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:


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

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.



Event Report Walk on Lullybeg Reserve 28th May 2022

The forecast of dry, sunny weather proved correct, and we had near-ideal conditions. We picked our way from the parking area at Lullymore West, turned south at the end of the track, and then west to Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s reserve at Lullybeg.

The event was really well supported and we had plenty of sharp-eyed observers to spot nature’s gems, such as an Eyed Ladybird, Azure Damselflies, Hairy Dragonflies, and a newly hatched Buff-tip moth, all on the track that borders the Irish Peatland Conservation Council reserve at Lullymore.

The track runs east-west and the vegetation bordering the wood edge that shelters the track from the north faces south, providing ideal temperatures for viewing invertebrates from April to October. The track consists of calcareous material, adding another dimension to the plant and invertebrate suite.  The ecotone, the transitional zone between two or more habitats, in this case between woodland and grassland, also adds to the riches one enjoys along this track.

The wet grassland and poor fen with scattered scrub that awaits at the end of the track is the perfect habitat for butterflies and moths that find the resources they need here, and we quickly spotted Marsh Fritillaries dashing after each other, males spiraling in tightening circles as they battled for the right to their patch but in mitigation, Marsh Fritillaries are much less jealous of their domain than Small Coppers or Speckled Woods.

So abundant are they in the general area this year that we encountered them continually from the track end to the reserve for over a kilometre. The corridor linking Lullymore and Lullybeg is notable for its wet and dry heath, and its ample supply of our two native buckthorns, now holding Brimstone eggs and caterpillars. Caterpillars of various stages were spotted, occupying their classic linear posting along the leaf mid-rib, raising the upper part of their body off the surface at our merest touch. Faded and worn adults still flapped fragilely around the plants, still depositing their eggs.

The reserve has seen significant management applied during the winter so we were eager to see the results. We were pleased to see large clumps of unshaded and partly shaded Common Dog-violet, so we hope to see Dark Green Fritillaries flying on the reserve in late June. Dingy Skipper, Small Copper and Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoths were spotted, the latter sitting for numerous photographs. This bee mimic never fails to amaze butterfly lovers, and for good reasons. You have to see it to believe it!

The northern side yielded more individuals of the species encountered on the southern section, along with Common Blue, Burnet Companion, in plenty, and Mother Shipton moths.

By the time we retraced our steps, 11 butterfly species had been totted up, including a Green Hairstreak at the parking spot, a nice way to close our event.

A special thanks to everyone for sharing your company, kindness, knowledge, and joy and for making the day special.

Butterfly list: Dingy Skipper, Brimstone, Large White, Small White, Green-veined White, Small Copper, Green Hairstreak, Common Blue, Marsh Fritillary, Speckled Wood, Small Heath.

The Marsh Fritillary is thriving on Lullybeg Reserve. Photo J. Harding.
Eyed Ladybird on nettle. Photo J. Harding.
Buff-tip. Photo J. Harding.
Misumena vatia, female and male (dark spider), predates on many insects, including bumblebees, moths and butterflies. Photo F. Parnell.
Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth. Photo F. Parnell.
Dingy Skipper. Photo F. Parnell.
Hairy Dragonfly. Photo F. Parnell.


Fahee North Butterfly Walk May 21, 2022

It seems wrong to start an event report with an ugly image of wanton ecological vandalism, but this scene pictured below, close to the Burren limestone near Gort, underscores in stark reality the brutality being meted out to our country, Europe and the planet. A more savage scene, of bulldozed limestone pavement near the Burren College of Art dragged my mood to a darker place. According to the Natural History Museum in London, out of all EU countries (including the UK) only Malta is worse in terms of biodiversity loss than Ireland.


This puts Ireland in the bottom 10% of countries globally in terms of biodiversity intactness. We have no natural habitats left, and our semi-natural habitats continue to suffer an onslaught. The greatest reason for biodiversity loss in Ireland is the change in land use, mostly for agriculture. Other drivers include climate change, pollution and invasive non-native species. The issues shown in this photograph are land-use change and pollution (increased carbon emissions).

Scrub, grassland and limestone were destroyed near Gort, County Galway.
View of Fahee North, County Clare, looking west from the Burren Perfumery. Idyllic vistas like this are declining in number, and many that are pictured require clever camera orientation to conceal habitat loss.

