From Junior Infant to Senior Citizen: How the world will look for our Five-year-Olds

Cast your imagination back 125,000 years. The climate then was as hot as it has been in the past decade. Where Trafalgar Square stands today, alligators, hippopotami, and lions roamed the British savannas while elephants grazed the banks of the Thames. Today,  Sir Edwin Landseer’s bronze lions guarding Nelson’s column grandly survey the Square where the wildlife consists mundanely of feral pigeons.

Imaginative indulgence conjures dreams of restoration ecology, beloved by hankerers for the recovery of ecosystems deficient in parts of the puzzle. In Ireland, such projects are usually concerned with iconic apex predators, such as the Grey Wolf, Red Kite, White-tailed Sea Eagle, and Golden Eagle. The latter three have been introduced to Ireland while the Grey Wolf is busy recovering lost territory throughout western Europe, under its own steam, but benefiting from the ban on poisoning and hunting that brought the animal to the edge of oblivion in most of Europe in the late 1970s.

But clocks are not easily turned back, and as the Covid pandemic demonstrated, we are not in control. The greater powers, the wrath of whom we have provoked, are in the ascendant. We are reactors, employing a scattergun approach to problem-solving that Manchester United’s transfer negotiator John Murtough would recognise, but be embarrassed by.

Our vulnerability to greater power than our meagre selves was spelled out to the cabinet committee on the environment and climate change in early May 2022 by Professor Peter Thorne, a lead author on the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and one of the world’s leading climate experts.

Professor Thorne told the Climate Committee, which consists of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Tánaiste (deputy Prime Minister), Ministers of Public Expenditure and Reform, Social Protection, Agriculture, Climate Action, Tourism and Housing, that to keep the temperature below 1.5 Celsius above the pre-industrial era temperature, we need net emissions to reach zero by 2050. This requires halving methane emissions and getting carbon emissions to net zero.

You probably knew that. But then the devastating news was delivered that stabilisation of all effects of climate change is impossible in the next few centuries. Sea levels will rise by five metres.

There is nothing we can do to change this.

If you live in Cork City, Limerick, Galway, or Belfast you are in peril, especially if you are in junior infants’ class, typically a five-year-old. Here is what the sea level rise means for Dublin.

By the time our five-year-olds reach old age, Dublin will no longer contain Sandymount, Blackrock, Monkstown, Sandycove, Dun Laoghaire, and Ringsend on the south side and Malahide, Clontarf, Portmarnock and Sutton on the north side of the River Liffey. The Hill of Howth will be an island and there will be no Bull Island. The Liffey, by then hundreds of metres in width, will enter the sea at Phoenix Park. Dublin Bay will stretch from Cabra on the north side to Donnybrook to the south. The flooding will reach Lombard Street, near Trinity College.

Flood Map of Dublin 2100 (Image Climate Central)

The past 10,000 years have seen a remarkably stable global climate, allowing humans to develop from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settle in great urban centres facilitated by the industrial and agricultural revolutions. This climate stability is rapidly unraveling, according to Professor Thorne.

It will be worse elsewhere, such as on the Indian sub-continent, but we will feel the shocks, directly, economically, and in human terms, with mass migration to this country. We are at the edge of human livability in some areas already, such as the Horn of Africa, and this year, in parts of India.

If we are stupid enough to go to three Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures by the time our Junior Infants reach advanced old age, and this is where we are heading with current emission levels, 75% of all the planet’s biodiversity will be lost. Imagine what such a world would look like.

Many of our familiar plants and animals have ceased to exist. The photographs in The Irish Butterfly Book will likely show several extinct species. I wonder if the Wall Brown, Hedge Brown, Small Heath and Large Heath will still exist. These species are already in serious decline, and climate change and issues driving climate change are among the causes. The extinction list is also likely to contain the species that need well-drained skeletal soils: Dingy Skipper, Small Blue, and Pearl-bordered Fritillary.

The Pearl-bordered Fritillary breeds on violets growing on thin, fertile soils over free-draining carboniferous limestone in the Burren. These soils are vulnerable to water loss if hot, dry summers, as are the plants and dependent invertebrates. Photo J. Harding

There are studies concerning the link between the warming climate and butterfly declines. There are indications that a combination of climate change and pollution is damaging the habitat of the Wall Brown. Kurze et al. (2018) suggest that it is very likely that nitrogen enrichment from fertilisers is killing some species larvae on farmland while Habel et al. (2015) suggest that increased plant growth rates arising from nitrogen deposition, increased rainfall and climate warming are cooling the micro-climate at larval sites, driving declines of species that depend on nutrient-poor habitats.

Hazel bushes suffered dehydration during drought conditions on July 1, 2018. Photo J. Harding

A study that looked specifically at the Wall Brown’s decline, Impact of nitrogen deposition on larval habitats: the case of the Wall Brown butterfly Lasiommata megera by Klop et al. (2014) found that nitrogen addition to potted foodplants on which larvae were fed had beneficial effects on larval development. However, the study found the influence of nitrogen deposition on larval micro-site cooling the most likely reason for the decline: “The raised levels of green plant biomass under excessive nitrogen availability leads to an increase of both shading and green: dead ratios in the vegetation, which should be expected to result in a cooling of microclimatic conditions.”

Like Habel et al. (2015), Klop et al. (2014) believe the decline of heat-loving species “could be explained by a combination of excess nitrogen and climatic warming, with both factors enhancing plant growth in early spring and reducing the availability of warm microclimates.” Elevated temperatures at the larval micro-site, typically arising from a combination of unshaded bare patches of ground containing sparse foodplant vegetation and warm, dry, dead plant litter are critical to the caterpillar in spring when air temperatures are cool. If these findings are correct, geographical scale pollution reduction measures must be implemented along with measures to tackle climate change. If not, we could be lamenting the extinction of one of our formerly common and widespread butterflies.

However, in such a devastating context that Professor Thorne outlined, the fate of our butterflies may seem of small consequence, a trivial footnote to a doomsday of mass extinction and global crisis for mankind, with continued human existence at stake.

Thorne stated that a brief and closing window exists to secure a livable future if concerted global action takes place.

