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