The Butterfly walk at Fahee North just north of the Burren Perfumery was eagerly anticipated. The walk, in outstanding and varied habitat in late spring, promised to yield so many species, including several rarities. But the weather was against us. Despite the forecast of sunny spells, it rained for much of the walk, although not heavily, which meant we saw no butterflies on the grassy area adjoining the road.

The habitat ingredients are all there and brightened by Early Purple Orchids. Added to this the site is managed for nature, with extensive cattle grazing and scrub control applied. But butterflies, especially spring species, are fussy about weather, and stubbornly remain out of sight during rain. Higher air temperatures in summer allow butterflies, notably the Dark Green Fritillary, Meadow Brown and Ringlet to fly in light rain, but in May butterflies refuse to do that.

We looked at various habitat features that favour butterflies, and we found Orange-tip eggs on Cuckoo Flower (we glimpsed a Cuckoo too!) growing at the edge of a stream, typically one egg per flowerhead.

We entered the limestone pavement (shattered type with some larger pavement) immediately west of the grassland and it was very interesting to note the change in temperature-the heat rising from the limestone juxtaposed with the cooler adjoining wet grassland. The cloud was thinning and finally, a Dingy Skipper darted into view. Everyone was impressed with this characterful butterfly, and we compared him with a male Common Heath moth, with both looking superficially similar on the wing.

I kept promising that any sun would yield a Pearl-bordered Fritillary, and flashes of yellow were reported, but no fritillary was confirmed.

Finally, there she was, in a really sheltered opening, fluttering low before alighting on a slab of warming stone. Netted and jarred, she was shown to her admirers. A major ‘tick’ for many in our band, some coming from Dublin to see their first Pearl-bordered Fritillary.

Then a snow-white female Wood White appeared, powdered white like an aristocratic lady from a Jane Austen novel. Her delicate, ponderous flight, gracefully slow motion, earned her praise.

Then a Dew Moth was caught and shown, its lovely deep yellow marked with black dots imbuing it with a taste of the exotic, and exotic it is, because this is a rare species in Ireland although happily not currently regarded as under threat, unlike the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, rated Endangered or the Near Threatened Wood White.

Abruptly, the walk ended as many of those attending were on their way to another walk elsewhere as part of the Burren in Bloom Festival. But everyone left happy, as the weather gave us just a glimpse of the glories of the Burren.

Glories like the butterflies and habitats shown in this post must be treasured. Beautiful, rare butterflies like the Pearl-bordered Fritillary cling on to their limestone habitats and are not found elsewhere in Ireland. Once destroyed, the habitat and butterfly are gone forever.

Our count of enchanted objects must diminish no further.

Brimstone caterpillar on Purging Buckthorn, Fahee North, County Clare. The caterpillar, in its first instar, is near the leaf stalk. J. Harding
A Pearl-bordered Fritillary rests on a hazel leaf. The butterflies seem to materialize by magic when the sun shines.J. Harding
Pearl-bordered Fritillary male basking on limestone during a cloudy interval. J. Harding
Wood White male on Herb Robert, Fahee North, County Clare. J. Harding
Dew Moth, Fahee North, County Clare. J. Harding
Transparent Burnet Moth, near Lough Bunny, County Clare. J. Harding

Thanks to all who attended the walk, and a special thanks to Pranjali from the Burrenbeo Trust, who helped to organize this event, a collaboration between Butterfly Conservation Ireland and Burrenbeo Trust.





May Moths

Below is a sample of the moths flying in May. All are nocturnal, as are 95% of our moths, except for the final moth, the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth, a day-flying bee mimic. We have over 1500 moth species in Ireland. Here are just a few.

Common Swift. This moth’s caterpillar feeds on the roots of grasses and other wild and cultivated plants.
Rustic Shoulder-knot. The larva feeds above ground on grass leaves, such as on Cock’s-foot Grass.
Broken-barred Carpet. This moth breeds on native trees including Common Hawthorn, Downy Birch and Pedunculate Oak. 
Pale Tussock moth. This species is better known for its funky, punk-rock larva.
Muslin Moth. The Irish form is cream-coloured, and the form in Britain is brown.
Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth. This moth flies and buzzes, like a bee.


