Butterfly Conservation Ireland is well supported by its members who contribute their time, annual subscription and example to the conservation cause. Many members have turned their gardens into nature reserves for butterflies, moths, a range of pollinators, birds, amphibians and mammals.
But there is more that can be done. What about the world beyond the garden? Many species cannot thrive in an isolated patch and need to move to find food, territory and mates.
Many of us live in estates with large green spaces. Indeed, in modern estates, many houses lack front gardens. Space is in public areas instead.
One way to extend butterfly-rich habitat is to look at the often very bland green spaces. A good approach is to link in with with the local Tidy Towns or residents’ association. Some years ago, I did this in my estate in Wicklow. I joined the committee of the residents’ association and put forward the idea of improving the green areas for nature. Happily, everyone agreed. We bought native trees and planted them throughout the estate. We choose planting sites carefully; we avoided planting on the centres of the large central green so children could still play football. We planted Grey Willow and birches on the dampest areas and Rowan on the drier areas. We also planted nectar-rich shrubs like buddleia which are a great hit because people can see the butterflies on them. To this day, the estate still looks great! One very vital step we took was to persuade the builder to spend his landscaping budget on native trees. We provided a list and Silver Birch and native oaks were planted.
When looking at a site, first check what is already there. Can it be improved? What should be retained? Can a belt of native woodland be planted? Only native trees should be planted. There is no real benefit to planting tree species that do not belong in the ecosystem in Ireland. Common Hazel, Common Holly, Rowan, Silver Birch, Downy Birch and Guelder Rose (see photos) are all useful. If there is room, plant some native oak. A ‘butterfly shrubbery’ that is in full sun can really work too. See if an area of grassland can be converted into a wildflower meadow. This initiative will usually find favour if a sign is erected to announce the conservation enhancement being made and if the meadow contains attractive species like Ox-eye Daisy, Marjoram and Common Knapweed. For sources of plants, see links below. The best option, however, is to source tree seed and plants from certified native source Irish provenance. You can even grow your own trees and wildflowers from seed sown fresh!
Butterfly Conservation Ireland has given a number of project planners advice. If you have a project that you would like to help with, let us know. Contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Flower seed can be obtained from Design By Nature; see http://www.wildflowers.ie/
Native trees can be obtained from Future Forests; see https://futureforests.ie/
The track leading to the Irish Peatland Conservation Council’s important butterfly reserve at Lullymore is a phenomenal draw for butterflies. At the season’s peak in July and August, there are days when hundreds of butterflies flock to the nectar packed into sow thistles, trefoils, vetches, Devil’s-bit Scabious, Common Knapweed, eyebright and other flowers.
Over the past three years, the track has become shaded by over-hanging willow and birch, encouraging bramble and ivy to invade, crowding out many of the herbs.
The track is so important that intervention was vital. Butterfly Conservation Ireland got involved, especially Pat Wyse who strimmed the entire track length, tackling the dense bramble. Over-hanging branches were cut back and, towards the end of the track, adjacent to the reserve entrance, willow, birch, gorse and broom were cut back; these were a serious hindrance to Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, much-needed by two very special species, the Dingy Skipper butterfly and Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth which are frequently concentrated here in May.
We have exercised care in trimming back the Grey Willow you see bordering the track to the right. Some of the plants are male; Grey willow is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers grow on separate trees. The catkins arrive in early spring – the male catkins grey, stout and oval, becoming yellow when ripe with pollen; the female catkins longer and green.
The male flowers are greatly sought by bees seeking pollen and also by spring butterflies. Brimstone, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Comma all enjoy this plant’s nectar. What looks bare and lifeless now will soon be greatly favoured. Around 115 of our larger moth species breed on willows. These plants, south-facing, will soon be used for breeding.
And thanks to Pat Wyse, flowers will again bloom here in the weeks and months again. We recommend anyone who loves butterflies to visit this track this summer-you will be dazzled by the sheer numbers on good days.
