How to care for Hibernating Butterflies

The following article has been revised and re-issued due to the volume of queries we receive concerning butterflies over-wintering in houses.

In Ireland, we have four butterfly species that over-winter in the adult form.  We have a number of moths that hibernate as adults. One of these is the iconic Herald moth. A group of this species will sometimes shelter in your attic to wait for spring.

The Small Tortoiseshell butterfly has a habit of regularly entering rooms in houses to pass the winter (Occasionally, the Peacock will enter a house to over-winter, although this is unusual). The Small Tortoiseshell, a beautifully marked butterfly likes to stay close to us in late summer and will even stake out likely hibernation sites indoors especially during August and September before settling to fold its wings for winter in some obscure spot in our homes, sheds or even cars!

This well-studied butterfly has some fascinating characteristics. It has shown an ability to relocate specific sites when it has been disturbed from the site, suggesting a spatial memory; if a nettle on which a female is laying her eggs is moved, the female returns to the spot where the nettle was located, not to the site it was removed to. The butterfly is very mobile and some of ‘our’ Small Tortoiseshells may have travelled from Britain and Europe. Males establish and defend territories but if he finds a female he switches to defending the female from other males. She makes him work hard by flying away at speed to see if he can keep up and sometimes by flying into territory held by other males so that her suitor may have to fight several males throughout the rest of the day. He will drive them away by engaging in a series of aerial combats, with high altitude climbs when he tries to fly above the intruder. When the intruder is expelled, the male returns to his female who usually remains perched where he left her.

Sometimes, though, she gives him the slip, giving him an anxious search as he inspects the surrounding nettle bed for her. Some females hide, and later accept defence by another male. Even a female who has cooperated with a male all day tries to lose him when she goes to roost in the nettles in the evening by dropping into the nettles and running along the ground. If the male manages to stay with her, she suddenly becomes quiet and allows mating, which lasts all night. Presumably, her demanding behaviour ensures that only the fittest males father offspring, ensuring the health of the next generation. This provides a fascinating example of selection by the female of the fittest male.

Another, related feature of the butterfly is its impressive longevity. The over-wintering generation is long-lived, and individuals can survive for 10 months. The impressive life-span allows the female Small Tortoiseshell the chance to be selective; most female butterflies accept the first male encountered; these females lack the luxury of extended life to test male powers of endurance.

However, our Small Tortoiseshells have one significant challenge when they enter our homes to see out the winter in our bedrooms, living rooms and hallways. The butterflies are very careful to select the best spots, picking excellent hiding places in curtain folds, behind mirrors and pictures, in unused chimney brests, behind dressers and, to complete the concealment, their dark cryptic coloured undersides blend nicely with their chosen surface. However, the mod con that is central heating confounds their attempts to complete their winter slumber. Heat rouses the butterfly, causing it to believe that spring, with its sunshine, flowers and nettles beckon it to fly outdoors. The confused butterfly flies around lights and windows, trying to get out.

Householders who release the butterfly into the winter are usually dooming it. The butterfly rapidly loses the ability to fly when its body temperature plummets in the cold and is picked off by birds or mammals. The other problem is starvation. The butterfly built up vital fats by gorging on nectar in our gardens and countryside before switching off for winter and long periods of unseasonable activity reduces these reserves.

What should you do if you encounter an active Small Tortoiseshell in your home?

If this happens in warm spring weather release the butterfly in the knowledge that it’s time to let it go. It is now ready to feed on the spring flowers, move in search of territories, breeding grounds and mates.

If the butterfly wakes up in winter it should be placed in a dry, transparent container lined with a folded section of kitchen roll to absorb moisture and placed in the salad drawer in the fridge, where the temperature is around four Celsius. The butterfly will soon settle and can be kept there until warm, sunny weather arrives in March or April.  Alternatively, remove the butterfly from the container when it is quiet and place in an unheated shed or room to complete its winter rest.

If the butterfly has been flying around for some time, it may need to be fed. Dissolve sugar or honey in a few millilitres of hot water, allow it to cool and use a cotton pad to absorb the sweetened solution. When cool, place the calmed butterfly (cooled in the salad drawer but not long enough to be made fully docile) on the pad, in softly-lit mild conditions. It should begin to feed. When it has finished, place in a cool place to sleep.

We advise against placing a hibernating butterfly in a very dark place such as a cupboard under the stairs. While cool and dark, it usually remains cool even when warmer temperatures return in spring. The result is that the butterfly never wakes up and will eventually die unless you find and release him/her.

Over the years I have successfully over-wintered adult Small Tortoiseshells and felt a burst of delight to watch the butterfly surge into the sunshine in spring. Interestingly, the released butterfly does not loiter. It flies strongly away, as though hyper-energised by the promise of brightness and freshness of a world renewed by the return of sunshine.

The Small Tortoiseshell. © J.Harding.

Harvest for Butterflies

Wild, native flowers and shrubs are in seed/fruit now. Here we describe how to harvest and sow five of the best!