Spring Scenes

The photographs that follow were taken this spring and show what is available right now. Get out and enjoy our wildlife!

The Purple Hairstreak caterpillars are busy feeding on fresh oak leaves and oak catkins, before the tree manages to pump tannin into the leaves, making them unpalatable. The availability of nitrogen is highest in oak leaves in spring, which is a further factor for early feeding by the caterpillars of the Brown Hairstreak, Winter Moth and Brindled Green Moth, among others.
This female Orange-tip has perched on the flowerhead of Cow Parsley, a favourite resting place. Her mossy undersides blend seamlessly with the frothy green and white mass, making her surprisingly hard to find. This butterfly will feed on Common Dandelion and other spring flowers but will lay her eggs on various crucifers, especially Cuckoo Flower. However, this female will not find it easy to find Cuckoo Flowers locally, as many of her fields have been sprayed with herbicide.
A male Orange-tip, showing why the butterfly is so-called. He is one of our most attractive spring butterflies, bringing the purest of delights as one sees his burning orange tips contrasted with the ice-white of the basal area of his forewing uppersides. He will be seen patrolling hedgerows from April to early July in search of a mate.
This newly emerged female Holly Blue is basking with opened wings during weak sunlight. Unfortunately, her uppersides are rarely seen in bright light, when they look exquisite, gleaming a deeper lilac-blue rather than powder blue as seen here. She will soon be scouring hedges for female Common Holly, which she uses as a key breeding plant, laying her eggs singly on embryonic berries.
This male Speckled Wood is basking on a Hogweed leaf. When warm enough, the male will patrol his territory, ejecting other males and pursuing females.
A female Brimstone laying on Alder Buckthorn. She is laying on a stem near the base of an unfurled leaf.
Here is a female Smooth Newt, busy breeding in weedy ponds on neutral and base-rich soils. She lays her eggs singly, inserting them into vegetation and securing them by glueing the aquatic vegetation around the soft, edible egg for protection.
Unimproved grassland on mildly alkaline/neutral soil, showing mass flowering of nectar-rich Common Dandelions, a favourite for all spring butterflies and bees.
Early Bumblebee on Common Dandelion. This bee will nest in old bird’s nests and rodent burrows. She has one yellow band on the thorax, one yellow band on the front of her abdomen and a reddish tip on her abdomen.
A Wall Brown pupa on fescue grass. This endangered butterfly has two or three generations each year, with the first emerging from April to June, arising from caterpillars that developed over the winter and earlier in spring. This pupa is about one month old. Shortly before the butterfly emerges, the wing colours can be seen through the wing cases.
This tiny Small Copper butterfly has just hatched and is holding his territory that extends from a farm gate, along a hedge to the corner of the field about 30 metres away. He hopes that a female will fly into his patch, attracted by the warm, sheltered conditions and nectar sources.

All photographs copyright J. Harding.




Butterflies of Siena

The Italian region of Tuscany is known for its high culture, history and landscapes. The birthplace of the Renaissance, Tuscany boasts great artistic masterpieces such as Florence Cathedral, perhaps most renowned for Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome, its bronze baptistry doors and frescoes, Michelangelo’s statue of the biblical David (Florence) that slew Goliath (France), Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus, the Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci. Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa with its magnificent cathedral and tower are more icons of the great age of art while the gentle rolling hills with vineyards, olive groves and hilltop woods, towering Apennine mountains and plains are pleasing to the eye. The cuisine is another feature of interest, being simple yet satisfying. Legumes, bread, cheese, vegetables, mushrooms, and fresh fruit are used. Wild Boar is a staple on menus.

Florence Cathedral.

Life seems easy there, and little wonder why. There are four seasons, and while the summer months are hot, autumn and spring temperatures are mild-warm. It rains, sometimes heavily, but summer is generally dry. November is the wettest month, but rainy periods occur in spring. Overall, the temperatures outside the summer months are not extreme, making for a pleasant experience.

The environs of Siena in April 2022. This photograph was taken at the edge of the city.

I visited the university town, Siena, twice, in September 2021 and April 2022, with similar maximum daytime temperatures in these months. A walled redbrick Medieval city, in the south of Tuscany, Siena is known for its enormous square, the Piazzo del Campo, with its showpiece town hall, The Palazzo Pubblico, much of it built between 1297 and 1310, and its steep narrow streets, for this city is constructed on three hills. The city is without the despoilation wrought by cheap contemporary architecture. Despite the dominance of clay brick and travertine stone, the city contains relieving green spaces and is compact, not sprawling, with greenery beyond the walls easily reached on foot.

