The Fall and Fall of Grassland Butterflies

Ireland’s Grassland Butterflies in serious Decline.

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

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

The European Dimension

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you can do

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


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

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

The Future

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

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