July Butterflies

Summer 2020 is a dull, wet contrast to the sunny, dry spring. But summer butterflies have to get out and get their business done. Butterflies are great at making the most of the brief sunny windows, flinging themselves into the sun, urgency the byword, feeding, mating and egg-laying achieved efficiently. The poor summer of 2009 was no bar to Silver-washed Fritillaries, despite fears that it suffered from a lack of opportunity to lay down the next generation. In the summer of 2010, it emerged in good numbers.

Of course, there have to be some good days. Prolonged bad weather can cause serious damage. Grassland butterflies can be badly hit by unsuitable weather. A long period of extreme, rainless heat can destroy larval foodplants. Bitter cold can ground butterflies, making them easy prey to amphibians, birds and spiders.

A good butterfly-watching tip is to visit good habitat on a warm sunny morning directly after a few days of rain. A burst of activity will often be your experience. I remember showing a friend a beautiful habitat in the Burren in County Clare on a sunny afternoon after a couple of days and a morning of heavy downpours. On this early August afternoon, dozens of butterflies fluttered around wet but fragrant blooms. There was tremendous energy and excitement in the air as though nature celebrated the sun’s revival. Golden Brimstones, chestnut Brown Hairstreaks, gleaming Small Coppers, shimmering Common Blues among others burst into view, happy to be out!

Butterfly life is often short so they have to make the most of their time. Their ability to fit so much into short intervals means that we generally have the most adaptable butterflies in Ireland. As long as our butterflies have their habitats…

Here is a selection of what is on offer in July.

Female Brimstone on Fragrant Orchid.
Female Meadow Brown feeding on hawkbit.
Silver-washed Fritillary basking on bindweed at the edge of woodland. This high summer butterfly is a magnificent flyer, and a stunning species when pristine.
A pair of mating Ringlets. While not a glamorous butterfly it has a gentle charm, bobbing gently as it does on warm, sticky July days. It even flies in the drizzle, making it ideally suited to Ireland’s climate.
A rarity in Ireland, the Essex Skipper is found in a few lucky, hidden corners in north Kildare and more generally south Wexford. This is a basking male. This species likes tall, dry grassland with a warm micro-climate.
Small Heath, a declining butterfly, is on the wing mainly in June and July and into August.
Small Purple-barred moth, a day flyer that is easily disturbed from flower-rich grassland.
The Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth caterpillar feeds on Devil’s-bit Scabious, the foodplant it shares with the Marsh Fritillary butterfly.
A flower-rich hedge-bank in County Meath. Butterflies need wildflowers and wild grasses. Don’t cut grass unnecessarily in summer.

Photos J.Harding


The Dark Side of the Comma

Take a look at these two photographs, taken in  County Kildare this month.

The dark form of the Comma butterfly, Lullybeg, County Kildare. Photo J.Harding
The light form of the Comma butterfly, Castletown, County Kildare. Photo J.Harding

We are trying to understand more about the life cycle of this colonising butterfly. The colour of the butterfly is a major help in unravelling the details of the ways the butterfly breeds, especially the timing of breeding.

The Comma exists in two colour forms, the dark form which also shows a more deeply indented outline and the light, more golden form, known as the Hutchinsoni form, after the famous Comma breeder, Emma Hutchinson from Herefordshire, who bred the golden form named after her.

The light form is a short-lived, direct breeder while the dark form is the long-lived delayed breeder. The light form flies in July and August and breeds shortly after it hatches from the pupa and dies off long before winter. The dark form is usually seen in September and October and in spring. The dark form Commas flying now delay breeding until next year.

The Dark Commas flying now will be joined in hibernation by the offspring of the light form, all of which are dark Commas. This means that two generations of dark form Commas pass the winter in hibernation. These are the summer emerging dark form and the autumn emerging dark form Commas. All the Commas breeding in spring are dark form butterflies.

Until recently, the Commas reported in July were light form butterflies. Now we are seeing dark individuals, a development that is influenced at least partly by overcast weather during the larval stage.

We would like your help to investigate the prevalence of delayed breeding by the Comma in summer. Please send us your Comma records with photos to us at conservation.butterfly@gmail.com.

