Heritage Weak

Heritage Week, with an emphasis on natural heritage concludes today. Whales, bugs, badgers, bees, butterflies, birds and a wonderful array of wild places in which these creatures have their homes were showcased and the weather for some of the week and much of the country was, at least, serviceable.

It is comforting to see wild creatures behaving as they should in their habitats but grave threats to these wild havens exist. Some are in serious peril.

Under the European Union Habitats’ Directive, prime sites in Ireland and throughout the European Union were selected and designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC’s). These areas are legally protected under national and European Union law. Landowners who wish to carry out specific actions, known as “notifiable actions” must obtain written consent from the Minister of the Environment. Permission is not usually given for actions that would damage a site, not to mention actions that lead to a site’s destruction. The body charged with the role of protecting these precious areas is The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), under the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

However, it appears that the National Parks and Wildlife Service is weakly led, ineffective and unresponsive. A site synopsis for each SAC is published on the NPWS website, and these do not inspire confidence that the will to act against destroyers of our heritage exists. Take the beautiful Killeglan grasslands in Roscommon, which lies around 9.5 km north of Ballinasloe alongside the R357.  This stunning example of limestone grassland is a mini-Burren, in Roscommon. When I encountered the site for the first time recently, I was mesmerised to find it; why is this gem unpublicised? There is no signage, no place name, nothing to indicate its special status. My feeling is that it should be celebrated as the “Roscommon Burren”, and a marked walking route and perhaps a small interpretive facility added to highlight its features, and the characteristics of other designated sites in the vicinity.

The glow of purples and deep pinks, the more muted colours of late summer are preceded here by a wealth of colour as this is a rich site for orchids, especially noted for the nationally rare Green-winged Orchid.  Unsurprisingly, it’s a wonderful butterfly site too, with a broad range of notable species, including Brimstone, Dingy Skipper, Silver-washed Fritillary, Dark Green Fritillary, Marsh Fritillary, Wall Brown and Grayling.

A closer look at the site and its surroundings provide evidence of threats to the site’s existence. Large-scale modification of the landscape has taken place around the site; a local resident showed me where habitat to the east of the R357 identical to the existing area was destroyed by bulldozers and importation of topsoil, which, to judge from images from googlemaps, took place in 2009.  Damage was done to the western edge of the site (whether this is within the SAC boundary is unclear) since 2008, when part of the field was leveled and stone was bulldozed into a  heap, piled up like debris from a slum clearance. Adding to my alarm was the fact that smaller stone on the unaffected area has been placed in piles scattered throughout the site. Is this a precursor to an all-out attack?

NPWS are aware of the threat. A sentence from the site synopsis on the NPWS website states:

The grasslands have been improved in the past and limestone boulders have
been cleared and placed in heaps scattered throughout the site. The site is divided into a number of small field systems that are defined by dry stone walls. Neighbouring lands have recently been cleared of boulders and shattered pavement, and have been re-seeded and heavily fertilised. Reclamation within the site would pose a significant threat to the conservation interest of the grassland.

Seeking clarification and concerned by what I saw, I attempted to contact staff assigned to the North Midlands Region. I rang all five phone numbers I obtained from the NPWS website; no response. Three of these numbers are clearly no longer in use. I then rang two mobile numbers I obtained from NPWS Head Office; no answer; left a message; still no response. I rang three further numbers on the website for another region; no response. Finally, phone call number 11 got an answer! I got through to the store manager in Wicklow! Over a week later, I received a call from an NPWS official from a different district.

This is a disturbing situation . Our heritage deserves the best protection it can get. If the site was being bull-dozed while I waited for a response, would there be any habitat left by the time those whose duty it is to protect our natural environment reacted? Will Killeglan’s limestone grassland with its fabulous mixture of flowers and butterflies, its Pine Martens, Hares and wilderness, which has been there for perhaps thousands of years, still be there, safe from JCB’s and topsoil, in one hundred or even in ten years’ time?


Killeglan Grasslands, Roscommon.
Flowers at Killeglan, Roscommon.


Gardening for Butterflies

For all our members and friends who record the butterflies in  your garden for Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s recording scheme, this is a reminder to keep a keen watch on what’s happening in your garden.

The records we need are the date/s you first see the butterfly in each three month period (March-May, June-August, September-November)  At the end of the season you record the peak number and date/s this peak was reached for the entire recording period. The completed form, with any comments is returned to: Butterfly Conservation Ireland, Pagestown, Maynooth, County Kildare.  A report based on the surveys will appear in our annual report posted in hard copy and on-line.