Common Marjoram, a great draw for bees and butterflies in July and August. Pull off the dead flower, rub them vigorously between your thumb and forefinger and scatter over gravel or over a compost that consists of calcareous compost. Do not bury the seed. It should germinate in spring.  Photo J.Harding.
The seed head of Common Fleabane-a member of the daisy family-is much-loved by a large range of butterflies during August. Pull the dead flowers away from the peduncle to release the seed. Scatter over bare, damp, rich soil. Photo J.Harding.
Field Scabious is a lovely wayside flower and a favourite with bees in mid-summer.  In this photo, the seed is ready for collection. Simply remove the seed and scatter over gravel or dry, well-drained bare soil or over a compost that consists of calcareous compost.  Photo J. Harding.
Common Holly berries are ready for harvesting now. Pick the berries before they are deep red in colour. Crush the berries under water and remove the seed. Sow in a seed tray consisting of sharp grit and soil.  Make sure the seed is buried but not any deeper than 2-3 cm. Leave outdoors, fully exposed to the weather. The seed will germinate in spring or the following spring. Photo J.Harding.
This seed tray was sown with Devil’s-bit Scabious seed. This multi-flowering plant is the best native source of nectar in August and September, greatly favoured by all butterflies flying during these months. Simply remove the seed and place on the surface of damp compost-do not bury the seed. The seed should be exposed to the weather but placed above ground to protect it from mice. The seed will germinate in spring. Photo J.Harding.

Event Postponement

The site management event planned by Butterfly Conservation Ireland and the Burrenbeo Trust for Fahee North/Termon in the Burren on Saturday 2nd November has been postponed because the weather forecast is for heavy rain and high winds. We hope to hold the event in February 2020  on either Saturday 15th or Saturday 22nd of February according to the weather.

The site is beautiful and very rich in butterflies and moths so it really is important to keep it in great condition.

See you in February!

Fahee North/Termon, County Clare, has all four fritillary butterflies, Wood White, Wall Brown, Grayling, Small Heath and rare moths including Royal Mantle. © J. Harding.
A Grayling basking on limestone on the site, August 2019. It is important to prevent scrub encroaching on the pavement which is used as basking sites for the Grayling and Wall Brown. © J.Harding.
Small Heath, now sadly in decline, remains abundant on the site.  This male was photographed here in August 2019. © J.Harding.

Lullybeg Management Event Report

A cool, sunny day on Saturday 26th of October made for very pleasant working conditions on our Kildare reserve. An enthusiastic group tackled scrub re-growth from around five years previously. The area we worked on has breeding habitat for Brimstone, Marsh Fritillary, Dark Green Fritillary and Wood Tiger among several other species. The area has a mosaic of habitats packed into a small area attractive to a  diverse range of species with very different foodplants and specific micro-habitat needs.

We took a number of steps to cater for all these species. Dense willow and dense birch was cut down but two tree species growing among the birch and willow-Alder Buckthorn and Purging Buckthorn, the foodplants for the larva of the Brimstone butterfly and Holly Blue butterfly were identified and spared. The buckthorns now have more light around them. This makes them more suitable as breeding plants.

By clearing and removing the scrub, we made Common Dog Violet plants, used for breeding by the Dark Green Fritillary butterfly, open to the light. Rough vegetation near the violets was preserved so that the caterpillars will have areas to hide in and to bask on during sunny weather next spring.

Another issue to deal with was a flush of birch saplings. These threaten to out-compete St John’s Wort used by the Wood Tiger caterpillars and Devil’s-bit Scabious used by the caterpillars of the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth and Marsh Fritillary butterfly. We uprooted these, which yielded readily due to the soft soil.

All uprooted and cut material was placed in a pile to the north to avoid casting a shadow on breeding areas.  It was heartening to step back and look at what we achieved and we know our butterflies and moths will thank us for it!

As usual, we had great conversations about a range of subjects, enjoyed the food we brought and shared. Conservation is about people too!

A special thanks to everyone who worked so hard and to all our members and supporters.

The cleared area at Lullybeg. The buckthorns can be seen at nine o’clock in the photograph. These are still sheltered from the north by retaining sheltering scrub to the north of these plants.
Photo J.Harding.

Breaking News: Permission for Solar Farm on Drehid North/Timahoe Bog Refused by Kildare County Council

Kildare County Council has refused permission for a solar farm and other works on Drehid North, Timahoe, County Kildare. Butterfly Conservation Ireland objected to the application early this year (see

The development would involve drainage of part of the site and this would have damaged or destroyed wet heath, a habitat listed on Annex I of the Habitats’ Directive.  In addition, the planning authority was unsatisfied with the Environmental Impact Assessment Report, which, it seems, did not include important data required under the Habitats’ and Birds Directive specifically the identification of species and habitats protected under these directives. Butterfly Conservation Ireland drew attention to some of these deficiencies in our original objection, such as the failure to identify the presence of the Marsh Fritillary which breeds on the site.

Following the original application, Kildare County Council called for additional information. In an attempt to protect the habitats and moth and butterfly species on the site, some of which are very important, Butterfly Conservation Ireland worked with the ecological consultants for the project to develop a plan to avoid construction on the habitats that are important to the butterflies and moths and to create a management plan to preserve the habitats and populations present. Butterfly Conservation Ireland submitted the contents of the plan to the planning authority, indicating that the plan if implemented, would protect the habitats that contain the high diversity and high abundance of Lepidoptera species.

The implementation of the plan is very important, as natural succession in the form of semi-natural woodland is changing the grassland habitats and will lead to population declines and to important species being lost.

Refusal of permission will mean that the wet heath is preserved. This is important for some bird species and some moths. However, the greatest diversity of Lepidoptera species is located outside the heath, on the semi-natural grassland, the area that is subject to successional change. The best outcome is that the plan to control invasive scrub is put into effect. Butterfly Conservation Ireland will press for the management plan to be implemented.

It should be reiterated that clean energy, such as solar energy, is welcome as part of the response to reduce carbon emissions. The Drehid site is very large and an area that has very poor habitat could have been selected by the applicants, a point Butterfly Conservation Ireland made in our objection in January 2019. In fact, however, it would be much better to avoid peatland sites altogether. We hope this lesson will be heeded for any future application.