Your records should be phrased as follows:

Mike Smith (21/07/2020)

Comma 2, one light and one dark at T 11261 25271, Raven Point Nature Reserve, Co. Wexford. Sunny, 21C.

We will publish your record on our Records Page unless you ask us not to.

If you are not sure what form you are seeing, we should be able to judge this from the photographs. The butterfly’s underside is a great help in determining the form, so images of the underside are really valuable.

The Comma can turn up anywhere, including in gardens, but rides and clearings in woods, canal and river banks with Stinging Nettles are the usual places to find it.

We look forward to hearing from you!


Milltownpass Bog National Heritage Area Prosecution

A raised bog at Milltownpass in County Westmeath was at issue in a case before the High Court on July 10th. A local man Daragh Coyne had been committed four weeks previously to Mountjoy prison by Mr Justice Barr for breaching court orders against him obtained by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Mr Coyne had defied these orders by cutting turf illegally and erecting a gate and signage on the bog.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service was concerned turf would be extracted from the NHA, because turf cutting equipment stored close to the where the material had been dumped.

The service claimed that in 2019 Mr Coyne had engaged a contractor to cut turf on the NHA and it was feared he would cut turf on the lands again in 2020.

Peat extraction from the bog was banned in 2017, the court heard.

On July 10th Mr Coyne came before the court and agreed to comply with the orders. He promised not to cut any turf on the site, which is partly owned by the Minister and by a member of Mr Coyne’s family.

Mr Justice Barr said that based on the undertakings given to the court by Mr Coyne he was satisfied that Mr Coyne had purged his contempt, and “was free to go home.”

The judge also agreed to a request by the service’s counsel James O’Donnell to adjourn the matter until late July to see if the undertakings have been complied with.

The bog at Milltownpass is located 1 km north-east of Milltownpass, in the townlands of Pass of Kilbride and Claremount or Cummingstown in County Westmeath. The site comprises a raised bog that includes both areas of high bog and cutover bog and can be accessed from the local road off the N6 to the east of the site.

The bog contains vegetation strongly representative of a high-quality midlands-type raised bog including some wet and quaking areas. Vegetation present includes Ling Heather, Hare’s-tail Cottongrass, White Beak-sedge, Cross-leaved Heath, Bog Asphodel,  Cranberry and Bog Rosemary.  It is of considerable importance especially given its easterly location.

Butterfly Conservation Ireland congratulates the National Parks and Wildlife Service for taking the case to protect the site. A well-staffed, vigilant and motivated service is vital for the task of protecting our heritage and we urge the new minister at the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Catherine Martin, to ensure the service has the resources it needs.

Ireland’s record on protecting the Marsh Fritillary butterfly

Marsh Fritillary Protected in Natura 2000 sites
Country Number of sites designated Position by site number
France 380  1
Spain 314  2
Germany 192  3
Italy 122  4
Portugal   48  5
United Kingdom   41  6
Poland   38  7
Slovenia   35  8
Sweden   31  9
Austria   29 10
Croatia   27 11
Hungary   22 12
Lithuania   22 12
Romania   22 12
Belgium   21 15
Czech Republic   21 15
Republic of Ireland   16 16
Bulgaria   13 17
Latvia   11 18
Estonia   10 19
Luxembourg   10 19
Greece     5 20

If you like Premiership soccer you are probably delighted it’s back. For the first time since 2013, I actually look forward to watching Manchester United play. Attacking with pace, style and confidence makes them a thrill to watch. I am kicking every ball.

United are trying to break into the top four and currently sit just outside, in the fifth position. There is a Champions’ League place for teams that finish in the top four, with eye-watering TV money and massive media exposure a clear incentive to achieve a top-four finish.

At the bottom end of the table, teams struggle to avoid relegation to the Championship, the division below the Premier League. No-one wants to drop. The loss of money, prestige, identity and momentum really hurts.

If Ireland’s record on protecting its special, protected species was part of a competitive league, we’d be fighting to stave off the misery of relegation. Ireland has only given specific legal protection to the endangered Marsh Fritillary butterfly’s habitat on  16 sites. As you can see from the table, we lie a miserable 16th but really it is worse than that. Much worse. We should be bottom of the league, staring miserably at more illustrious teams that celebrate their special butterflies and their special habitats.