The weather has been very erratic this month with some lovely conditions such as the warm sunshine and light breezes of Sunday August 13th and the heavy rain the next day. When there is a sunny window in the weather, especially sunshine following a day or several days of rain, I urge you to get out in your garden and observe what’s happening. Butterflies often show a burst of activity when sunny weather follows  a period of heavy rain, rather like a burst of birdsong in spring when a cloudburst exhausts its downpour.

On Sunday morning (August 13th) I spent time in the garden, relaxing among my tall, now rather unruly meadow dominated right now by Common Knapweed. This multi-stemmed, multi-flowering native perennial is a magnet for nectar-loving insects and later, for seed-eating birds. It has been in flower since June but is peaking now, just when the peak butterfly populations are in play. Timing is everything with butterflies. The first Holly Blue Celastrina argiolus to visit me this year showed up at the end of May, too late to breed on my holly plants, grown specially for her. But she is fussy, only laying on holly in flower, not on plants already in berry. The caterpillars can only tackle very young, tender berries so the mother selects the flower as egg-site. How she knows this I am unsure, but chemical receptors on her feet, palps, antennae and thorax might be able to test for the presence of the nutrients needed. She sometimes gets it wrong though, and deposits eggs on the flowers on male holly, which will never produce a berry.

My visitor was in luck. The hollies were off the menu, but my Alder Buckthorns were in flower and soon she used this unusual food plant. The choice paid off, and on Sunday freshly emerged Holly Blues fluttered around my hedges, especially around an old Common Hawthorn, crowned with dense flowering Common Ivy, the species main late summer and autumn food plant. A result,  I tell myself!

The Peacock’s Inachis io breeding requirements and life cycle is less complicated. It has one brood per year and one larval food plant, Common Nettle. A nettle patch growing in a warm, unshaded sheltered recess typically in a clearing/track in a wood, at the edge of a wood or against a south facing hedge is used. These multi-coloured emblems of August are adorning my knapweeds, adding glamour to my garden. (Are they rare? I’ve been asked. Surely something so gaudy must be scarce).  I counted 16 on Sunday! This for me is three short of my Peacock record of a couple of years ago. Will I equal or even surpass 19? We’ll see. At the moment, they look very content, moving gently from bloom to bloom, gorgeous with wings fully extended, black shark fin-shaped undersides when heat dictates wing closure.

The whites are a sharp counterpoint to the multicoloured Peacock, the Large Whites Pieris brassicae are enjoying a boom this summer. The sexes look similar but the female has two prominent parallel black spots on the upper surface of her forewings which are clear white in the male. These are very skittish, easily disturbed and disruptive, chasing any other white or pale butterfly as they check the mating possibilities. In my garden they are just re-fueling, but a neighbour grows nasturtiums, one of the larval food plants. The Small Whites Artogeia  rapae are about too. These look like smaller versions of Large White, but  taxonomists have proposed that these two “cabbage whites” are not as closely related as previously thought, mainly due to differences in chromosome number, egg-laying behaviour (solitary in Small White, gregarious in Large White) and larval survival strategy (reflected in morphology (larvae of Small White and close relatives are green and rely on camouflage; Large White larvae are black, white, yellow and conspicuous, relying on display of warning colours), behaviour (solitary in Small White) and biochemistry (Large White larvae are strongly distasteful, arising from a concentration of mustard oils containing suphur assimilated from the larval food plant)). These differences are reflected in the reassignment of Small White and Green-veined White from the genus Pieris to Artogeia. However, none of this taxonomic refinement/redefinition bothers the Large White, which inspects and is inspected by Small Whites as males seek mates.

The tiny gem that is the Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas is my garden favourite. A male has taken up residence, and has seen off another male. He carries out regular inspections of the garden, surveying his kingdom from specific vantage points, like a Medieval king using his castles as strongholds from which to exert his authority. Any upstart is assaulted and driven off. While I can hardly blame him, his activities lower my Small Copper count!

A rather lazy Red Admiral is hanging around at the moment, but he is so bedraggled as to be barely there, yet he still insists on helping himself to the buddleia. There will be fresh specimens later in the season and, like the Peacock, I never tire of taking photos of this handsome yet familiar butterfly.

No previous experience of butterfly gardening prepared me for the appearance of the endangered Wall Brown. This most attractive member of the brown family of butterflies has declined catastrophically since the mid-1980’s (heavier rainfall? change from hay to silage? increased chemical inputs?). A pristine female visited my garden, sipped on a knapweed, basked and fled. I have never seen this species in an Irish garden, so am delighted that I was there to see her. I just hope she finds a mate and settles in the area!

All these photographs were taken in gardens. Keep watching!