Purple Moor-grass is the dominant grass over much of Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s reserve at Lullybeg, County Kildare. In autumn, the grass changes to a bright bleached colour. This makes the site especially wintry in appearance.
However, spring is stirring on this apparently dead grassland. And it is this dead grass litter that helps kick-start life into action. At this time of year, this grass dries out and heats up very quickly. Warmth rises from this straw-like grass. And caterpillars depend on this for their development.
Caterpillars feed on live leaves, including larvae that feed on grasses. However, eating food and digesting it are very different processes. A caterpillar must raise its body temperature to activate the digestive enzymes.
In the photos below two species are basking on the leaf litter. The massed larvae are the caterpillars of the rare and beautiful Marsh Fritillary butterfly, a beautifully patterned creature whose habitat enjoys protection under European Union legislation. One of the reasons it is so rare is that it must have very specific habitat conditions. Among its requirements is a high density of the caterpillar foodplant, Devil’s-bit Scabious growing among vegetation that contains dry leaf litter in spring. Lullybeg ticks this box.
The site is very carefully managed to ensure that these conditions are maintained. Today, I counted the Marsh Fritillary nests (the larvae live in groups from the time they hatch in July until late in April). Some of these nests, happily, hold hundreds of little caterpillars which help to heat each other when they sun themselves in a bristly black mass. We have a thriving population here, thanks to all the support from our members. It is great to know that we can make a difference to rare species. We are delighted to be able to report that 49 nests of the Marsh Fritillary caterpillars have made it through the winter. Thank you!
The single caterpillar is the larva of one of our largest moths, the Fox Moth. This caterpillar will not feed again. It spends some of the spring basking on dry grass before pupating. It flies in May and June.
Other larvae present at Lullybeg, such as the Small Heath butterfly’s caterpillar, also need dry, dead leaf litter among its green food. Feeding only in daylight, this caterpillar also shares the need for warmth and dryness.
So while the photo appears to show a ‘dead’ scene, it is anything but!
A final piece of news: the Great-spotted Woodpecker has arrived at Lullybeg. A bird was drumming on a tall tree. What a lovely way to announce spring.
Continuing with the theme of spring’s onset, we can ‘see’ spring coming when certain signs appear to signal the season’s arrival. People often have a particular, personal spring sign. For some it is birdsong. The Hedge Sparrow is singing now; it is a drab little bird but a persistent singer (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5ptciy2AuA). For others, it is the emergence of frogs to spawn in ponds. It might even be the emergence from hibernation of a fairly obscure creature, like the Smooth Newt. I know of a newt population that dwells in a hot spring. These newts become active in January, but that doesn’t count! April is more usual. For other people, it is the appearance of spring flowers, especially the Primrose on hedgebanks, a stirring and happy sight. Who doesn’t like a Primrose?
Some people like them too much. ‘Primrose trains’ carrying less wealthy Londoners into the countryside in the early decades of the twentieth century saw mass picking of the flowers to brighten homes and gardens in London. Today we often buy cultivated primrose plants from garden centres, which is a pity as the authentic wild plant is easily propagated from seed sown fresh.
Butterfly lovers keenly await their first butterfly of the year. I still wait for my first sighting. I nearly succeeded but was a day too early-I saw a Peacock on December 31st! There is folklore in some countries, especially Scandinavian cultures which holds that if your first butterfly of the year is yellow you will have a wonderful summer. According to Matthew Oates, the first butterfly sighted in England in 1976 was a male Brimstone, a beautiful yellow butterfly, and what a summer that was! Unfortunately, in Ireland (as in England), the Brimstone is the only yellow butterfly we have so the chance of seeing the Brimstone as our first is not high. Our first record of the glorious summer of 2018 was a Small Tortoiseshell on January 5th the sighting of which is also, apparently, a positive sign. According to folklore, a sign of a bad summer is seeing a Peacock or Red Admiral as the first butterfly of the year so we hope to avoid these as our first sightings. Perhaps it is fortunate that I did not see that Peacock on January 1st!