The Palazzo Pubblico, in the Piazza del Campo, Siena.

On arrival on April 12th, I began to search for the best habitats, hoping to see butterflies new to me. As April is quite early for butterflies and I was not looking in habitats of special character, I felt my chances of seeing rarities and species I had yet to see were limited.

Tuesday 12th was blue-skied and warm, so I checked a steep grassy embankment overlooking the heavily wooded valley in Siena that I searched last September. Back then, Wall Browns Lasiommata megera, Meadow Browns Maniola jurtina and Small Heaths Coenonympha pamphilus were present, and two of these were there in April-the odd one out being Meadow Brown, a single-brooded butterfly not yet in flight.

Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria aegeria, Siena.

These were joined by Brimstones Gonepteryx rhamni, Large Whites Pieris brassicae and Small Whites Artogoeia rapae, Orange-tips Anthocharis cardamines, Holly Blues Celestrina argiolus, Small Coppers Lycaena phlaeas, Speckled Woods Pararge aegeria and Common Swallowtails Papilio machaon (not present in Ireland). In Ireland, one does not see the Brimstone in built-up areas; indeed, I saw one in the Piazza della Signoria, the main square in Florence. The avoidance of built environments in Ireland extends to the Small Copper, Wall Brown, and Small Heath, all strictly countryside species here.

This grassy embankment in the town holds a range of species, including Common Swallowtail, Small Copper, Wall Brown, and Small Heath.
Common Swallowtail, first generation, Siena.

A closer look at the Brimstone and Small Copper confirmed the differences between the Irish race and their Italian conspecifics; the Irish Brimstone has larger underside blotches while the male is paler than his Italian cousin. The Irish Small Copper has grey, not beige underside colouring, and a redder hindwing band. Their Speckled Woods are strikingly different to ours: we have the subspecies tircis, with cream dappling on chocolate brown wings replaced with orange on aegeria, the colour form found in Siena and most of Europe.

Irish Small Copper. Note the grey undersides (hindwing and forewing apex and margin) and crimson band compared with the paler specimens from Siena below.
Small Coppers mating in Siena, female on the left.

Exiting the town via Porta Tufi or Tufi Gate, I quickly found patches of uncultivated land containing light woodland, scrub, hedges and open grassland, some of it containing colonies of the Green-winged Orchid Orchis morio, a rare plant in Ireland. Just a ten-minute walk from Siena, it felt like a world away. In addition to the butterflies already seen, I happily discovered more. In a grassy field dominated by buttercups, I found Green Hairstreak Callophry rubi, Sooty Copper Lycaena tityrus, Green-underside Glaucopsyche alexis, and Scarce Swallowtail Iphiclides podalirius.

Grassy field containing Scarce Swallowtail, Green-underside Blue, Sooty Copper…

A reminder of home, the Green Hairstreak was found in a habitat I have never seen it use in Ireland. It was flying in a grassy field, which was quite well vegetated but with fairly dry soil. In Ireland, it is strongly associated with wet places, especially bogs and wet heath. Unlike most Irish specimens, the example I saw had almost no white markings on its undersides.

Green Hairstreak, Siena.

The same small grassy field yielded two more gems; a Sooty Copper and a Green-underside Blue, neither of which I’d seen before. The Sooty Copper is around the same size as the Small Copper but rather darker on its uppersides. It behaves quite similarly too, and the one I saw was a female, and she posed often, making photographing her quite easy, although she perched with angled wings, like the Small Copper so a full image of outstretched wings is rarely possible.

Sooty Copper upperside, Siena.
Sooty Copper, underside, Siena.

The Green-underside Blue is one of the easiest continental blues to identify and as the photograph shows, it lives up to its vernacular name. A spring and early summer species, it is a delightful creature. I wish I managed a photograph of the uppersides, a deep blue in the male that is unforgettable.

Green-underside Blue, Siena.