Small White.©J.Harding.
Small Copper.©J.Harding.
Nectar: Verbena bonariensis and Fennell.©J.Harding.
Wall Brown, female.©J.Harding.



August Butterflies

August is well established and although the peak period (June/July) for species numbers has passed there is still a great variety of butterflies and moths to see.  Yet there are  hints of seasonal change; change is not full-blown yet, but there are  indications such as changes in the moth species turning up in the light trap that summer is waning.

Between Wednesday 9th and Thursday 10th of August I saw 21 species of adult butterfly, underlining  August’s  importance for butterflies. The high numbers and high activity levels demand large nectar and larval food plant resources. Many species are gorging on Common Knapweed. Bramble is a close second. Towards the end of August the important and beautiful Devil’s-bit Scabious becomes available on a large scale, providing nourishment for breeding and sustaining activity levels as well as helping to provide migrants and over-wintering species with fat reserves.

The fact that some butterflies are feeding in preparation for migration and over-wintering makes for excellent views. Peacock and Brown Hairstreak (a generally pacific butterfly that breeds in August/September) are so engrossed on taking nectar that they allow a gentle viewer to obtain superb views. On Wednesday I watched  female Brown Hairstreaks in County Clare feeding and basking on bramble.  By approaching carefully, I was able to get close to see her starched white ‘socks’, tan-tipped antennae clubs, zebra-crossing markings on the antennae and her pale fawn proboscis. The butterfly makes gradual changes to the angle of its body especially while feeding. It can be seen face-on and wafer-thin and slowly turning to reveal its autumn leaf hued undersides when perched with its undersides parallel to the observer.   Position changes enable the butterfly to probe different parts of the flower and regulate its temperature by heating or reflecting heat.  If there is a cloudy interval followed by weak sunlight, the butterfly will engage in dorsal basking (wings held at a plane horizontal to the body in full dorsal basking, open at a shallow angle in partial dorsal basking). When the butterfly basks in this way, a clear identification of sex is made. Females have large golden patches on their dark brown fore-wings, these are absent in males.

The sexes look so dissimilar on their upper surfaces that James Petiver, an early author and the father of British entomology was unsure if these were a single species; he named the male the “the brown double Streak” and the female “the golden brown double Streak” (Petiver abbreviated hairstreak). Petiver drew a female specimen taken in Croydon, Surrey on August 31st 1702. The Brown Hairstreak is still found in Surrey but it has declined  in the southern half of England and in Ireland it has been lost from Counties Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Kerry. Thankfully it survives in the Burren in Counties Clare and Galway where it appears to be doing well on unkempt hedges and scrub that are bathed in sunshine. The Brown Hairstreak is just one reason to seek butterflies in August. There are 25 additional reasons!

And that’s just the butterflies.

Brown Hairstreak.©J.Harding.

Burren Green.©J.Harding.





July Butterflies

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There are plenty of butterflies out there  this month, but to see them forget the garden Buddleia and go out into good wild grassland where you will see the July butterflies that keep mainly to the wilder places. Gardeners often feel shock at the often-empty July Buddleia, fearful of a butterfly population crash, but it’s just a question of searching in the right places. A stroll along a sunny ride  through native broad-leaf woodland will produce a good collection of species, notably Silver-washed Fritillary, our largest native butterfly, and on the increase.

If you need some positivity about our natural world,  the Silver-washed Fritillary population’s upward trajectory is one way of getting it. It is, however, absent from Scotland, absent from most of England and  extinct in The Netherlands. This lovely butterfly is thriving in Ireland’s woods, abundant where light reaches the woodland floor to heat the area around the larva’s food plant, Common Dog-violet. The adult loves to take nectar on bramble and it is certainly a beauty when fresh out of the pupa. Enjoy them now, as their finery soon dims (“When I consider everything that grows/Holds in perfection but a little moment” (Sonnet No. 15, William Shakespeare)) and the aged bedraggled butterflies a gutted ruin of once splendid architecture.

Ringlets are everywhere tall wild grasses grow with some shelter/shade, especially in damp and humid places. This humble ‘quiet’ butterfly, its dark, almost black upper sides fringed with white and its light brown undersides decorated with white-pupiled, black eye-spots ringed in gold bobs gently along the same woodland tracks and lanes, a very different personality to the resplendent orange Silver-washed Fritillary which flashes deep, shining orange while he dashes past. Meadow Browns like this habitat but generally prefer open grassland with flowers. Large but low-key, this also has a bobbing flight, but  generally appears more purposeful in its manner than the easy-going Ringlet.