But the past decade has had the highest greenhouse gas emissions in human history.

Professor Thorne stated that technological solutions exist to produce low emissions, but investment, which is available, and leadership, are needed.

How, then, did the cabinet committee react to Thorne’s presentation? A few polite questions later, the ministers began to discuss sectoral contributions to emission reduction targets. The Irish Government reacted by producing, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report published three weeks (May 31, 2022) after the briefing, an emissions policy that adds up to 28% of greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide)  reductions by 2030, not the required 50%.

When RTE’s HOT MESS programme sought an interview with any of the ministers who attended the briefing, no minister was made available.

Before we blame the Government, let’s look at ourselves. Do you want to sell your second car, get rid of your beloved SUV, pay higher taxes, and pay more for food?

I doubt it. But politicians need to lead public opinion, not follow it. Opportunities for leadership exist. Jim Hacker, the fictional minister in the British comedy, ‘Yes, Minister’, when asked to defy public opinion for the good of Britain, responded, “I am their leader. I must follow them.”

No more of that.

Policies that are unpopular now, will become more popular, over time, as people realise how crucial they are. Let us act so we don’t run out of it.

Limestone grassland in the Burren, June 29, 2018. The heterogeneity of these grasslands is threatened by the predicted hotter, drier summers predicted to be the norm by 2050. Photo J. Harding

Sources

Dublin Live (2022) Terrifying flood map shows what Dublin will look like by 2030 https://www.dublinlive.ie/news/dublin-news/terrifying-flood-map-shows-what-23608348 (Accessed 19 August 2022)

EPA (2021) EPA Greenhouse Gas emissions projections highlight the need for urgent implementation of climate plans and policies. Available at: https://www.epa.ie/news-releases/news-releases-2022/epa-greenhouse-gas-emissions-projections-highlight-the-need-for-urgent-implementation-of-climate-plans-and-policies-.php (Accessed 19 August 2022)

Habel, J., Segerer, A., Ulrich, W., Torchyk, O., Weisser, W., and Schmitt, T., (2015). Butterfly community shifts over two centuries. Conservation Biology, Volume 30, No. 4, 754–762, accessed 28 December 2020, https://conbio-onlinelibrary-wiley-com.jproxy.nuim.ie/doi/epdf/10.1111/ cobi.12656

Harding, J.,(2021) The Irish Butterfly Book, privately published, Maynooth.

Klop, E., Omon, B. & Wallis DeVries, M.F. (2015) Impact of nitrogen deposition on larval habitats: the case of the Wall Brown butterfly Lasiommata megera. Journal of Insect Conservation 19, 393–402. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10841-014-9748-z

Kurze, S., Heinken, T. & Fartmann, T. Nitrogen enrichment in host plants increases the mortality of common Lepidoptera species. Oecologia (2018) 188: 1227. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442- 018-4266-4

Natural History Museum (2014) London’s Wild Times: Past and Present https://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/blogs/whats new/tags/britain_one_million_years_of_the_human_story.html (Accessed 19 August 2022)

RTE (2022) Episode 12 Getting Hotter. Available at: https://www.rte.ie/radio/podcasts/22110709-ep-12-getting-hotter/ (Accessed 19 August 2022)

World Wildlife Fund (2021) The Return of the Wolf in Europe https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/the-return-of-the-wolf-in-europe#:~:text=Wolves%2C%20along%20with%20other%20predators,effort%20to%20prevent%20livestock%20predation. (Accessed 19 August 2022)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burren Outing Report 6th August 2022

A view from the summit of Mullaghmore, Burren National Park, County Clare.

Our Burren outing began at 10 am when we gathered at the unofficial car park at the crossroads in the Burren National Park. The sky was grey, streaked with pale, fearful blue but the air was still, with a hint of warmth. Perhaps we would be lucky.

Following introductions, we over-stepped a low Burren wall and entered the area north of the road, where limestone pavement, open grassland, and scrub are beautifully flower-rich, with the heavily sweet influence of Fragrant Orchid flavouring the breeze, imbuing the atmosphere with alluring exoticism. To be there at this time of the year is to step into a dream world. August may be seen as summer grown old, a little wrinkled from its long exertions, frayed and browning, the glowing bloom of earlier days thinning and paling, paradise lost. The grasses are tinged with oatmeal, the light lower, sharper, flowers bedraggled.

Burren Green moth is found only in the Burren, and nowhere else in Ireland or Britain.

The jaded look is challenged by the arrival of freshly hatched butterflies, especially our latest butterfly to take flight, the Brown Hairstreak, our main priority for this day. The Brown Hairstreak is the last Irish butterfly to emerge each year. Speckled Wood-sized, it is a most elusive species, common nowhere in Britain or Europe. Ireland has most of its brown Hairstreak populations in the Burren, with scattered presences in west Tipperary, south Galway, and in Mayo near Lough Corrib. But it is not easy to find, especially where tall oak trees occur, for the more active males tend to occupy tree-tops, rarely descending. The Burren has fewer tall trees, and very few oaks so we do see males at eye level, feeding on nectar, rather than aphid secretions on oak leaves.

The Brown Hairstreak is quite tame, especially in cool weather.

Females are especially richly coloured with warm orange-brown undersides, while males usually look paler. Males are more active, jinking around the canopy, especially in the mornings, seeking newly emerged females. Mated females and males spend the long afternoons feeding on bramble and tall hedge side Creeping Thistles.

A female Brown Hairstreak suns herself on a hazel leaf.

The overcast weather was against us, because the hairstreaks typically perch quietly on tall scrub, typically on hazel in the Burren. Before we reached likely habitat, we noticed the large population of fresh-looking Meadow Browns, sharply different from the diminished populations in the east, now in rapid decline, their life’s work already done. Common Blue, Small Copper, Ringlet, Grayling, and the occasional Small Heath were encountered in the tall sward.

Small Copper warming itself on limestone.