Climate Change? Let’s worry about Habitat Loss

The phrase “climate change” is inescapable right now. I heard the phrase used in the budget speech in the Dáil. I heard the term in a House of Commons debate on Tuesday 8th October.  It is used everywhere, on TV, radio, online. It is used in school textbooks so everyone, young and old, is familiar with it. It has fired campaigning zeal especially from the young. Concern about climate change is not new. In The Great Gatsby, the American novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald published in 1926, Tom Buchanan expresses his confused view of climate change:

“I read somewhere that the sun’s getting hotter every year,” said Tom genially. “It seems pretty soon the earth’s going to fall into the sun-or wait a minute-it’s just the opposite-the sun’s getting colder every year”.

Tom does not comment on anthropomorphic climate change, the subject of most of today’s climate discourse but his remarks show an awareness of climate change.

Climate change is ‘normal’. It has occurred throughout history and pre-history. The nineteenth-century saw some very curious weather patterns in these islands. We had damp, warm weather in the second half of the 1840s, good weather for the most part from 1850-1877 and mainly colder conditions for most of the rest of the nineteenth century with the occasional warm, sunny summer (1893).

We have had some bitterly cold winters and even cold years. This most notably happened in the years 1739-1741 when bitterly cold weather killed an estimated 310,000-480,000 people out of an Irish population estimated at 2.4 million. This killed up to 20% of the Irish population, a far higher percentage than those killed by The Great Famine 1845-1850. The seas froze, cattle and sheep died of the cold, crops failed. The frozen Shannon was crossed on horseback.

No cause has been identified for this remarkable climate event. Climate change expert Professor John Sweeney of the Irish Climate Analysis Research Unit (ICARUS) at Maynooth University said the cause of the catastrophic winter of 1740-41, often referred to as the mini Ice Age, remains a mystery.

Where does this leave us today? While I am not a climatologist, I feel that the current focus on climate change is probably somewhat misplaced. Butterfly and moth populations are often seen as indicators of climate change. Many species have very particular requirements that are easily upset by change. The immature stages are the most sensitive. The larval stage is the growth stage and without the correct conditions, larvae do not develop. Pupae formerly believed not to be particularly sensitive to damp have recently been demonstrated to suffer from prolonged exposure to rain in a number of British and Irish species.

However, in the most recent assessments of our butterfly and moth populations published by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Dublin in 2010 (butterflies) and 2016 (macro-moths) which assessed the conservation status of 30 butterflies and 501 macro-moths (the larger moth species) pointed mainly to habitat change as the cause of declines. Climate change is not mentioned in relation to the conservation status of any of the butterflies assessed.

Only three of the 501 moths were stated to be negatively affected now or predicted to be negatively affected in the future by climate change; these are Red Carpet (“Habitat loss is considered one of the main causes for this decline but it may also be impacted by climate change.”), Sandhill Rustic (“The moth occurs on undercliffs and upper beach so is threatened by habitat loss through factors such as erosion and in the long term by climate change”) and Northern Dart (“The upland habitat used is threatened by changing land use, overgrazing and climate change.”) However, in the case of these three species, habitat loss is also strongly implicated. While the conservation status of Lepidoptera species Ireland does not appear to be affected by climate change (except for three species), of course, this may not be the case elsewhere.

What is known for certain is that habitat has been lost and continues to be lost. Habitats can be lost arising from climate change (coastal erosion, for example)  but most of our habitat loss in this part of the world has been the result of straight forward destruction by humans. This is by far the greatest threat to our butterfly and moth populations.

Habitat loss is a global crisis. This is the crisis that should be to the forefront of campaign activism. We have clear, undeniable evidence for habitat loss and its effects. The same cannot be said for certain aspects of climate change. Evidence for habitat loss in prehistory can be obtained from the fossil records, showing massive declines in tree pollen as humans cleared the land of woodland. We have little or no fully natural ancient woodland on this island. In the last 80 years, we have all but destroyed our precious, precious peatlands.

The source of high carbon emissions: the destruction of a raised bog releases carbon into the atmosphere. The burning of peat for fuel releases more carbon. The specialist plants and animals that rely on the habitat are wiped out. © J.Harding.

The impulse towards ravaging the few sad, degraded remnants remains virulent. Here is a recent example. Ballynafagh Bog, about 1 km west of Prosperous village in county Kildare was designated as a Special Area of Conservation under the EU Habitats’ Directive. This gives it legal protection. Looking at the bog, I find it hard to understand why this small, badly damaged site was designated as a protected site. Quite a lot of restoration work is needed given how badly damaged it is by burning, cutting (out of 160 hectares of the bog, 90 hectares has been cut) and afforestation. However, in the budget £5m was ringfenced to restore damaged peatlands. Good news for the climate, because bogs are carbon stores, good news for flood prevention because bogs hold massive quantities of water, good news for nature.

However, the government department that designated the bog, The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, applied to Kildare County Council to open a new turf cutting site on Coolree Bog which is part of Ballynafagh Bog but outside the boundary line of the protected/designated zone. Kildare County Council refused permission. Determined to proceed, The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht appealed the decision to An Board Pleanála. The Board also refused permission mainly on the grounds of carbon emissions. The Department wanted to relocate turf cutters from Ballynafagh Bog which the state must protect, to a ‘new’ bog.