Two lovely Scarce Swallowtails fluttered around high scrub before departing, not landing low for a photo! The spring generation usually feeds on tree blossom, as the nectar-rich grassland flora is not available to it in spring. But just to see these large, exotic butterflies fluttering delicately in the warming air brought pleasure!

An adjoining field with herb-rich vegetation added a female wood white (not identified at species level), Clouded Yellow Colias crocea, and Grizzled Skipper Pyrgus malvae (busy laying her eggs, singly, on the underneath of leaves of a potentilla species, possibly Creeping Cinquefoil Potentilla reptans). This was the first sighting of this dizzyingly difficult flyer for me. Its sharp chequered pattern adds to its dizzying flight pattern, making tracking it tricky. Later, I saw it in a park in the city, on similar grassy vegetation. This little spring butterfly, single-brooded or double brooded depending on locality and latitude, also occurs as a scarce butterfly in the south of England but it is not present in Ireland.

Grizzled Skipper female, Siena.

Nearby, another skipper, another first, the Mallow Skipper Carcharodus alceae. Larger, and much duller, this breeds on Mallow Malva sylvestris. Males have a strange habit of lowering their wings below their thorax and elevating their abdomens, in low light and low temperature. Captive males kept in darkness retain their bizarre-looking posture for hours.  The males I saw were not put in this situation and did not perch in any spot for long.

Mallow Skipper male, Siena.

Further out in the field while observing a male Common Blue Polyommatus icarus I spotted a fidgety copper butterfly looking for a place to lay her eggs. I was delighted to see another species for the first time, the Lesser Fiery Copper Lycaena thersamon. The butterfly is absent from most of Europe, being found in Italy and the Balkans. It breeds on a fairly common plant, Common Knotweed Polygonum aviculare. While she would not sit still, I managed a half-decent photo, enough to identify her!

Lesser Fiery Copper, Siena.

While chasing her up the steep slope a Clouded Yellow crossed my path, one of several I saw including some seen from the train window on route to Siena, along with the occasional Geranium Bronze Cacyreus marshalli, a curious little butterfly now established in southern Europe from South Africa. It is described as a “pest on Pelargonium cultivars” but it rarely if ever destroys these ornamental plants. The walk back to the city yielded a fleeting glimpse of a male Cleopatra Gonepteryx cleopatra, a Brimstone with a deep orange splash on the forewing upperside. Alas, he did not pause for a photo!

A female Brimstone on a Green-winged Orchid.

This April, I recorded 23 butterfly species in and around Siena. The area is not known for its biodiversity but to a person from Ireland or Britain, it offers plenty of excitement. Interestingly, the city is divided into contradas, or districts, each with a symbol. One contrade is named Bruco, the caterpillar. Its insignia is a rather aggressive green caterpillar on a rose. While the origin of the name is unclear, Bruco’s residents worked in the silk trade, offering a likely background to the title. The contrada is famous for leading a rebellion in 1371, to overthrow the Sienese council and establish a people’s government. This great change alludes, fancifully at least, to a caterpillar’s metamorphosis via the chrysalis, a symbol of change.

Hopefully, the presence of butterflies in and around Siena will continue, a feature that adds to the charm of the area for the travelling naturalist.

The Small Heath is abundant in Siena, and flies in at least two generations, while in Ireland it has one brood.

All photographs © J. Harding

Conservation of Butterflies Across the European Union

Europe’s butterflies are in crisis, especially populations in Northern Europe, and especially grassland butterflies. There has been a 75% decline in insect biomass in reserves in western Germany over 27 years Hallman et al. (2017). In northern Germany, the populations of Marsh Fritillary are being supported by importing caterpillars from Denmark.  Denmark has lost the Swallowtail Papilio machaon. The declines are not confined to northern Europe. According to Laszio Rakosy, a Romanian expert, the Apollo Parnassius apollo has been lost from the Romanian Carpathians over the past 25 years. Malta has, it seems, lost the Brown Argus Aricia agestis and Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas and may lose their endemic Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina hyperhispulla.

