Where has happened to the Grayling butterfly?

Growing up in Dublin in the 1970s, a real foreign holiday, and I don’t mean the Isle of Man or the UK mainland, was beyond the pockets of most Irish people. The era of monopolies meant that Aer Lingus could charge astronomical fares, even for a trip to London and this it did.

Irish people with sun-tans were identifiable as a privileged class such was the extraordinary costs of foreign travel. Now even teenagers head off to Spain-the communion money would cover the cost!

For the average Irish family, the foreign holiday was substituted by a day out at the beach. Happily, in many coastal counties, we have some great beaches. If only we had reliable warm sunshine to go with it, we’d be less likely to flee the rain each summer.

When my father announced a day trip to the beach an almost inexplicable excitement pervaded the household. We’d need the beach accoutrements-buckets and spades, fishing nets, beach towels, a picnic (surely we could rise higher than Tayto cheese and onion?) and sun-tan lotion (today we’d pack sunblock). The Ford Escort was loaded down with all-sorts and the last minute checks “Did you leave a note for the milkman?” annoyingly delayed our rising excitement.

At long last, off we went. Songs, mostly those repetitive ditties learned in scout and girl guide troops were sung with gusto-I wonder now how parents put up with the raucous.

After interminable “Are we there yets?”  we finally joined the traffic jam near the beach. Dollymount strand on Bull Island was the beach we went to and it was packed with families.

Too packed. On one such visit, my younger brother disappeared. A golden-haired boy, he sometimes drifted off and this day, it seemed, he did it again. My mother was hysterical. A search was instituted and everyone around us was asked to look out for a “lovely little boy with blond hair”.

After a fruitless scan of the strand, I decided to search the sand dunes. I soon drifted off into my own happy world. Graylings were found.

Large butterflies bounded up from just under my feet (alas, why didn’t I bring my net and jam jar?), flying energetically for a few feet (no metres back then), then apparently disappearing. They look ashy grey when settled with its wings shut but when it pops up its forewing a warm orange underside with a startling white-pupilled black eye-spot hoves into view. It then explodes into flight. I would leap up turning 360 degrees to find it, but by then it was gone.

The butterfly rarely bothers with flowers so seeking out patches of flowers did not help me to re-locate it. The best way to find the butterfly was just to keep going until another one was disturbed. When I got a glimpse of the lovely warm tawny patches on the upper surfaces of the wings when the butterfly is in flight, it was and is a great disappointment that it always settles with its wings closed.

Luckily, it tends to occur in colonies, so you rarely meet just one individual. In some suitable dunes, usually eroding dunes with a mixture of exposed sand and patches of Marram and fine grasses, dozens can be seen. Great sites can be found in parts of the dunes at Brittas Bay, County Wicklow and south of Cahore, County Wexford.

But the 1970s were better times for butterflies. The Grayling, it seems, is not as abundant or as widespread as it was then.  Rated as Near Threatened on the Irish Red List, it has lost habitat along its coastal strongholds due to the loss of rough grazing, protection of dunes by fencing them off which often results in dense Marram growth, invasive species taking over dunes, the development of golf links which changes the vegetation,  coastal erosion and fire damage. Unfortunately, it also seems to be increasingly absent from areas of dunes that still appear to be suitable-this always creates a most uneasy feeling; either something is fundamentally wrong with our world or a subtle change has occurred in the habitat that we are yet unaware of, so a remedy is not to hand.

Recent searches of the dunes at Bull Island has failed to find it. A search of the dunes at Portmarnock revealed a single Grayling and that individual was flying northwards up the beach, clearly on the move. It was not seen at Howth either.

We would appreciate your sightings of this butterfly. If you are walking any coastal area in the next two weeks, please keep an eye out for it. The butterfly can be found on rocky areas that have grassy areas as well as on sand dunes with bare and vegetated areas. It also occurs inland in rocky places. Send us your name, date of your sightings, the number of butterflies seen, place name and a six-figure grid reference, available here: https://irish.gridreferencefinder.com/

Our email address for these records is: conservation.butterfly@gmail.com

A photo of the habitat would also be very useful.