The scrub patch identified in previous years as a good source of Brown Hairstreak sightings was searched. Nothing at first but high up one was seen, restless around the canopy before settling, wings ajar, on hazel. We failed to coax it to land lower down, but at least we knew they remained faithful to their patch. “If it brightens up, and you’re still around, you should find more here.” I learned that this is what some of our group did in the afternoon when the sunny weather appeared. A female was also found later, and they are rather lovely, in their tame, quiet, approachable way.

The intricate patterning on the True Lover’s Knot is a delight to observe. This moth occasionally flies during the day.

Later we crossed the road, finding another traditional haunt and another, less camera-shy male, who did fly down to feed on Creeping Thistle. A male Vapourer Moth was seen and photographed close by, a nice addition to the Burren Green and True Lover’s Knot moths caught the night before and shown to our group.

The resting Common Blue blends well with the Wild Carrot blooms.

We later returned to our cars, for refreshments, and positive feedback on our outing. A great thank you to all who joined our outing, some having made long journeys to share an experience with nature. May the sights we saw live on in our memories, and may the amazing Burren continue to hold its amazing depth and range of wilderness and biodiversity.

A Burren Grayling resting on a rock. The species is abundant here during August.
Mountain Avens Dryas octopetala is a lovely arctic-alpine flower. It blooms again in late summer after flowering in May. This photo was taken on Mullaghmore, where this dwarf shrub is abundant.

Let’s Love Larvae

Some years ago, a gardener told me she was enjoying the butterflies in her garden. It was early in a sunny September, and a range of butterflies flapped their vibrant wings around the nectar-filled blooms in her compact, warm sun-trapping garden. Did she grow any plants to encourage the butterflies to breed?

No, came the emphatic answer. She hates caterpillars.

But you cannot have butterflies without caterpillars.

No, she still didn’t want them.

The clarion call to save biodiversity is a cry that meets with broad public support nationally and internationally. Yet for many people, conservation is something that happens somewhere else. It is not. It is everyone’s responsibility. Covering your garden with artificial grass, tarmac, concrete, and cobbles do little to save nature.

Mowing your garden every week is damaging to the prospects of most wildlife and yet it is an endemic practice in Ireland, the UK and much of Europe. Yet many of the same people, if asked, would claim to care about nature.

Just as you cannot have the butterfly without the caterpillar, there is no biodiversity without a loving and hospitable home for our wildlife.

For most people, including butterfly and moth lovers, the larvae are rarely seen. But in some cases, the larvae are extremely interesting and very beautiful. Here we show a selection of butterfly and moth caterpillars and tell you a little about them.

All photographs J.Harding except Alder moth F. Parnell.

A Cinnabar moth caterpillar on Common Ragwort. This is one example of a highly conspicuous caterpillar and is easily the most reported caterpillar. This larva feeds in groups when younger, and their brash colouring warns predators of their toxicity. The caterpillars absorb toxins from the foodplant which contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which are fatal to livestock and humans if absorbed in sufficient quantity. This appears to make the larva distasteful too, and birds learn to avoid the caterpillar. Common Ragwort and Marsh Ragwort are native plants, important for pollinators, but the plant should never be allowed to grow in hay meadows where hay is used to feed livestock. The Cinnabar moth controls Common Ragwort, eating the flowers before seed can form.
Next is a green caterpillar, the larva of the Green Hairstreak butterfly. This one is feeding on Bilberry, a bog and heath plant. The larva is well hidden on its foodplants and is very hard to find in the wild. It pupates in summer and the adult emerges the following spring and summer. The larva is stated to be cannibalistic but it has been reared collectively in captivity without any fatalities.
Another green larva, the Cryptic Wood White, relies on camouflage to be undetected by birds. It lies flat against the stems of its foodplant, especially Meadow Vetchling, adding to its blending ability. This caterpillar is also remarkably hard to locate. Eggs are usually laid singly, meaning the larvae are well dispersed, presumably allowing the species to avoid predation. Larvae that blend with their food are typically edible.
Time for something exotic! This is the larva of the Common Swallowtail butterfly on Common Fennell growing against a limestone rubble wall in Gozo, Malta. The butterfly is rarely seen in Ireland but is a possible future colonist. The fleshy protuberance is an organ called the osmeterium, extended when the caterpillar experiences a threat. The organ emits a sour smell of rotting pineapple to deter predators. Strangely, this organ does not appear to be used by the larva in its final growth stage.
The Tussock moths produce wonderfully flamboyant larvae, and the Dark Tussock, a bog moth, is one example. It feeds on heather and sometimes gorse. Its dense covering of bristles must be unappetizing to Meadow Pipits, a bird frequent on bogs.
The Pale Tussock moth caterpillar is more widespread and even showier. This species breeds on birch, oak, apple, hazel, limes, elms, Common Blackthorn and Common Hawthorn. The larva is usually seen in late August and September when it appears on or near the ground when it leaves the tree to pupate among debris on the ground.
The Vapourer moth is another member of Lymantriidae, the tussock moths. In Victorian England, a Vapourer was the name for a braggart or boastful person, and this larva certainly boasts extravagant outline and livery. The larva feeds on willows, Bog-myrtle and the same trees used by the Pale Tussock.
We don’t have the iconic Purple Emperor butterfly in Ireland but we do have the Emperor Moth, a beautiful bogland, heathland, fen, mature dune, and scrubland inhabitant. The newborn larvae are black, resembling miniature Peacock larvae, but colour changes eventually culminate in the form you see here. This species uses a range of foodplants. In Ireland, it has been recorded on birches, Alder Buckthorn, willows, and heathers.
A clouded Yellow on Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil. The butterfly appears in Ireland every year but not in abundance, except in some special years, like 2000. It is very common in Southern Europe, emerging in early April in Tuscany and probably earlier further south.
The Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth is a day flyer, and very popular among nature photographers. The caterpillar feeds on Devil’s-bit Scabious, and its apparently unnecessary purple markings make sense if you see the foodplant, which often contains dark purple blotches on the leaves and purple on the flowering stems. Like the other hawkmoth species, the caterpillar has a tail.
The Lackey moth belongs to the family Lasiocampidae, the Eggar moths. It breeds on a number of trees, especially Common Hawthorn, and is mainly southerly in its occurrence in Ireland. The larvae feed in large groups and bask on webs, which can be large and conspicuous. Like many moths with colourful larvae, the adults are rather cryptic. The adult Lackey is usually straw-coloured and nocturnal.
The Small Eggar is rare in Ireland, despite having common foodplants like Common Hawthorn. This photo was taken in the Burren, near Carran, on open limestone with scattered scrub. It overwinters as a pupa, sometimes for two or three winters before the adult moth emerges. The adult flies early in the year, from January to March.
This is the larva of the Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet moth, a black moth with red spots on the forewings’ upper surfaces. The larva feeds on Meadow Vetchling growing in a tall sward, often on damp soils. The moth, both in the larval and adult stage, is easily confused with a much commoner species, the Six-spot Burnet, which is abundant on dunes in summer.
The colourful larva of the Sweet Gale moth belies the subdued, grainy grey adult’s colouring. Oddly, this moth has two generations a year in Ireland but just one in Britain. It feeds on Sea Plantain, Ribwort Plantain, Sea Campion and woody plants like heather.
The caterpillar of one of Ireland’s rarest butterflies, the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, is feeding on Common Dog-violet in the Burren, County Clare. This larva leaps off its foodplant when it wants to bask, landing impressively on its feet. Like many larvae that develop in early spring, it spends long periods basking in the sun on dry vegetation while it digests its food. It also appears to use its basking site as a latrine.
The Knot-grass is another dull moth with a colourful larva. It has a range of foodplants, including Meadowsweet and Devil’s-bit Scabious. This one has coiled into a ring, a typical defensive pose for a disturbed larva.
Like the Pale Tussock larva, the handsome larva of the Alder moth is usually seen when it leaves the foodplant (Alder, birches willows, oaks) to pupate in rotten wood on the ground. Photo by Fionnuala Parnell.
The Dew moth is an orange-yellow black-speckled day and night flyer that can be seen in the Burren in May, June and July. The caterpillar feeds on lichens growing on rocks.
A Comma butterfly caterpillar on Common Nettle. The species include Hops, elms and willows in its diet. Since the larva was first recorded in Ireland on 17th May 2014 in Carlow, the Comma has been recorded breeding in several counties, including Wexford, Wicklow, Meath and Dublin. It has recently been recorded breeding in Irish gardens and appears poised to colonise the entire island.