Think of the logic. The state, supposedly worried about carbon emissions and climate change, have a strategy of reducing carbon emissions by allowing turf cutting which vastly increases carbon emissions. The state, under a legal obligation to protect and restore damaged peatlands, is using peat cutting as a conservation tool. The state, whose politicians just offered a budget to address carbon emissions, will continue to push turf cutting, which destroys bogs. The state published the Red List for Irish Butterflies which describes the threats faced by the Large Heath butterfly:

The Large Heath is confined to extensive blanket bogs and raised bogs and has lost much of its habitat due to drainage, afforestation, and peat extraction. The assessment of the overall status and future prospects of its habitats is poor… A population reduction is suspected to be met in the future (>30%) based on a decline in habitat quality…

The Large Heath is rated Vulnerable on the Red List. The next step up is Endangered, a rating likely if ongoing peatland destruction continues.


The Large Heath maintains a small population on an area of the cutover bog at Drehid North, County Kildare. A proposal to drain some of the bog may remove it altogether. © J. Harding.

In short, the state aims to reduce emissions by increasing emissions, to damage habitats and then repair them and to conserve habitats by destroying them. As for the state’s attitude to biodiversity on bogs, represented in this article by the demise of the Large Heath…

Perhaps we should be really worried about habitat destruction? Habitat removal brings climate change.  This applies to the destruction of bogs, forests,  natural and semi-natural grasslands and other habitat types. Such is the damage that has been and continues to be done to the habitats in our environment locally and globally that there is no catastrophising about habitat loss.

Allen, D., O’Donnell, M., Nelson, B., Tyner, A., Bond, K.G.M., Bryant, T., Crory, A., Mellon, C., O’Boyle, J., O’Donnell, E., Rolston, T., Sheppard, R., Strickland, P., Fitzpatrick, U., & Regan, E. (2016) Ireland Red List No. 9: Macro-moths (Lepidoptera). National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Dublin, Ireland.

O’Connell, C, Madigan, M and Farrell, P (2019) Peatland News Issue 68 Autumn 2019. Irish Peatland Conservation Council.
Regan, E.C., Nelson, B., Aldwell, B., Bertrand, C., Bond, K., Harding, J., Nash, D., Nixon, D., & Wilson, C.J. (2010) Ireland Red List No. 4 – Butterflies. National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Ireland.
Accessed: October 13th 2019
Author: Alison Bray
Date: December 30th 2010



October Fare

The fairly dramatic deluges and winds of the past two weeks have altered the landscape and butterfly scene, underlining the onset of autumn. Yesterday, Sunday, October 6th, provided a welcome break, with sunshine and light breezes.

A late Small Tortoiseshell basking in a sheltered, south-facing nook. © J.Harding.

In October one must look more assiduously for butterflies, peering at shadows cast by a high-flying insect or shading eyes against sharp autumn light to check clusters of blackberries and ivy blossom for feeding moths and butterflies.

Indeed, Ivy is a very useful plant for moths, butterflies and many other creatures. At this stage many ivy plants are in full bloom, their yellowish-green inflorescence packed with nectar. At night it is a favourite with moths; in daylight, these same moths often roost in its dense, evergreen foliage. For anyone with patience, it is often well worth checking ivy draped over a wall that had Holly Blue butterflies flying around it in August and September. Check the stalk of the flowers for slug-shaped Holly Blue caterpillars. These are feeding on the developing berry, their heads deep within the oval cup, scooping out its goodness.

Common Ivy is an excellent plant for wildlife if allowed to flower. Clip it back, if you need to, in February but try to leave some areas uncut. © J.Harding.

While the clouds of Painted Ladies are gone, the scarlet and black Red Admiral is still about, feeding on wounded blackberries and ivy and, if it can find it, a tree leaking sap. I saw a few of these handsome butterflies yesterday but these are easily disturbed at this time of year, often flying into tree-tops when you approach one that is lower down on bramble.

Comma butterflies, still rare or absent in most areas, are nomadic in autumn and can turn up anywhere that nectar exists near woods, dense hedgerows or groves of trees. I was lucky to see one yesterday, perching briefly on a now bedraggled buddleia before gliding casually off to hide in tall willow. The Comma will sit still at other times, especially on fallen fruit or Ice Plant flowers, giving wonderful views of its deep orange-red upper surfaces and deeply scalloped wing margins.

Comma,  high up on Buddleia at Louisa Bridge, County Kildare. © J. Harding.

Finally, even though most butterflies have finished flying, their caterpillars can be searched for quite profitably in areas that were heavily frequented by the adults. With this in mind, I checked Common Sorrel leaves where I had seen Small Coppers loitering in early September. After finding hatched eggs on the upper sides of some leaves, I checked the undersides and soon found some young, first instar larvae. These will feed for a time before over-wintering deep in the grassy vegetation before resuming feeding in spring.

Small Copper larva, first instar, on the underside of a Common Sorrel leaf, County Meath. © J. Harding.

There are some lovely moths too, especially for moth trappers who leave their light traps out in good habitat on mild nights. Beaded Chestnut, with its rich wood-coloured wings, is really abundant in early October and if you are fortunate, a Merveille du Jour may turn up to brighten any October morning when you go out to inspect your catch.

Beaded Chestnut on an oak leaf. © J.Harding.

Keep on looking-autumn, the “season of mist and mellow fruitfulness” has much to offer and if one has to look harder to find it, the discoveries are all the sweeter.

Merveille du Jour moth, an autumn flyer and a favourite for moth lovers. You may have this in your garden if you have native oak trees. © J.Harding.