Apollo upperside and underside. It is a montane species that is declining in many areas. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies the Apollo as ‘near threatened’ in Austria. In other countries, it is critically endangered (e.g. in Poland), or extinct (e.g. in the Czech Republic). Photo Michael Friel

The EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 offers some hope for habitats in the EU. Member states must send in pledges to the European Commission to protect 30% of the land and sea area of the EU. Protected Area Pledges are needed to contribute to EU level targets for well-managed and protected areas across 30% of EU land. The situation across the EU for grassland butterflies is deteriorating. In the Article 17 Reports 2013-2018, the conservation status of the various grassland types protected under the Habitats’ Directive, such as calcareous grassland, Nardus grassland, Molinia grassland, lowland and upland hay meadows was recorded as unfavourable in most regions.

What are Article 17 Reports?

Article 11 of the Habitats Directive 1992 requires EU member states to monitor the habitats and species listed in the annexes (habitats in Annex I and species in Annexes II, IV and V of the Habitats’ Directive), and Article 17 requires a report to be sent to the European Commission every 6 years following an agreed format. The core of the ‘Article 17’ report is the assessment of the conservation status of the habitats and species targeted by the directive.

Article 17 reporting covers the habitats and species in the whole territory of the Member State concerned, not only those within Natura 2000 sites.

Conservation status is assessed using a standard methodology as being either ‘favourable’, ‘unfavourable-inadequate’ and ‘unfavourable-bad’, based on four parameters as defined in Article I of the Directive. The parameters for habitats are range, area, structure and functions, and future prospects. For species, the parameters are range, population, habitat of species and future prospects. The conservation status of each habitat and species is assessed separately for each biogeographical or marine region in which it occurs (

Why is Action Needed?

The main problem lies with the condition of habitats. The prevalence of threats to grasslands described in the Article 17 reports show that abandonment of grassland management (no grazing or cutting of vegetation) is the chief threat, with 385 mentions in the reports. The second most prevalent is mowing or cutting of grasslands at 254 mentions, followed by overgrazing (240), natural succession resulting in change in the species present (148), use of chemicals to protect certain agricultural plants (111), afforestation (110), conversion from one type of farming use to another (87), conversion from other land uses to housing, settlement and recreational use (78), use of synthetic fertiliser on farmland (76), collection of wild plants and animals (72) and conversion to other forest types including monocultures (70). This information is derived from EU member state reports, so the causes of decline and the improvement steps needed are known. This needs to start in protected areas and in the new protected areas.

Solutions to be tailored to Species’ Habits

Simona Bonelli, from the University of Turin, believes that butterfly experts across the continent have the data and scientific knowledge to identify new areas that require protection under the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 which aims to protect 30% of the land area of the EU. Often the current protected areas are too small, and not well managed. Such distribution data and knowledge of the needs of specialised butterflies (specialised butterflies are those with highly specific habitat needs) can be applied to expand protected areas for species like the Scarce Large Blue Phengaris teleius in northern Italy.

What about species that move in a landscape, such as the Southern Swallowtail Papilio alexanor, which is expected to move due to climate change? Bonelli suggests mapping likely future habitat and stepping stones likely to be used to reach this future habitat to ensure these areas are safeguarded.

For protected habitat specialist butterflies such as the Apollo Parnassius apollo that is currently well distributed in alpine areas in Italy, the approach being used is to calculate the Favourable Reference Value for the population to judge how many sites must be placed under protection. To calculate Favourable Reference Value, required viable population size or species-specific or habitat type-specific features such as habitat suitability or required area for proper functioning are considered. Such an approach has been described to protect the Apollo in the Italian Alps (Bonelli et al. 2021).

For rare endemic species, such as Sardinian Chalkhill Blue Polyommatus gennargenti, specific action plans are needed to cover issues such as monitoring population size, high-resolution distribution data and management of protected areas.

A further approach that can be applied in Ireland is the umbrella approach. Some habitats regarded as priority habitats under the EU Habitats’ Directive such as semi-natural dry grasslands (EU Habitat Code 6210) are species-rich. By identifying areas of this habitat containing endangered butterflies protected under the EU Habitats’ Directive, such as the Marsh Fritillary, a case can be made for including such areas within the enlarged protected areas required under the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030. Protecting habitats for the Marsh Fritillary protects many other species, making the Marsh Fritillary an umbrella species.

For species that appear to have adequate protected areas but which are suffering from changes occurring in these areas, such as changing farming practices, we need to work to persuade farmers to adopt measures to protect the habitat. Beautiful, charismatic species like the Large Copper Lycaena dispar should be used to promote the protective practice, using funding from the CAP and other sources. Agricultural intensification is a great threat to this and many butterflies.