Wild, open flower-rich grassland by the sea or on mountain/hill slopes, cliffs, limestone grassland and cutaway bog is where the Dark Green Fritillary makes its home. To watch its energy and power, you would doubt that its home is large enough for it, but in fact this dramatic flyer usually stays local.

Finally, early Brimstones are appearing. These are skittish and wary, as if confused by the heat of high summer. This lovely butterfly, daffodil yellow in the male, greenish-white in his mate is our longest-lived adult butterfly so butterflies that have emerged this early need to make an extra effort to preserve themselves until after they breed, mainly April-June 2018.

Click on the photographs for the enlarged view.

Silver-washed Fritillary, showing the silver streaks on its mossy hindwing, a useful colouring for a tree canopy rooster.©J.Harding.

Silver-washed Fritillary male basking on bracken. Note the black forewing scent bars, used in courtship to encourage mating.©J.Harding

Meadow Brown, probably our most numerous butterfly©J.Harding.

Dark Green Fritillary, male.©J.Harding.

25 Jun 2017

Lullybeg in late June

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A warm, billowy day yesterday (24 June 2017) offered great conditions to see what was on show in the Lullybeg area in Kildare. Orchids on display include Twayblade, Common Spotted Orchid, Bee Orchid, Lesser Butterfly Orchid and Marsh Helleborine, featured below, a lover of lime-rich soil. The heady fragrance of Fragrant Orchid will be released in July.

Misumena vatia has taken up its station on the orchids, much to the disadvantage of this aged Peacock….

The last of Lullybeg’s Marsh Fritillaries are laying a second or even a third batch of eggs on Devil’s-bit Scabious, taking advantage of the sunny weather to do so…

Moths are thriving here, like this Pebble Prominent, one of half a dozen larvae found on a willow plant less than a metre high…

Finally, a rare sight indeed; a mating pair of Red-tipped Clearwings mating on bramble; female on the right…

All photographs copyright J.Harding.

Marsh Helleborine.

Peacock meets its nemesis, misumena vatia.

Marsh Fritillary.

Pebble Prominent.

Red-tipped Clearwings.

21 Jun 2017

Endangered Butterfly Expansion Success

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In June 2014 Butterfly Conservation Ireland, having assessed the habitat at a coastal site in County Meath as suitable for the endangered Small Blue released a small number of adults. The first release occurred on 7 June with a second release one week later. No further release was made. Since 2007 the donor site, Portrane, has sustained massive habitat loss due to erosion of the east facing sand dunes at Portrane. Since 2007, over 90% of the Small Blue habitat on the affected dunes  have been removed by the sea. Meanwhile, the dunes along County Meath coast lacked the Small Blue, despite the presence of the sole larval foodplant, Kidney Vetch, growing in highly suitable situations over an extensive area.

On their release on 7 June  females began to lay immediately, indicating the site’s suitability. However, searches of the release site in 2015 and 2016 which took place in overcast conditions failed to find any trace of the butterfly. The sunny weather on 20 June, when the temperature peaked at 20 Celsius, made for excellent search conditions. The release site was searched and seven butterflies were seen, including an egg-laying female. She was photographed ovipositing (see below) on a west facing plant adjoining a sand track; the release site was chosen because it contains the food plant growing among grassland vegetation with areas of bare sand, (the butterfly does not appear to favour areas with a very high density of the food plant, probably because the micro-climate is not warm enough) the site is sheltered and has a west facing slope. A further visit on 21 June revealed three egg-laying females.

The butterfly has not expanded far beyond the release site; its area of occupation has expanded only a few metres north and south of the release point. This indicates a high degree of loyalty to the natal area. The smallness of the area occupied (it was searched for in the area around the site  and not found) also suggests that the butterfly is not mobile and/or may have a low rate of reproductive success. The butterfly lays only one egg on each flower head and may only lay on one flower head per plant. On 21 June two females were observed rejecting a number of food plants, presumably because these already held an egg. This results in females moving from the original release zone in search of suitable food plants, and in turn to an increase in the the butterfly’s distribution as the population grows. In time it may expand to occupy all the available habitat along this stretch of coastline. Along the Dublin coast the Small Blue has not shown significant mobility; it has not, for example, expanded its Dublin distribution to include Bull Island, a site that has existed for around 150 years. This may be due to the  absence of suitable habitat between Bull Island and the closest population north of this, at Howth. The Small Blue may be sedentary throughout Ireland,  emphasizing how important it is to protect the breeding habitat of one of our most endangered species.

We will continue to monitor the Meath population. At this point it appears to be a conservation success to savour.

Small Blue, County Meath.©J.Harding.

Egg-laying female, County Meath.©J.Harding.

Small Blue habitat in County Meath.©J.Harding.