Before this is explained a little background is needed. The Marsh Fritillary butterfly is protected under the Berne Convention and the European Union Habitats’ Directive 1992. All species listed on Annex II of the Habitats’ Directive are protected, and EU member states must designate core areas of habitat for the species on Annex II, such as the Marsh Fritillary. These sites must be managed in accordance with the ecological needs of the species.

Ireland has provided sixteen designated sites. But the butterfly is extinct on some of them. On some of the sites, breeding is sporadic and the butterfly is frequently absent from the site. The Marsh Fritillary has been absent from Killarney National Park since the early 1990s.  The butterfly disappeared from Ballynafagh Lake, County Kildare in the late 1990s. On these sites, part of the breeding area overgrew with rank grasses and woodland shaded out the remaining habitat.

In another designated area, Moneen Mountain, the species was not found when the area was surveyed around 2006. In its designated site in County Westmeath, it has been missing for some years. This site, Scragh Bog, does not hold enough or perhaps no longer has any suitable breeding habitat for the butterfly.  In Offaly, Clara Bog was designated for the butterfly where very little suitable habitat is present and the butterfly breeds there only intermittently.

In one of its Donegal sites, Sheskinmore, the species still occurs but in some years it is barely detectable. These do not appear to be “core areas” for the species as required by EU law, so why designate them for the butterfly?

There are suitable sites with large populations of the Marsh Fritillary, such as Cloonoo/Yellow Bog, just west of Loughrea, that are undesignated and therefore in a vulnerable situation.

Let us compare Ireland’s designation record to that of some other EU states. The Republic of Ireland’s 16 sites for a land area of 68,883 square kilometres compares unfavourably with  Luxembourg,  with 10 designated sites in only 2,586 square kilometres.

Greece designated just five sites. However, the Marsh Fritillary’s range in Greece is restricted to a small area in the north of the country while in Ireland the Marsh Fritillary’s range includes the entire island.

Belgium lies just above Ireland in the table with 21 designated sites. Belgium has an area of 30,689 square kilometres, less than half the land area of the Republic of Ireland and a much larger human population.

Let’s leave all that to one side, bad as it looks. Let’s see how well Ireland’s 16 designated sites are managed. All are listed here.

The sites are Ardara (Sheskinmore), Ballynafagh,  Barrigone, Bricklieve Mountains & Keishcorran, Bunduff/and Machair/Trawalua/Mullaghmore, Carrowbehy/Caher Bog, Clara Bog. Cloonchambers Bog, Connemara Bog Complex,  Gweedore Bay and Islands, Killarney National Park, Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and Caragh River Catchment, Moneen Mountain, Scragh Bog, Sheephaven Bay and  St John’s Point.

None of these sites has a management plan, according to the Natura 2000 forms for each site on the website of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Without a proper management regime, which usually involves cattle grazing and scrub control, the butterfly dies out on many of its sites. The state has used the passive conservation approach of declaring a protected area and abandoning its responsibilities to our wildlife. Without active management for the Marsh Fritillary, it is little wonder it was lost from, for example, Ballynafagh which had suitable habitat before it was allowed to deteriorate.

At Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s reserve at Lullybeg, County Kildare, a thriving Marsh Fritillary population exists on a managed site. We manage this reserve as volunteers. We do not have the resources the state commands.

In short, there is no excuse.

A country without its natural heritage is a wasteland. That’s what relegation looks like. At least when a football team is relegated it might win promotion the following season. With some habitats that are allowed to deteriorate restoration is not so easy and for destroyed bogs, impossible.

The Marsh Fritillary, rated vulnerable on the Ireland Butterfly Red List, together with its habitats must be better protected by the state and society as a whole. Photo ©  J.Harding

A nature-lover’s ramble

One of the benefits of technology for the nature lover is the digital camera. Back in time, developing photographs was time-consuming and expensive and the results often extremely exasperating. You handed in the film to be developed, often into a pharmacy. Then you waited for your photos to be “in”… Do you remember that?