 

 

Climate Change and Biodiversity Loss Threaten Chaos

ULYSSES: The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order…
But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states…
O, when degree is shaked…
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.

Troilus and Cressida William Shakespeare (Act I, Scene III, 85-118, edited)

Interfere with nature and chaos follows. Order, security, justice and our very sense of right and wrong are at risk in a context dominated by a greedy, stupid, and self-defeating consumerist mentality where personal gain and the demand for constant economic growth is the all-consuming imperative of the global financial architecture. Like pigs at the trough, we gorge unsustainably on what is bad for us oblivious of our contribution to our impending downfall.

The signs of chaos are here already. Temperatures are soaring throughout Europe, America, and India with heat waves now hotter, more frequent, and longer lasting. The UK recorded temperatures above 40C for the first time on 19 July. The record temperatures in the UK last week would have been “almost impossible” without human-induced climate change, leading scientists have concluded. Reaching 40C is regarded as an event that is still rare in Britain that we would “expect (them) between once every 500 years and once every 1,500 years.” (https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-62335975)

Posturing, with ecological and climate rectitude the ostensible priority of our age, will not repair the damage. Recently Padraig Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust told RTE’S Claire Byrne that Ireland has no natural habitats left. Aghast, she exclaimed “What?” Fogarty pointed out that the last natural habitats we had, our bogs, have been destroyed.

Out of necessity, the Irish Government announced a rewetting programme for the minority of bogs in semi-state ownership in 2020 (https://www.irishtimes.com/business/energy-and-resources/bord-na-mona-ends-all-peat-harvesting-1.4459179).

Exploit and destroy the bogs, then greenwash them in peatland rehabilitation. For anyone reading this, ‘rehabilitation’ won’t happen. Many of the bogs taken out of production are still being cut by people claiming turbary rights. Re-wetting, the method to be used, will not restore the peatlands we lost unless we wait for a thousand years or longer, and we continue to receive rainfall levels and climatic conditions that built bogs. Bord na Móna, which is charged with rewetting, admits that the bogs will not be returned to their pristine state:

It is not expected that the site (a reference in most if not all of the rehabilitation plans) has the potential to develop active raised bog (ARB) analogous to the priority EU Habitats Directive Annex I habitat within the foreseeable future (c.50 years). Furthermore, only a proportion of the bog has potential to develop Sphagnum-rich habitats in this timeframe. Nevertheless, re-wetting across the entire bog, as part of the proposed Scheme, will improve habitat conditions of the whole bog, making the overall bog wetter. Other peatland and wetland habitats such as fen, wet woodland, Reed Swamp and embryonic Sphagnum-rich vegetation will develop in a wider mosaic that reflects underlying conditions. It will take some time for stable naturally functioning habitats to fully develop…(Bord na Móna, Belmont Bog Cutaway Bog Decommissioning and Rehabilitation Plan, p.31)

The bogs in Ireland developed over 10,000 years. Whatever habitats develop on re-wetted peatlands, these will not be active (growing) raised bogs. Under the EU Habitats Directive the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is obliged to complete a report every seven years on the condition of designated habitats. In 2019 the NPWS rated the prospects of the protected raised bogs it assessed as BAD in terms of range, area, structure and functions. The overall assessment of conservation status and the overall trend is BAD.  (https://www.npws.ie/sites/default/files/publications/pdf/NPWS_2019_Vol2_Habitats_Article17.pdf)

These assessments only apply to the small number of legally protected sites, so given that the report lists ongoing burning, peat extraction, drainage, afforestation and temperature changes arising from climate change, the situation will deteriorate. One strategy to save protected raised bogs has been to relocate peat extractors…to other raised bogs.

Another idea is to conduct “investigations to establish if turf cutting is feasible within circumscribed parts of a limited number of SACs (the legally protected bogs) without impacting on the integrity of the site.” (National Parks and Wildlife Service, The Status of EU Protected Habitats and Species in Ireland Habitat Assessments Volume 2 pp 742-3)

There are more ingenuous ideas to save our bogs in the document for anyone with the resilience to read it.