September 2019: Good for Butterflies

September 2019 has seen some beautiful weather allowing butterflies to remain active. As I write on September 21st, Painted Lady butterflies are numerous in flower-rich areas feeding prior to their departure southwards. The continued presence in the Painted Lady is most likely due to the large-scale successive migration events and breeding, leading to a succession of Irish-born Painted Lady butterflies.

After days of concentrated feeding, Painted Ladies leave Ireland. I observed a Painted Lady at Lullybeg on September 20th engage in behaviour that I had never seen before. It had been taking nectar on Devil’s-bit Scabious in a broad sheltered track during sunny, breezy conditions with the temperature at around 21 Celsius. Quite suddenly, it flew vertically upwards at speed climbing until it disappeared from view. This may have been a migration event. Research in Britain in 2009 found that not only does the Painted Lady fly southwards from Britain and Ireland to Europe in autumn, it also migrates at altitude.

It is this high-altitude flight, out of sight of observers that for so long convinced scientists that the entire British and Irish Painted Lady populations merely died off when cold conditions (temperatures below 6 Celsius) arrived in autumn. (Incidentally, the butterfly does not die at 5 or 4 Celsius.) The behaviour I saw at Lullybeg is certainly consistent with the high altitude migration method discovered by Rebecca Nesbit at Rothamsted Research in 2009.

September has thrown up some nice surprises. Butterfly Conservation Ireland member Pat Bell has had two Comma butterflies in his lovely garden in Maynooth, in County Kildare, where the figs he grows have drawn these remarkable butterflies to stay for several days. A stunning newly emerged Comma was observed on Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s reserve at Lullybeg, County Kildare, taking nectar on Devil’s-bit Scabious. This is the first time Commas have been observed on the reserve, bringing the number of butterfly species recorded there over the past three years to 24 species. Tantalisingly, two additional species, the Holly Blue and Clouded Yellow have been seen very close to the reserve.

Clouded Yellows are being seen now-both in coastal areas (see Myrtle Parker’s records for the Cork coast for September 17th) and inland-two were seen in Lullymore on September 20th. Keep a close watch for this beautiful fast-flying and striking butterfly.

The Red Admiral, another migrant, is now appearing in good numbers. It has been greatly outnumbered by Painted Ladies this year; usually, it is the Red Admiral that is the most numerous migrant. The specimens I saw yesterday were in perfect condition, clearly just hatched. Like its more numerous relative, the Painted Lady, Red Admirals will move southwards soon.

Small Tortoiseshells are feeding eagerly too but they have other plans. They are residents; they will stick it out over our long, dull winter in its dry hibernation quarters until better times arrive in spring when it will emerge to breed. The vast bulk of the Peacock population is already in hibernation, with only the occasional individual still feeding. The Brimstone, a member of the white family of butterflies is likewise undercover now with just a small number still feeding. I saw just one, a male, on Friday, and this one fed only skittishly and abruptly roosted at 2:44 pm, in glorious sunshine.

The lovely weather of the past week, borrowed from summer, is now over. The final week of September is set to be unsettled, with rain and wind. We will most likely be saying farewell to most of our 2019 butterflies.

Now onto our autumn moths. We have some autumn moths with soft or muted ‘autumn’ colours. The Pink-barred Sallow is somewhat gaudier but its colours are soft, in tandem with the gentler and sombre colours of the autumn season. Many of these species breed on trees and some of these species are busy mating and egg-laying. Some are feeding up for winter. Like the over-wintering butterfly species, these will breed in spring.

Some moths will do so without males-the female Red-green Carpet moth will mate in autumn and hibernate until warmer weather arrives when it will lay eggs on oak, Common Blackthorn, Rowan and other trees.  Male Red-green Carpets die in autumn.  The Black Rustic moth looks a little sinister, rather like a cloaked grim-reaper figure. This moth breeds on Tufted Hair-grass, heathers and clovers. The Beaded Chestnut has an autumn leaf colour. Its larva feeds on herbaceous plants and when older it tackled Common Hawthorn and other trees. This species is numerous in wild gardens.

Autumn is a busy time for butterflies and moths. Keep an eye on flowering ivy over the coming weeks for late butterflies and moths.  Please do not trim ivy in autumn or winter- it feeds and shelters many species. Trim it back in spring, if necessary. When cutting tall grassland vegetation in the garden, leave some patches for over-wintering insects. Finally, take care when bringing turf or logs indoors to burn over the coming weeks because butterflies often conceal themselves withing log and turf stores to pass the winter. Place any butterfly in a cool, dry space to pass the colder months in safety. Release the butterfly in spring when you see butterflies in the wild. This will typically happen later in March during warm, sunny weather.

A pristine Red Admiral. © J.Harding.
Small Tortoiseshell feeding before going into hibernation. © J. Harding.
Male Clouded Yellow on Common Knapweed at Lullymore, County Kildare. © J.Harding.
This male Brimstone roosted shortly after feeding on this Devil’s-bit Scabious bloom. © J.Harding.
Pink-barred Sallow. © J. Harding.
Black Rustic. © J.Harding.
Beaded Chestnut. © J. Harding.





Hedge Brown butterfly on the brink of Extinction

During the glorious July of 2006, on our way to a family holiday in England, we stopped off at The Raven, in County Wexford. We were going to catch the ferry to Wales but had a day to spare so we headed to the beach. With a wife and three young children safely stowed on the lovely sandy shore, I slipped through the dunes into Ravenwood, a nature reserve and Special Area of Conservation which runs parallel to the dunes for around 8 km.