Last night (March 17th) we had some heavy rain but mild conditions. Many moths, unlike butterflies, don’t mind rain, even heavy rain, as long as it is mild. When I inspected the moth trap in the morning I found five species, all typical of early spring. These are all muted in colour, unlike the far more colourful moths found in June and July when vegetation is well-developed and there are plenty of hiding places. However, these are our first free-flying species of the year, making these a warmly welcome sight.
The weather is set to show improvement. The next few days and the week ahead are forecast to be mainly dry with some sunshine. We need sunshine in our lives, especially now. Add butterflies and birdsong for extra happiness.
Send us any records (see https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/records/) and photos (especially of moths and butterflies) to share your happiness!
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightning to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins 1844-1889 is renowned for a poetic technique known as sprung rhythm. This technique gives his work vibrancy, fitting for a poem about so uplifting a season as spring. In this verse, a vision of heaven on earth, we see him celebrate the power of spring. In his opening line, Hopkins is emphatic: “Nothing is so beautiful as Spring”. There is no equivocation, no doubt! It is the best time of the year. This entrenched position is buttressed by a wonderful array of examples; weeds, not flowers, are mentioned, underlining his celebration of the ordinary! The weeds, “shoot long and lovely and lush”. Hopkins use of alliteration in ‘W’ and ‘L’ and the assonance of ‘ee’ sends the imagery leaping skywards, helping us to visualise the galloping growth of springtime herbage. This eye-catching imagery is continued in the sky-blue Song Thrush eggs, a stunning sight for any nature lover. We see the “glassy peartree leaves and blooms”, a dazzling spectacle; the blue skies reach down to the earth (“descending blue”) to link heaven and earth. The verse closes with the charming innocent exuberance of spring lambs, reminding us of innocence and enjoyment of life’s simple goodness.
The American poet Robert Frost 1874-1963 loved spring too. Here is the first verse of his poem, A Prayer in Spring.
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
Emily Dickinson 1830-1886 clearly loved spring too. Here is the first stanza of her poem, A Light exists in Spring.
A light exists in spring
Not present on the year
At any other period.
When March is scarcely here.
In both verses, spring is lauded for its uniqueness. Frost wants to live forever in the moment that is spring. Dickinson delights in spring too but characteristically for her, she admits that it will not last:
A quality of loss
Affecting our content,
As trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a sacrament.
Yet its transience should, and does, sharpen appreciation of this exciting time. We all have our vision of what spring means to us. We might even remember particular years for their lovely springs. We might even cherish a memory of a perfect spring day. One of my special spring days is March 25th 2017. The place, Lullybeg, County Kildare. Frost was sublimated by the beaming March sunshine. Ethereal vapour shimmered in lucid sunlight as the cold dissipated. Into this warming air fluttered my first sulphur-coloured Brimstone of the morning and just the second time I’d seen the butterfly that year. As the heat dried the vegetation, the fragrance of spring suffused tranquil birdsong-filled air. Caterpillars sunned themselves. By midday, in a sheltered clearing created by Butterfly Conservation workers during the previous autumn and winter, Brimstones danced around their caterpillar foodplant, Alder Buckthorn.
The Brimstones, fluttering around leafless apparently barren Alder Buckthorn shrubs make a surreal sight. The Alder Buckthorn, a mundane sight when leafless, has spindly charcoal twigs. I watched the butterflies chase and evade mates, bask, feed and lay eggs. Females are paler than the daffodil-yellow mates and when perched on twigs depositing eggs, their backlit wings, large as a child’s hand, are mirage-like. The bare buckthorns give the Brimstones your full focus. Their dance was day long, making a dream day. I stayed all day until the butterflies roosted. The sun, the light, the happy sound of bees, birds, the smell of the awakening world and feeling part of this intense life is happiness for now and the future. This moment still replays in the memory. I hope to top up that memory this spring.
