid-September to early December. The moth lays its eggs on a range of deciduous trees, including Pedunculate Oak (this tree has stalked acorns and short-stalked leaves; the Sessile Oak has these characters in reverse), Common Hawthorn, Common Blackthorn, Common Hazel and Downy and Silver Birch, as well as willows. This moth is sometimes seen in car headlights.
Yellow-line Quaker. This also flies from September to December, uses many of the same plants for breeding as the Feathered Thorn and also comes to light traps. This species enjoys ivy nectar, so do not cut flowering ivy!
Figure of Eight.  This moth, named for the 8 marks in the central area of the forewing flies from late September to mid-November and uses blackthorn, hawthorn, wild roses and cultivated prunus species (plum, Bullace, pear) for breeding. Despite the ready availability of the larval host plants, this moth is seldom numerous in Ireland. It usually appears in my trap in single figures but in one year I had it in high numbers, but that is not usual.
Grey Pine Carpet. This species has two generations of adults which fly from May-July and from September-November but in my area, I have seen only one generation, the autumn brood. It uses a range of native and non-native coniferous trees as the larval foodplant. It appears to have increased due to the planting of conifers on a large scale.
November Moth. This autumn moth flies early October-November and can be numerous. It will be found on walls beneath outdoor lights and at windows. It feeds on the trees listed for Feathered Thorn. It is easily confused with the Pale November Moth, Autumnal Moth and Small Autumnal Moth, and examination of male genitalia is used to separate these moths.
Merveille du Jour. This unmistakeable and beautifully coloured and patterned creature is a highlight of the moth enthusiast’s autumn. Seldom present in great numbers, it is a treat to obtain a very fresh example as the green colour fades rapidly. It is on the wing in October and September and favours broad-leaved woodland containing Pedunculate Oak, the larval hostplant. The moth likes ivy nectar and the juices of overripe berries.
And now for a surprise!  Occasionally Wall Browns are seen in October after a small number of second generation larvae develop quickly to pupate in September rather than passing the winter in the larval state. It is not known whether eggs laid in October result in larvae that reach the required weight to survive the winter. However, seeing Wall Browns in October is a refreshing experience and a keen reminder of summer.