I was in my natural habitat now, with butterflies everywhere. The brightly-lit open wood with lovely, low-growing flowering bramble attracted many butterflies, especially our most striking Satyrid, the Hedge Brown, known to many as the Gatekeeper. This quiet but striking little butterfly is about the same size as the Ringlet. It is richly orange on its upper sides and basks to show off its warm colour, affording good but often brief views of its attractive wings. Its underside looks similar to that of the Meadow Brown. It is a restless butterfly, rarely perching for long. The adult is very dependent on sunshine for activity, settling very swiftly when direct sunshine is interrupted.

As far back as the records for the species go, it has, it appears, always been restricted to the south and south-east.  It is currently known from four counties: Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Kerry. In these counties, it is usually found in warm areas near the coast.  The mild springs seem to be important for the larva. The increasing temperatures over the last few decades would seem to favour the northwards expansion of the butterfly but it has not expanded its range in Ireland. By contrast,  its range in Britain has expanded northwards since the 1970s, during the 1980s and 1990s but since then it has declined in abundance there. Indeed in Britain, it is faring particularly badly, with a statistically significant 10 year and long-term abundance declines of 44% and 41% respectively.  Despite this serious decline in numbers there, it remains a widespread butterfly in England and Wales. In Ireland, it remains highly restricted in its range and there are signs that this butterfly is suffering a serious decline in both its abundance and range here.

Let me take you back to July 2006. Rambling along the brightly-lit woodland paths, Hedge Browns flitted from bloom to bloom, their orange colouring a sweet companion to the faintly frothy, delicate pink of the bramble petals. There were dozens of this butterfly and all seemed right with it then. Further north, at Old Bawn, south of Cahore, the species was also abundant, bobbing in the open scrubby, brassy dunes, mainly along the tracks.

That was then. In my recent visits to Cahore, I failed to find any, although the weather was not particularly good when I searched for it. More alarming, however, is the status of the butterfly in The Raven. In recent years I struggled to see it. In July 2017 I saw just five despite a lengthy search. Mary Foley of the Wexford Naturalists’ Field Club has checked the records from the reserve and these make for grim reading. Three were seen on the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme transect on 16th July 2019 and one on 26th and one on 31st. In 2018 only two were seen – one on 26th July and one on 8th August. Mary had a look back at some old records and from 2007-2010 the average on the transect was 115 but had dropped to 49 for 2011-2014. The flight times recorded for these years went from early-mid July to last week of August. Mary reports that no one has reported the butterfly from Cahore. Furthermore, the butterfly has not been seen in Ballyteigue, County Wexford, another site.

We could now be looking at the extinction of the Hedge Brown in County Wexford.

One of the last Hedge Browns in Wexford? This photograph is of a female, taken at The Raven on July 25th, 2017. © J.Harding.


Gardening For Butterflies

“All butterflies must have a happy home” (Lionel G. Higgins (author of A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Britain & Europe) 1891-1985)

Today there is a heightened awareness of the dangers posed to the environment by human behaviour. The ways humans farm, travel, exploit fossil fuels and construct infrastructure are under scrutiny as global temperatures rise and polar ice shrinks. There is, it appears, scarcely a political party that does not express opinions (often vacuous virtue-signalling) on the state of the environment. Environmental causes make themselves known in our inboxes, twitter feeds, TV screens, digital and print publications. Academics have risen from obscurity to become prophets of environmental Armageddon. Teenage climate change activists have become household names.

The zeitgeist of the age is fear of an environmental meltdown. The Amazonian fires are a powerful metaphor for global warming and ecological catastrophe. European Union countries threatened to block a trade deal with four South American countries unless the Amazon fires are doused while those same European countries will encourage more rain forest removal because the production of beef and other food forms part of the deal. In the midst of all this noise, confusion and despair develop in many, fearful of the apparently inevitable nightmare of global ecological and biological collapse.

The solution offered here is small and anti-climactic given the global scale of the spoliation of Earth’s natural goodness. But it is real.

Look after your garden.

Make it a home for butterflies. This will automatically protect all wildlife residing in your domain. A network of unofficial nature reserves can be built offering connected safe habitats for you and your wildlife. Gardens can be created and actively managed for nature. This message has already been heard and heeded by some of you. Here’s what just some Butterfly Conservation Ireland members have done to create a happy home for butterflies.

Looking after butterflies, moths, bees, hoverflies and a range of other invertebrates does not require a large space. A cleverly designed typical suburban garden can work wonders for butterflies. Let us look at Michael Gray’s garden in Rathfarnham. Michael’s elegant planting creates a striking vista, very inviting for people and butterflies. He has curved his herbs and shrubs around a central gravelled area, abandoning a lawn altogether. This arrangement has a number of benefits.  No mowing is one. A small lawn is unlikely to be of great value to butterflies and moths. The gravel plays its part too, helping to provide warmth around the plants, encouraging insects to linger while in cooler weather butterflies use the gravel to bask on.

The inducements offered are chiefly nectar resources. Buddleia, a butterfly’s delight is provided in three corners of the garden while Catmint, an important plant for bees edges onto the decorative gravel. Various other butterfly-friendly flowers edge the gravel too. Michael’s garden has so much nectar that some butterflies will stay there for days, drawing in the nectar needed for the next phase of their life’s journey.

Michael has not neglected larval foodplants. In the far right is a well-developed Alder Buckthorn tree, a small and rare native species that fits well. Holly Blue butterflies readily breed on the flowers and developing berries and fresh leaves while bees are obsessed with the flowers. Later, Robins will polish off the ripe berries. In the bottom left of the photograph, you will see nasturtiums, great for the caterpillars of the Large and Small White butterflies, while elsewhere his Borage, another great draw for bees, is used by his Painted Lady caterpillars. Michael also grows Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Kidney Vetch, Lady’s Smock and Common Sorrel which are all foodplants for butterflies. He even persuaded a neighbour to allow Common Ivy to grow up the wall (see wall to the left). The result? Holly Blue butterflies now breed on the plant!