The Brimstones hide through six months of cold, wet and darkness to launch themselves into the sparkling spring sunshine. More than any other butterfly, the Brimstone lets you know that spring has arrived. Unlike the over-wintering nymphalid trio of Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Comma, the Brimstone can only be active during sunshine. With its brightness and happy, flopping flight the Brimstone is pure joy. The Brimstone deserves a poem. Poet Liza Jones agrees.
I pen a Brimstone lullaby,
Poet tease: poetise: Morpheus arise!
Inky white of cryptic wing
Sulphur tinged tips, inscribed: shimmering!
Poet eyes: Tantalise!
I versified on relenting brimstone.
I ken a Brimstone Butterfly
Silken purse defied! Honed,
Evangel-wings emerging this spring,
A Yellow flier of coaxing charms
Milky, musky, butter balm,
Flowing tenor up whirring
Shropshire’s’ downs, confetti showering,
I ken a Brimstone butterfly, flutterby.
These are uncertain times, of that there is no doubt. But joy is not off-limits. A walk in the open air this spring will still do you good. In the words of William Wordsworth, “Come forth and feel the sun”.
Why not let us know what you see? You can contact us with your butterfly records by emailing email@example.com. See our Records page (https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/records/) for the information we need to validate your record. We will publish your butterfly/moth record on the 2020 page under the Records tab. If you are not sure what butterfly or moth you’ve seen, send us a photo or check our gallery: https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/gallery/
The first butterfly reported to Butterfly Conservation Ireland in 2020 is a Peacock near Minane Bridge, County Cork on February 27th. The butterfly in this photo was seen on March 5th in the same area. The Peacock in this photograph is clearly in need of warmth. It is basking on a rock, absorbing heat mainly from the surface of the rock. It obtains a minority of the heat from the direct sun shining on its upper wing surfaces.
In early spring, Peacocks rarely spend long in the open. The butterfly basks and feeds, remaining close to its hibernation site. When it gets cool, the butterfly will return to its resting place. It will not stray far until there are some days of sustained warmth and sunshine. When conditions become consistently warmer, the Peacock departs to find food and breeding sites.
Good areas to look for Peacocks during March are sunny rides and clearings in woodland. When the days lengthen, the Peacock will be found in more open areas where it can be found in company with its close relative, the Small Tortoiseshell, another butterfly that passes the coldest months as an adult.
The appearance of these colourful butterflies is a great tonic after a bleak and tempestuous winter. To help them, allow your willow to flower, do not cut flowering dandelions and provide extra nectar in the form of native primroses and non-native flowers such as grape hyacinth Muscari neglectum. Nettle patches should be allowed to develop in warm, sunny areas to encourage breeding.
Finally, let us know of your sightings by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following information:
date of the find,
the life stage/s found,
location the butterfly/moth was found (e.g. townland name, site name, county),
six-figure grid reference, including the letter identifying the 100,000-metre grid square in which the location lies (see https://irish.gridreferencefinder.com or Discovery Series maps)
and any other interesting comments you wish to provide.
Example: John Smith, 14/06/12, 14 Small Blues, 15 Small Heaths, Portrane sand dunes, O254515, County Dublin. Small Blues feeding on Kidney Vetch and Creeping Thistle. Sunny, light breeze, around 18 degrees Celcius.
It will be greatly appreciated if you are sending in your records of several species by listing the butterflies observed in the following order:
Small Skipper, Essex Skipper, Dingy Skipper, Common Swallowtail, Wood White, Cryptic Wood White, Clouded Yellow, Brimstone, Large White, Small White, Green-veined White, Orange-tip, Green Hairstreak, Brown Hairstreak, Purple Hairstreak, Small Copper, Small Blue, Common Blue, Holly Blue, Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Comma, Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Dark Green Fritillary, Silver-washed Fritillary, Marsh Fritillary, Speckled Wood, Wall Brown, Grayling, Hedge Brown/Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Small Heath, Large Heath, Monarch.
These records will contribute to a national butterfly atlas which will cover the period 2017-2021. This should provide a clearer indication of how Ireland’s butterflies are performing in an era of profound change.