Large Copper, a beautiful species that can be used to publicise the need for conservation practices. Photo J. Harding.

The False Ringlet Coenonympha oedippus, a species in decline across the EU needs another approach. This species breeds in Molinia grasslands, and the larval foodplants are winter greens. The larva needs structured vegetation with leaf litter.  Populations are being lost from protected sites because of natural succession. Action plans need to be written with a clear management prescription.

Overall, Bonelli believes that management and monitoring (especially the use of citizen science), as well as protection from damaging activities are key to butterfly recovery. The approach she suggests is integrating the Butterfly Monitoring Scheme with specific guidelines for monitoring species listed in the Habitats’ Directive (in Ireland’s case, the Marsh Fritillary, currently under-monitored here). This approach requires working with citizen scientists and experts.


While Butterfly Conservation Ireland, the Irish Peatland Conservation Council and the National Biodiversity Data Centre monitor the Marsh Fritillary, we simply do not have enough transects (fixed-route walks carried out annually) to monitor this butterfly. A serious effort to apply the Favourable Reference Value to assess the Marsh Fritillary’s populations in important landscapes, like the Burren, Sheskinmore and Ballydermot in County Kildare, should be used by the state to increase the protected areas that Ireland needs to pledge to the EU by the end of 2022 to help to address the biodiversity crisis afflicting our world.

While the measures proposed by Simona Bonelli would be very welcome if applied these are not adequate to protect butterflies and biodiversity across the European landscape. Most of our landscapes will not be strictly protected and even strictly protected areas will not necessarily benefit from these measures in the absence of much wider changes in how society operates. Pollution is playing a major role in biodiversity loss. The harm caused by atmospheric nitrogen deposition, raised CO2 levels, is now being studied.

Of interest are the findings in a German study by Habel et al. (2015) entitled Butterfly community shifts over two centuries. This looked at the impact of atmospheric nitrogen loads and climate change over the period 1840-2013. The study found that high rates of atmospheric nitrogen deposition (from exhaust emissions, the burning of fossil fuels, wood, industrial incineration and the application of nitrate fertilisers) change nutrient-poor ecosystems, resulting in the replacement of plants in nutrient-poor habitats with plants that enjoy soils enriched with nitrogen. This results in butterflies that depend on nutrient-poor habitats, such as limestone grassland and heathland, disappearing, leaving a smaller number of butterfly and moth species that are adapted to plants containing high nitrogen levels.

The study further suggests that while habitat generalists (like the Peacock) have benefited from increasing temperatures, habitat specialists have been negatively affected by increasing temperatures and rainfall. These effects may be explained by increased vegetation growth rates triggered by the combination of increased moisture, temperature, and atmospheric nitrogen. Greatly increased vegetation growth may also explain the apparently paradoxical situation that heat-loving species are declining in response to increased temperatures. However, higher vegetation growth rates, fostered by the combination of increasing plant nutrients, precipitation, and higher temperatures may produce a cooler and more humid microclimate close to the soil. The environment just above the soil is of particular importance in the development of the larvae of many butterfly species, including the Small Heath and Wall Brown. Eeles (2019) reports elevated levels of carbon dioxide which increases larval development times as another possible reason for the decline in the Small Heath.

The Small Heath is a widespread butterfly across Europe and attention is mostly focused on much less widespread species that are judged to require special protection. However, the decline in widespread grassland butterflies should set the alarm ringing, the proverbial canary in the mine. Unless the drivers of climate change are tackled, no amount of site protection will save our biodiversity.

The full Butterfly Conservation Europe event held on 29th March 2022 to discuss butterfly conservation across the European Union can be accessed at


Eeles, P. (2019) Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies. Pisces Publications, Berkshire.

Bonelli, S.,  Barbero, F.,  Zampollo, A.,  Cerrato, C., Genovesi, P.,  La Morgia, V., (2021) Scaling-up targets for a threatened butterfly: A method to define Favourable Reference Values, Ecological Indicators, Volume 133, 2021, 108356, ISSN 1470-160X,

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,

Hallmann CA., Sorg M., Jongejans E., Siepel H., Hofland N., Schwan H., et al. (2017) More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0185809.