Less than one percent of Ireland’s midland-raised bogs are in a natural state and growing peat. In other words, over 99% are in various states of degradation, releasing carbon dioxide, a warming gas, into the Earth’s atmosphere.

And anyone who thinks that recent publicity concerning restricting the burning of turf has engendered improved conservation will be disappointed. Peat cutting continues, throughout Ireland, on raised and blanket bogs. Advertisements for turf for burning are widespread, such as the one I saw recently opposite the Garda station in Bandon.

One of the bitterest ironies is that peatland destruction can make it hard to enjoy the nature we still have. The Marsh Fritillary, our only legally protected insect is a beautifully patterned species, with brick red, cream, yellow and black upper sides. Seeing this sylph-like creature should be a delight, but its presence is frequently indicative of environmental degradation, because this butterfly, which does not live on wet intact raised bogs has colonized the degraded bogs. Over a short few years, these breeding sites disappear as scrub and woodland take hold.

It is perhaps somewhat ungrateful to interpret the presence of a threatened and beautiful butterfly as indicative of habitat loss, but ecologically this is correct. The butterfly can make use of new suitable habitats within its reach, but the species cannot use these transient areas for long-term survival. Before the bog was destroyed, the butterfly probably occurred in more stable habitats in the lagg zone, a transition zone along the outside margin of a raised bog, characterized by a fen or swamp plant community and adjoining wet grassland.

Our aesthetically atmospheric, wild cooling wetlands absorb and retain carbon dioxide. They hold great biodiversity. They must be cherished, not drained and burned. Woods are said to be good for our environment. Eco-lies exist, with statistics used to assuage concern. We are told that there is more forest in Ireland today at 11%forest cover than 200 years ago. This information suggests these are Irish woodlands. They are not.

They are crops, often planted on peatlands. Instead of planting native trees in the correct places, we are disfiguring the landscape with ugly, uniform conifer plantations. These are dark, miserable, depressing, and largely lifeless, with the only sound being the wind soughing bleakly through the trees. Lest anyone think these trees on peatlands help to retain damaging warming gases, consider this statistic from the Environmental Protection Agency Report:

In light of future climate change, the most important function of peatlands in the 21st century is that of a carbon store and sink. Covering only about 3% of the Earth’s land area, they hold the equivalent of half of the carbon that is in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2) (Dise, 2009). It is estimated that the carbon stored in peatlands represents some 25% of the world soil carbon pool (i.e. 3–3.5 times the amount of carbon stored in the tropical rainforests) (EPA, Bogland: The Sustainable Management of Peatlands in Ireland, p32).

The report gives a good indication of the damage to peatland by afforestation:

The national forest area has dramatically increased in Ireland since the 1950s and a third of it (some 267,000 ha) has been planted since 1990 (classified as ‘Kyoto forests’). According to the Forest Service National Forest Inventory (NFI), 43% of the total forest estate is located on peat soils (Black et al., 2008). Most forests on peatland in Ireland are located on blanket bogs (both mountain and Atlantic), with a small proportion occurring on either raised or on industrial cutaway bogs. While large tracts of natural blanket bogs were afforested between the 1950s and 1980s/90s, the last decade has also seen the afforestation by private landowners of smaller areas of blanket bogs – most of which are likely to have been degraded to some extent by previous human activities (turf cutting, animal grazing). (EPA, Bogland: The Sustainable Management of Peatlands in Ireland, p76).

The way of operating especially by smaller landowners is to destroy the bog and plant alien conifers on the peat soils. When the crop is ready, the clear-felling often used creates a further rise in carbon dioxide emissions.

Ireland and the world have choices to make, as has every individual. The choice is mass extinctions, global instability, and ensuing chaos from following the business-as-usual model or change to repair what we can repair. There is an order in nature. We are disrupting this order, making ourselves vulnerable.

Wake up and smell the carbon before the last Curlew calls and before the last Wall Brown butterfly presses golden wings against a warming surface. May we continue to enjoy the wonders of the natural world, reflected in the Peacock butterfly’s starry neon-bright eyespots.

We need to change. It’s later than you think…

The Peacock butterfly’s eyespots have long fascinated observers: The eyespots “shine curiously like stars, and do cast about them sparks of the colours of the Rainbow.” Sir Theodore de Mayerne, 1634.

 

 

 

Butterfly of the Month

To date, July 2022 has produced some dull, overcast weather and a few days of extremely hot, but not uniformly sunny conditions. In June, the percentage of long-term average sunshine values were variable across the country. The percentage of monthly sunshine values ranged from 82% (monthly sunshine total of 128.4 hours) at Shannon Airport, Co. Clare to 104% (monthly sunshine total of 166.4 hours) at Casement Aerodrome, Co. Dublin.

Direct sunshine is important for some of our day-flying moths and butterflies. Moths like the Least Minor Photedes captiuncula ssp. tincta and Forester Adscita statices and butterflies like the Brimstone and Comma fly only or mainly in bright sunlight. In dull weather, these species remain hidden.

Comma dark form male, 22 July 2022, Lullymore. J. Harding.

One of our most attractive high summer butterflies is a woodland butterfly and our largest native species. The Silver-washed Fritillary, named for the silver wash makings across moss-coloured hindwing undersides, is a flamboyant, characterful and handsome butterfly, and is widely but locally distributed throughout Ireland, haunting woods comprising mainly native trees with a high percentage of sunlight penetrating down to the woodland herb layer, where the butterfly must be able to find its breeding plant, the Common Dog-violet.

A delight on the wing, males are especially frenetic movers in bright sunshine, dashing jaggedly and powerfully over wood edges and glades before dipping down and apparently vanishing. A careful approach often brings a view of the male on pink bramble blossom, a sweet contrast with his hot orange uppersides.

The onset of dull conditions or light rain will set him off to the tree-tops, where roosting takes place, and his slivery green hindwing underside blends with the silver, watery sheen of wet leaves.