Michael’s garden in Rathfarnham, Dublin. © M.Gray.

Some gardeners have the luxury and challenge, of a larger space. Marilyn Farrell, who lives in rural Kerry is looking after a large garden. Here, in her words, is what Marilyn and her husband have done.

“My husband and I bought our two-storey traditional farmhouse in 1996.  It had been abandoned and was not liveable then.  We also didn’t know until shortly before signing the contract that we got three small fields with the house!  A dairy farmer neighbour was using the fields for his cows so we let him continue to do so.

When we moved here permanently in 2003 after the house had been rehabbed, I planned as a retired person to just garden the area around the house.  However, I can’t seem to stop planting, so now, there is only one field left for cows!

Mini-Woodland in Marilyn’s garden.© M. Farrell.

So now, without the use of chemicals, my husband and I have our own vegetables all summer, we have hedges everywhere as we are very near the ocean and the winds do howl, we have planted a mini-forest consisting of native trees (and have persuaded our sceptical neighbours to plant trees as well). I dug a small pond that produces many frogs each year, we have flowers year-round, many of which are wildflowers growing with the domestic ones, we are in the process of making a part of the forest field into a native wildflower meadow, and the entire property is bordered with wild, freely growing hedgerows full of nettle, blackberries dog roses, and other plants for butterfly larva.  And the ”grassy” areas are more clover and wildflowers than grass.

Marilyn’s greenhouse border is especially eye-catching. The Sea Pinks Armeria maritima is a native plant and loved by bees, while Marilyn’s Buddleia and Ice Plant Sedum spectabile are very popular with butterflies.

Bee favourites: Sea Pinks, Forget-me-nots and Columbines in Marilyn’s garden. © M. Farrell.

Another interesting garden, one I have had the pleasure to visit is Lesley Whiteside’s near Mullingar in Westmeath. Lesley noticed an orchid on her front lawn so avoided mowing. Soon there were dozens, mainly Common Spotted Orchids but also Pyramidal Orchids and Common Twayblades. Orchids are sensitive, fussy plants that need very ‘clean’ soil. The soil must remain free of added chemicals if orchids are to survive.

Orchid lawn-a very rare sight in modern gardens. © W. Whiteside.

Here Lesley reports on her garden’s story

“My garden is almost an acre. When we moved in, there were Leylandii hedges on three sides, lawn, a border and three or four trees. The first autumn, I planted a native oak, birch, fruit trees and started a vegetable and soft fruit garden. Next, I took out the two hedges which belonged to me and began developing borders planted with shrubs, bulbs, grasses and herbaceous perennials closely related to native wildflowers, such as Achillea (related to Yarrow). Wanting to garden for biodiversity, I have provided plants all year round for pollinators, such as Sarcococca in winter, Pulmonaria in spring, Lavender and Marjoram in summer and Asters in autumn.

A close view of wildflowers-Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Self-heal and Red Clover in Lesley’s meadow. © L.Whiteside.

During our first summer, I noticed wild orchids popping up in the gravel and decided to allow the lawn to grow as a wild meadow, only cutting a strip around the outside and in strategic places along the way. Nothing has been added. It has been a great success, so each summer butterflies and moths visit an ever-growing variety of flowers and grasses. We trap moths from March to October and always bear in mind their particular needs. I added a wildlife pond two years ago. In August, Painted Lady, Peacock and Red Admiral butterflies flit between Marjoram, Monarda and Eupatorium as well as the Common Knapweed in the meadow. Willowherbs have only recently begun to spread locally, so having Fuchsia in the garden supports the spectacular Elephant Hawk-moth which is appropriately pink. Likewise, there isn’t an abundance of Honeysuckle locally, so having some in the garden attracts the Ypsolopha dentella moth”.

This Elephant Hawkmoth was found in Lesley’s garden. © L. Whitehouse.

A work in progress, Lesley’s garden will draw in more species as it matures.

Another Westmeath garden is Jennifer Strevens’ large and fascinating garden a short stroll from the eastern shore of Lough Ree. I visited on a lovely sunny day in late August and could easily have stayed all day. Jennifer has about two acres of assorted borders of flowers, lots of shrubs and ornamental trees, a kitchen garden, greenhouse and tunnel and an orchard of about 80 assorted fruit trees and a deciduous forestry plantation of 60 hectares. Jennifer spoke to me about the land: “The property runs down to Lough Ree and I have about a kilometre of lakeshore. There are many wildflowers and no fertilisers or sprays whatsoever have been used on any part of the property in 20 years since we sold our dairy herd and planted a largely deciduous plantation. Apart from butterflies, there is a wealth of other wildlife from Red Squirrels to Pine Martens, Badgers and lots of birds from Ravens to Herons, owls, Common Buzzards, harriers and even the occasional eagle!  There are nine bat boxes and a very large and varied nursing colony of bats”.

One view of Jennifer’s butterfly-rich orchard.© J.Harding.