As for the “lovely little boy with blond hair”, he was eventually found beside the ice-cream van where he was handed ice cream by parents buying for their own children!

A Grayling feeding on Wild Carrot. This butterfly occasionally feeds on Creeping Thistle, Wild Thyme and other flowers but it is not a regular feeder. Photo J.Harding.
The Grayling’s habitat with vegetated and bare areas of sand and rock on coastal dunes. Photo J.Harding


In the Moud for Change?

In an episode in the political satire sitcom, Yes Minister, Sir Arnold, the Cabinet Secretary and Sir Humphrey Appleby, a Permanent Secretary, are conspiring to defeat an idealistic cabinet minister’s reform. Sir Arnold mentions the rule of least relevance: the more you talk about something, the less you intend to do about it.

Politicians are renowned for their communication skills. They are professional communicators, communicating, often selling their message, to their consumer, the voter. With an army of advisers, both private and paid civil servants, politicians are counselled in the art of remaining on message. The English language, so malleable, is sent into battle in the form of press releases, online quips, speeches, media interviews and government reports.

We’ve had the National Peatlands Strategy 2015, the national biodiversity and climate emergency declared by the Dáil on May 9th 2019, the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 (awaiting the approval of the Taoiseach and EU heads of government), commitments in the various party manifestos 2020 and commitments in the programme for government, Our Shared Future 2020. The Programme for Government uses the word “Biodiversity” 51 times. The Programme commits to “Review the protection (including enforcement of relevant legislation) of our natural heritage, including hedgerows, native woodland, and wetlands” and to “Coordinate the actions in the Programme for Government regarding peatlands to maximise the benefits for biodiversity.”

And what is there to show for these words?

A skim through the list of sites designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs) will show that a great many of these sites are bogs, fens or other wetlands. The ongoing damage being done to many of these bogs is astonishing.

Let us look at just one example. Mouds Bog, near Newbridge in County Kildare, is a Special Area of Conservation. It is a raised bog, one of our most important habitats and the habitat type that is being rapidly destroyed throughout the Irish midlands.

Domestic turf cutting continues to this day on this site, which, Butterfly Conservation Ireland understands, is done without ministerial consent. Some small areas of the cutover have been reclaimed for agriculture in recent years. Burning has taken place in the recent past, and there is extensive damage in the west of the site due to previous industrial peat production. These are all activities that have resulted in the loss of species, habitat, and damage to the hydrological status of the site and pose a continuing threat to its viability. Within the last 20 years, County Kildare’s last remaining Red Grouse population has ceased to exist on this bog and the Curlew has not managed to successfully breed in there in recent years.

It is our understanding that local National Parks and Wildlife enforcement staff are instructed not to patrol this site or any other protected bogs in the region. We are aware that flights have been made over the site by staff of the National Parks and Wildlife Service to take photographs of the ongoing illegal damage but despite the collection of this data, no prosecutions have been taken to ensure that the illegal activity is ended.

Why is this blatant example of wildlife crime not being tackled? It is not as if the powers to do so are lacking. There are severe penalties for damaging a Special Area of Conservation. Under European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011 “such person shall be liable on summary conviction to a Class A fine or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to both, or on conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €500,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to both.’’

Butterfly Conservation Ireland has written to the Minister at the Minister of State at the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Malcolm Noonan, to see what he intends doing about this illegal destruction.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service contains some excellent, dedicated staff who tackle some very difficult issues. Given the right support, the staff would have the additional confidence needed to tackle these important challenges. The culture in the organisation must change so that it can protect our habitats. This lead must come from the government.

Many of our most threatened bird species breed on bogs and other wetland types. The same can be said for some of our rarer butterflies. Unless the protection of our habitats is enforced, we will almost certainly be looking at the extinction of some bird and butterfly species locally and even nationally.

Words are not enough. Action now.

The photographs below show the ongoing damage being done to raised bogs.