The female is more heavily spotted on her uppersides, and is duller overall, with more subdued colouring. She is often, although not always, larger than the male, with the wing spanning up to 80 mm. She is more circumspect in her habitats, avoiding heavily used feeding areas once she has mated, and less dramatic in her flight, although very capable of making flights across unwooded terrain in her search for new breeding grounds. When ready to lay eggs, she enters the dimly-lit areas of woodland, leaving the sun-filled clearings to search for violets growing near trees. When located, she flies upward to a tree trunk and lays her eggs, typically, or always, singly.

The caterpillar over-winters on the tree without feeding on anything aside from its eggshell. Eight long months later, he descends to the violets his mother located, and begins to feed.

The Silver-washed Fritillary was featured on RTE Radio 1 last Monday, 18 July, on the Mooney Goes Wild Show. A must-see butterfly, the newly emerged male seen perching in bright sunshine is a summer jewel. The peak of its flight season may vary according to the locality, but late July and early August are great times to look.

Good places to search can be found by entering ‘Silver-washed Fritillary’ as a search term on our Records page: for 2022 records, see https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/records/2022-2/

For its seasonal topicality, its popularity among butterfly lovers and its magnificent flight and beauty, we offer him to you as The Butterfly of the Month.

Silver-washed Fritillary male, 22nd July 2022, Lullybeg. Photo J. Harding.
Silver-washed Fritillary, male underside, 26 July 2020, Lullybeg, J. Harding.

Early July Butterflies

A male Silver-washed Fritillary on Wild Carrot. The black bars of the forewings and deeper orange distinguish the sexes in this species. Females are duller and lack black barring.
Green-veined White on vegetation. In warmer countries and probably in warmer summers in Ireland, females will mate more than once.
Ringlet on Common Spotted Orchid. The Ringlet and Silver-washed Fritillary feed on this flower. The Ringlet can be very abundant in tall, humid grassland growing near woods, or among scrub.
Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth larva on Devil’s-bit Scabious. There were three larvae on a large plant. The adult moth had a good year on the Butterfly Conservation Ireland reserve at Lullybeg, in County Kildare.
A male Dark Green Fritillary feeds on Marsh Thistle on Lullybeg Reserve, County Kildare.
Purple Hairstreak female on an oak leaf containing its nourishment, an aphid’s secretions. This has a sticky texture and sweet taste. It also provides camouflage to the butterfly which has silvery undersides that blend in with the silvery glare the secretions emit in bright sunshine.
The Meadow Brown has a long flight period that peaks during July in parts of the east and midlands and during August, sometimes in mid-August, in parts of the west of Ireland.

All photos J. Harding

Early July and late July are quite different in the butterflies on view. Later in the month, the Brimstone, Wood White, Large White, Small White, Small Copper, Brown Hairstreak, Holly Blue, Peacock and Grayling join the species highlighted here. July has more species on the wing than any other month.

Get out and enjoy the view.

UK and EU Butterfly Indicators Heading South

Butterfly Conservation UK has recently produced a new Red List for Britain’s butterflies, and the news is not very good.

The declines reported by the Red List authors are linked mainly to habitat loss, not climate change. But climate change is playing a negative role in the fortunes of more northerly species.

Head of Science for Butterfly Conservation, Dr Richard Fox, says: “Shockingly, half of Britain’s remaining butterfly species are listed as threatened or Near Threatened on the new Red List. Even prior to this new assessment, British butterflies were among the most threatened in Europe, and now the number of threatened species in Britain has increased by five, an increase of more than one-quarter. While some species have become less threatened, and a few have even dropped off the Red List, the overall increase clearly demonstrates that the deterioration of the status of British butterflies continues apace.”

While land-use change remains the most important driver of decline, the impact of climate change on butterflies is also evident in the new Red List, with all four British butterflies with northerly distributions, adapted to cooler or damper climates, now listed as threatened (Large Heath, Scotch Argus, Northern Brown Argus) or Near Threatened (Mountain Ringlet).

Britain currently has 59 species (the Red List assessed 62 species, 4 of which are assessed as extinct, although one of these, the Large Tortoiseshell, has been recorded breeding this development occurred after the assessment for the Red List). The List covers Britain only, not the UK as a whole. Disturbingly and perhaps presciently for Ireland’s butterflies, some of the species we have become more concerned about have been uplisted on the Revised Red List of British Butterflies.

The Large Heath ranked vulnerable on the Irish Red List (2010) has been up-listed from Vulnerable to Endangered on the British list. The Grayling ranked Near Threatened in Ireland, has been up-listed from Vulnerable to Endangered on the British list. The Small Heath ranked Near Threatened here, has moved from Near Threatened to Threatened on the British list.

The most disturbing assessment concerns the Meadow Brown, assessed as Least Concern. However, this finding is, to my mind, dubious. The species has shown a major increase in the rate of decline over the period of the assessment (2010-2019) but is assessed as Least Concern because of the potential for a rescue effect, with the British population having the potential to receive influxes from Ireland and Europe.

The Meadow Brown is not the universally common butterfly it was once. Photo J. Harding

This assessment makes little sense if the decline is attributed to land-use changes. The habitat does not become suitable for the species simply by receiving immigrant Meadow Browns. A mathematical model shows a projected decrease of 28% (2013-2022). The assessment must apply the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) process for assessing the status of species, but this should set alarm bells ringing shrilly.

The decline of such a widespread, undemanding habitat generalist suggests widescale environmental degradation. The Victorian Lepidopterist C G Barrett wrote that there is “hardly a grassy field in the United Kingdom from which it is wholly absent.” This is not the case today, for Britain or Ireland.

In better news, conservation measures have helped to improve conditions for the Pearl-bordered Fritillary in Britain which has moved from Endangered to Vulnerable. However, these conservation measures must be ongoing, because this butterfly requires a determined programme of scrub control and rough grazing for its survival in many regions. In Ireland the 2010 Red List ranked this species as Endangered, applying the precautionary principle because the butterfly has such a restricted distribution here, occurring only in the Burren and close to the Burren.