The orchard is particularly interesting and valuable. The trees grow in a grassy meadow. Many are from Seed Savers, an organisation that seeks to preserve older varieties of fruit tree. There are a number of plum trees, apple trees, Medlar trees among others, including a Kiwi trained against a wall! The orchard has large nettle clumps growing in ideal places for breeding by Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma and Peacock butterflies as well as Burnished Brass moths. The lush grasses are perfect for Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown and Ringlets. The garden was awash with Red Admiral, Peacock and Speckled Woods on the day of my visit-mostly taking juices from apple (Speckled Wood) and plum (Red Admiral and Peacock). I was delighted to see Brimstone in the garden-I never saw wild Brimstones in an Irish garden before! Small Copper, the two “cabbage whites” and Small Tortoiseshell were also present-the whites breeding on brassicas in Jennifer’s kitchen garden.

Brimstone above and Peacock below in Jennifer’s garden. © J.Harding.

The land beyond the garden is wilder and mainly under native broadleaf tree cover. I thought Jennifer’s Sessile Oaks looked impressive-the elusive Purple Hairstreak might well be present in the lofty oak canopy! This area is not strictly part of the garden but is contiguous with it, blending easily with the garden around the house. But that part of the land is part of a wider story of managing a large area for nature which, wonderfully, is what Jennifer does.

Red Admiral resting on a plum tree in Jennifer’s garden. ©J.Harding.

My East Meath garden stands on about half an acre of ground. My philosophy is to use native plants to build habitats found in the wild. This means squeezing in a meadow, wetland, pond, woodland, scrub, hedge and limestone grassland so that the site is fairly diverse if somewhat over-planted. Despite the purist emphasis on native species, I have a couple of beeches, grown as part of the hedge, a cultivated apple, Buddleia and Verbena but all these species have a value. If growing non-natives please ensure these do not escape and invade the countryside where they can do great harm. I have most of the native Irish trees which I grew from seed. For example, I collected acorns from sources that are the most likely to hold an original stock of Irish oak to preserve the indigenous genetic identity of these plants.

My garden in early summer showing Kidney Vetch, Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil and Ox-Eye Daisy. © J. Harding.

My meadow is chiefly a summer and early autumn flowering grassland, chiefly reliant on Common Knapweed and Devil’s-bit Scabious for colour, pollen and nectar. The meadow is uncut from a date in May until a date in September, with mowing dates, decided according to the season. All cuttings are removed to the compost heap to maintain the low fertility needed to prevent dense grass growth. Sowing Yellow Rattle and Red Bartsia helps thin out the grasses too!  I have had over half of our native butterflies visit the garden and most of these have bred! It really enhances your chances of your butterflies breeding in your garden if, plant wise, you go native!

Some wild gardens are in their infancy. Building the garden and watching what turns up is really intriguing. Here Richella Duggan whose garden is in Mullingar talks about her experience.

“My garden isn’t very remarkable and has had very low numbers this year. I have Buddleia, Hebe, Cotoneaster, Common Holly, Alder Buckthorn and small amounts of nettles. Not much in the way of wildflowers but I do have Lesser Celandine and dandelions early in the year and later on lots of White Clover and self-heal. This autumn I’ll be sowing Common Knapweed, Yellow Rattle and Field Scabious so that I have some later-summer flowers next year. I get quite a few bees – Common Carder and Buff-tailed mostly but sometimes Red-tailed. I leave the grass long at the side of the house all summer and there is a Common Carder bumblebee nest in it for the first time this summer – which I was pleased with.”

A final garden to profile is Pat Bell’s remarkable plot in Maynooth, County Kildare. Pat has really pulled out the stops for butterflies in his back and front garden. Although compact, Pat makes incredible use of the space and gets big numbers in his garden. Native planting is the main framework of the garden, with natives like Gorse, Alder Buckthorn and Common Hawthorn forming hedging. The herb borders in the front garden combined with the Buddleia get lots of attention from a range of butterflies, including the Comma which is currently enjoying Pat’s hospitality. What is perhaps most striking is Pat’s ‘Butterfly Table’. Butterfly food is laid out on a marble-topped table and the butterflies and moths come to feed, in stunning numbers. Fig fruit, when ripe, is placed there and the colourful species, like the Comma and Red Admiral, sit happily feeding away. One can simply sit back and enjoy the antics-its like a bird table.

Red Admirals feast on figs on the Butterfly Table in Pat’s garden. © P.Bell.

What is happening to parts of the natural world beyond our gardens is shocking. We are often left feeling helpless even after we make ourselves feel a little better after signing an online petition. But as the gardens profiled here show you can make a real difference in your garden. If all of us grew native flowers, trees and shrubs in our gardens our butterflies, moths, dragonflies, bees are among the vast range of invertebrates that can be given a home. These in turn feed frogs, newts, birds, bats. A great enrichment will follow. Then we will want to extend these habitats into the green spaces in our estates, villages, towns and cities. These developments are already happening in some places but there is so much that can be done to return the land to nature. We urge you to adopt the approach of our members who have shared their garden stories with you.

A Small Copper can spend weeks in one garden. © J.Harding.

One of the really nice things about gardening like this is that you get to know your butterflies. Not only will you learn to identify the different species, but you will also observe their habits and manner. You will even get to know individual butterflies-some will stay in your garden for several weeks. A little idiosyncrasy or physical characteristic will help you recognise him or a her-a distinctive kink in a hindwing, a paler than usual hue, a little tear in a wing will aid recognition. You will follow his or her adventures over the days and weeks; you will find out which flower is his favourite, where he holds his territory, where his rival holds court; you will see battles between territorial species, some lengthy and ongoing. You may see courtship, mating, egg-laying. You might even find their caterpillars and eventually their pupae. Keep a notebook, take photos. Bond with your butterflies. These days, butterflies need us to be their friends.