If you do, chances are you appreciate the freedom that inexpensive digital photography provides. Point your camera, shoot and check your image. It’s so simple.

High-quality macro modes are standard on digital cameras, and the quality is often striking, even allowing butterfly eggs to show up well when the image is viewed later on your laptop. This assists identification in some tricky species. The Field Grasshopper, for example, can be separated from the Common Green Grasshopper by the presence of hair on its underside-a digital camera with a good macro mode shows this feature.

There are surprises too. At times a photo is taken but only when seen on a laptop screen do you realise that more was going on than you thought. The butterfly that appeared to be resting on a leaf was laying eggs. A spider had its fangs embedded in the Orange-tip’s thorax; it merely looked to be a docile, camera-friendly butterfly posing obligingly for your shot.

Another pleasure of photography is the anticipation it offers when your walk is over. The walk is over but there is more to look forward to as you contemplate looking at your photographs on your laptop, especially if you think you have the perfect pic that has eluded you forever.

The photo albums are a great record of your walk, your day, your summer, your year. Looking over your photos at the year’s end triggers happy memories of sunshine and healthy habitats and the promise of more to come in the year ahead.

Some butterfly lovers are waiting for the much loved Clouded Yellow butterfly.  The years when this gorgeous mustard-coloured migrant arrives en masse are infrequent but memorable. While it is here, we have a taste of the Mediterranean. We have not had a good Clouded Yellow Year since 2006, or a great year since 2000. Who knows, when we get another great year we might see the Pale Clouded Yellow, a serious rarity here, too.

On a more serious note, photography allows us to keep a record of what we saw, where we saw it and when. This can be valuable information, enabling us to track the health of habitats and species. These photos serve as a reminder of what is being lost and can excite action to address these losses. One day around 2004, I was shown a photograph of a Marsh Fritillary taken in Waterford. “It’s gone now,” the photographer said. This spurred on conversations about the terrible impacts we were seeing on our habitats and culminated in the establishment of Butterfly Conservation Ireland in 2008. Since then, we have brought habitat issues to the attention of the state, planners, private companies and the general public, feeding into the good work being done by the environmental movement.

That photograph was a spur to action.

That is what photographs can do. They inspire, excite, inform, educate, delight. Photography does not have to be a one-dimensional relationship with nature when a photographer ‘collects’ species in photographic form. It can be so much more…

Here, then, are the photos taken during a couple of recent rambles. Please enjoy them. Better still, share yours with us by sending them to our Facebook page.

Small Heath butterfly. This rarely sits still for long enough for a photograph to be obtained but a newly emerged female like this one will perch during an overcast interval.
This is a day-flying moth, the Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet, feeding on Field Scabious, a flower that grows in dry, semi-natural grassland. The moth breeds on Meadow Vetchling typically growing on damp soil.
A lovely Pyramidal Orchid, an inhabitant of dry, semi-natural grasslands such as coastal dunes, eskers and well-drained road verges.
Latticed Heath, an active day flyer that can be found on grassy heaths, limestone grasslands and other grasslands containing clovers and vetches.
A Fragrant Orchid growing on a cutaway bog. The fragrance is powerful and sweet. The flower looks exceptionally attractive when fed on by a fresh male Brimstone or Silver-washed Fritillary.
The caterpillar of the Oak Eggar moth can often be found at this time of the year basking on bare ground. This one measured over 6 cm.
A male Keeled Skimmer dragonfly at the edge of a raised bog. You are not very likely to get near him unless it is cloudy.
A Pale Brindled Beauty larva on Alder Buckthorn. The adult male flies early in spring, the female is wingless.
A Field Grasshopper. A grassland alive with the sound of the males is a grassland teeming with biodiversity for a range of species.
The Forester moth, uncommon sight today. This day flyer breeds in species-rich grassland containing flowers and Sheep’s Sorrel.
This Small Tortoiseshell is laying her eggs on the underside of a nettle leaf. Her offspring will be flying in your garden in late August and September and hibernating in your house if you let it.
A Small White, once very numerous, now less common but still widespread.
The Small Skipper, a mid-summer butterfly is flying now.

All photos J.Harding