The Pearl-bordered Fritillary is responding well to conservation measures in Britain, showing that declines can be tackled. Photo J. Harding

The Wood White, ranked Near Threatened here, remains Endangered in Britain. This species occurs mainly in the Burren and in other areas containing exposed Carboniferous limestone, in scattered locations from just south of Ennis to southern areas of County Mayo.

How are butterflies dealing with land-use changes and climate change on the continent? Broadly, in northern Europe butterflies are in trouble while in southern Europe populations are more stable. Woodland species are doing considerably better than grassland species.

A female Purple Hairstreak basking on an oak leaf coated in aphid secretions. Woodland butterflies are doing better than grassland species. Photo J. Harding

The European Grassland Butterfly Indicator is based on the national Butterfly Monitoring Schemes (BMS) in 19 countries across Europe, most of them in the European Union. The indicator shows that from 1990 to 2011 butterfly populations have declined by almost 50 %, indicating a dramatic loss of grassland biodiversity. This also means the situation has not improved since the first version of the indicator was published in 2005. Of the 17 species that the Indicator assessed, eight have declined in Europe, two have remained stable and 1 increased. For six species the trend is uncertain.

The eight species that showed declines were (species that occur in Ireland in bold) Small Heath, Wall Brown, Small Copper, Dusky Large Blue, Meadow Brown, Common Blue, Marsh Fritillary, and Large Skipper.

From Seville and Cordoba comes the startling news that Common Swift Apus apus and Pallid Swift Apus pallidus nestlings are being killed by extreme heat or when attempting to escape the extreme heat. Hundreds of nestings are being found on pavements, near death. Great tit chicks in Montpellier are starving to death because their parents cannot forage in 45-degree heat.

These are cavity-nesting birds, which often breed in cultural environments such as cities, parks and gardens, making the effects of extreme heat easily observable.

We might be missing what is going on elsewhere and to less conspicuous wildlife, like our moth species.

Apart from drastic global action needed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, we need to protect landscapes, like the Burren, to buffer the effects of a warming climate. Bog restoration, grassland restoration, native woodland restoration would also help.

One step you can take right now to express your support for our wetland habitats is to sign the petition in support of the establishment of the National Peatlands Park in Northwest Kildare and East Offaly. The petition is being run by No Planet B, a dedicated group of young environmentalists, ably led by Butterfly Conservation Ireland member Niamh Cowdell. The petition is here: https://chng.it/hYm7vfJjJT

 

Lullybeg Nature Reserve

Lullybeg Nature Reserve is a Bord na Móna rehabilitated cutaway area, managed since 2010 by Butterfly Conservation Ireland. It is listed in the Bord na Móna Biodiversity Action Plan 2016-2021. This is an important conservation location (rated Nationally Important in the Kildare County Development Plan) as it is home to a population of Marsh Fritillary Euphydryas aurinia, the only protected species of butterfly (and the only protected invertebrate) in Ireland (protected under Annex II of the Habitats’ Directive 1992). Other important butterflies present are Dark Green Fritillary Speyeria aglaja (ranked Vulnerable), Wall Brown (ranked Endangered), and Small Heath Coenonympha pamphilus (ranked Near Threatened). Twenty-six butterfly species have been recorded on the reserve. The rewards of conservation management and scrub removal/control are evident as the already impressive list of flora and fauna recorded on site is increasing. The site is used as a transect for the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (IBMS) run by the National Biodiversity Data Centre, with 12 years of IBMS records underlining the site’s importance for Lepidoptera. Moths that are present on the site include species ranked Near Threatened on the macro-moth Red List published by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in 2016 (Allen et al. 2016), such as Small Chocolate-tip Clostera pigra, Dark Tussock Dicallomera fascelina, Small Purple-barred Phytometra viridaria, and species ranked as Vulnerable, such as Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet Zygaena lonicerae. Teal (Amber-listed), Woodcock (Red-listed), Snipe are among the breeding birds present. Merlin (Amber-listed), Buzzard, Kestrel (Red-listed), Sparrowhawk, Jay, Raven and Linnet (Amber-listed) occur here.

One of the pleasures of being in an area of high biodiversity is encountering the sheer range and abundance of invertebrates. Yesterday, for example, there were hundreds of young grasshoppers, their abundance a reassurance of the health of the habitats at Lullybeg. Recording what is observed using a camera is a great way to build memories of what is present, and a great way to record species one is unsure of for identification later, using reference texts on online resources. The quest for that perfect photograph, capturing a wild animal at its best, is another motivation for many nature lovers.

Here are some images from the reserve taken this week. Enjoy!

All images copyright J. Harding

This Brimstone caterpillar is well grown, and will soon leave this Alder Buckthorn plant to pupate, although the larvae occasionally pupate on the plant, near the base.
This Red-necked Footman moth is perching on a Devil’s-bit Scabious leaf. These moths teem in their dozens on the tree canopy, where mating occurs.
Marsh Fritillary eggs on the underside of a Devil’s-bit Scabious leaf. Judging from their darker colour, these were laid several days ago. Freshly laid eggs are bright yellow.
A female Marsh Fritillary resting in dull weather. She has laid her first egg batch and will attempt to lay again, after feeding for a few days to mature the second stock of eggs.
The Marbled White-spot moth is regularly disturbed from low shrubs and tall grasses at Lullybeg.
This young Emperor Moth larva is feeding on bramble. They can be found on the reserve feeding on Meadowsweet, Grey Willow, Downy Birch, and Alder Buckthorn.
The first Ringlet recorded on the reserve in 2022, was seen on June 17th. The reserve holds an enormous population of this gentle grassland inhabitant.
The striking Cinnabar moth, seen on June 17th, is a nocturnal flyer often disturbed during daylight.
This is a Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet moth on Red Clover, seen on June 17th. This moth is ranked Vulnerable on the 2016 Irish moth Red List (Ireland Red List No. 9 Macro-moths (Lepidoptera)).
Forest Shield Bug on Downy Birch, Lullybeg Reserve.
Flower-rich grassland on Lullybeg Reserve. The Rough Hawkbit flowers are used by Marsh Fritillaries for their nectar, especially by females that have laid their eggs and are maturing their next batch in preparation for further egg-laying. Unfortunately, the spider Misumena vatia often chooses this flower lying in wait for an unsuspecting insect.

 

June Butterflies

The bramble is in bloom on Ireland’s highways, Cross-leaved Heath is flowering on our wet heaths and bogs, buttercups are starring in old pastures and our limestone areas are awash with trefoil, vetches, cranesbills, and Burnet Rose. There is a gap in June vacated by the spring butterflies being on their last wings while summer species have not entered the fray, so June can be eerily quiet in our countryside. The Meadow Brown is just beginning to bob jerkily around the grasses and flowering bramble, while the Ringlet is not out yet. We are awaiting our first Dark Green Fritillaries and while the Small Tortoiseshells are hatching, they are mainly beyond the public eye, staying close to their breeding plants in the fields and staying away from our gardens and flowery grasslands.

There are some serious delights to be savoured, however, and here we feature some.

The first may seem an odd choice. Mainly a spring species, the Orange-tip can be found flying throughout June, especially on more exposed sites where it may emerge later. One of our loveliest species, there are plenty of larvae to be found on Cuckoo Flower seed pods, on plants in sunny positions.

Orange-tip male resting during overcast weather. J. Harding

The male Green Hairstreak is a tiny, hyperactive pugilistic character but the female is less bullish and far likelier to sit quietly in warm sunshine, especially when not egg-laying. The species always perches with closed wings, and one’s first sighting is unforgettable. This one was careful not to land within the field of vision of a crab spider perched on a buttercup; crab spiders are voracious butterfly killers but their peripheral vision is so poor that a butterfly can land adjacent to it without being noticed but passing across its field of vision is lethal. A swift paralyzing bite is delivered to the butterfly’s thorax, and the venom then dissolves its innards. The Green Hairstreak in this photo moved from the buttercup to an adjoining white clover, avoiding the spider. The Green Hairstreak should be sought on bogs and wet heaths, especially near scrub.

Green Hairstreak, Drehid Bog, County Kildare. J. Harding

A butterfly in flight on our wilder grasslands during June is the Marsh Fritillary. Typically a low flier, males dart wildly across their patch in sunshine but quickly settle when cloud covers the sun. Our only protected butterfly needs help, because our flower-rich grasslands are in poor condition and according to data in a 2019 report by Ireland to the EU, some of these habitats are not doing well. For example, the future prospects for orchid-rich grassland are: Range: poor, Area: bad and Structure and functions: poor. The overall assessment of the conservation status for this habitat is deteriorating. But on Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s reserve at Lullybeg, the species is happily booming in 2022. Over 100 were spotted on one day in late May. Here is a male on Ragged Robin.

The Marsh Fritillary is protected under the Habitats’ Directive. Sites holding core populations and the surrounding landscape holding potential habitat must be protected and managed for this butterfly’s long-term survival. J. Harding.

Finally, a humble member of the brown family, the Small Heath. Again, this one needs watching because land-use changes generally destroy its preferred habitat, grassland on infertile, unpolluted soils. This is one of those butterflies that we used to take for granted. Not any more.

Small Heath, male, County Kildare. J. Harding

If you see any of these butterflies, why not let us know? Our Records page shows you how to send your records: see https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/records/

Happy hunting!

 

Event Report Moth Morning June 4th 2022

Preparation for the moth morning on Saturday June 4th began months ago, when we did some preliminary trapping on Eddie and Denise Smyth’s farm which lies just south of the Grand Canal near Umeras Bridge, in County Kildare.

Results showed what we expected; an abundance and range of moths in rich habitats. The farm contains scrub, species-rich wet grassland, tree lines, and a garden with flower beds and borders.

The traps were set on Friday, and we noted the sky was clear, not a great sign for moth activity unless it is very warm. The morning was cool with a breeze that was not strong but certainly with a bite.

On the plus side, the traps were set in sheltered spots so we had our hopes. Our moth enthusiasts were led by Philip Strickland, BCI’s moth specialist. We carefully inspected the area around the trap for moths that settled close by, a habit of some species attracted by light but only occasionally enter traps.

While abundance was suppressed by the weather conditions, the moths of the area were well represented, with real beauties making an appearance, such as Cinnabar moth, Buff-tip, Elephant and Poplar Hawkmoths, White and Buff Ermines, and less showy stalwarts including Small Square-spot, Clouded Bordered Brindle, Clouded Brindle and Brown Rustic. Plenty of micro-moths were tucked into the egg cartons that line the interior of the traps, much there to interest Philip, who has found a number of species previously unknown in Ireland.

Pale-shouldered Brocade was especially numerous, probably because of the abundance of willow, and Green Carpet and Seraphim were also in evidence. A species that excited admiration was the Eyed Hawkmoth, a large and dramatic species whose polychromatic hindwing uppersides deliver a striking foil to the cryptic bark-blending forewing uppersides.

Our group was then treated to the warmth of Eddie and Denise Smyth’s hospitality, when we were seated indoors for our post-moth tea and snacks. Conversations about our nation’s biodiversity flowed, and hopefully new contacts and ideas were generated. I enjoyed the event enormously, as did everyone else.

Butterfly Conservation Ireland thanks all who took part, especially Denise and Eddie for hosting our event.

Photos J. Harding

Eyed Hawkmoth displayed its eye-spots, a posture adopted as a defence strategy.
Small Pheonix moth. It can be found in gardens where black currant and red currant is grown.
Poplar Hawkmoth is a large moth and very common yet rarely seen unless a light trap is used to attract it.
Lesser Swallow Prominent showing the short white wedge mark on the trailing edge of the hindwing which distinguishes it from the Swallow Prominent whose wedge mark is thinner and longer.
The Lesser Swallow Prominent is a natural position indicating its ability to blend into its surroundings.
Elephant Hawkmoth, widespread but rarely very numerous. The magnificent caterpillar eats willowherbs and bedstraws and the adult enjoys feeding on Honeysuckle flowers.
The Buff-tip is a master of confusion (where is the head?) and imitation (broken birch twig). Happily common, it will appear in gardens containing native trees and shrubs as well as in the countryside.