August Butterflies

A drenching in June and July has not helped our butterflies but the good news for gardeners is that the big influx of butterflies into our gardens typically takes place in August up to mid-September. For those of you who are doing the National Garden Butterfly Survey, keep a special lookout on sunny days over the coming weeks. The form is here: National Garden Butterfly Survey

Here are a selection of butterflies to look for in your garden now.

All photographs © J.Harding.

The Silver-washed Fritillary (a female is shown here) is the only fritillary that is recorded in gardens although it does not appear very often. A female was recorded recently in a garden in Castleknock, County Dublin. It may have wandered in from the Furry Glen in the Phoenix Park.
This is a female Holly Blue. Holly Blues love gardens. It really is a garden butterfly; it will complete its entire life cycle in a garden containing holly and ivy.
This Peacock butterfly is feeding on Common Ragwort growing in a garden. Expect peak numbers in the last two weeks of August.
The female Large White, shown here on Common Knapweed, is not as abundant as it used to be. A large and showy butterfly, it should be welcomed even though it does breed on cabbage leaves and nasturtium.
This is a female Common Blue. The female is very variable in its upper wing colouring, particularly in the amount of blue it has. Many females are brown on their upper surfaces. The male is blue on his upper side, with the wings edges outlined in black followed by white.
The male Common Blue is a bright shining blue. While nowhere near as prevalent in gardens as the Holly Blue, the males of the two blue species look similar in flight but the Common Blue can be separated from the Holly Blue by its tendency to feed on grassy areas while the Holly Blue is usually seen on shrubs. A tall, open grassland containing Black Medic can attract the Common Blue to breed in your garden.
The Small Copper is one of our most attractive butterflies. Small but unmistakable, it breeds in gardens with good wildflower ‘meadows’ containing Common Sorrel.
Grayling (female), feeding on Wild Carrot. You won’t find this butterfly in your garden but it is worth looking for on eroded sand dunes and on rocky outcrops, including outcrops on wet bogs. We receive few records of the Grayling and a decline is feared.



Hedgerow Destruction During the Bird Nesting Season Punished by the Courts

Ireland’s hedgerows are a vital resource for wildlife. The vast majority of the country’s hedges consist of native trees, herbs and grasses providing food and resting places for a great range of butterflies, moths, birds and mammals. About 595 species of larger moths have been found in Ireland. Many are dependent on hedges. Indeed, the Programme for Government mentions hedges and contains a number of commitments to review their protection (including enforcement of the relevant legislation). The government have indicated that they will re-double their efforts to protect Irelands’ natural heritage, including our hedgerows, our native woodland, our wetlands, and to complete a national hedgerow survey.

Peacock butterflies often breed on nettles growing as part of a hedge ©J.Harding

Aside from biodiversity benefits, hedges add enormously to the appearance of our landscapes. How naked and characterless would our countryside appear without hedges? It is vital that our National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) enforce the laws to defend this national resource. Their drive to protect hedges was evident when NPWS formerly of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht brought a case under Wildlife Acts before Judge Catherine Staines in Tullamore District Court on 20th July 2020.

The case was prosecuted for the Department by William Maher and the State Solicitor for County Offaly, Sandra Mahon. Mr Michael Cahill, Knockspur, Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary was summonsed under Section 40 of the Wildlife Acts for the destruction by grubbing up using a Hymac vegetation on lands not then cultivated and on vegetation growing in a hedge during the bird nesting season, which runs from the 1st of March to the 31st of August each year. The offences took place on lands at Gortcreen, Shinrone, Co. Offaly on April 09th and 10th 2019. This activity involved the destruction of over 300 metres of vegetation growing in a hedge, and on lands not then cultivated during the bird nesting season.

Mr Cahill entered a guilty plea through defending solicitor, Donal Farrelly. William Maher BL outlined the facts of the case to the court and highlighted the fact that the offence took place at a particularly sensitive time for nesting birds. Judge Staines warned the defendant that the matter had serious implications for nesting birds and other wildlife and told him not to engage in similar activity or come before her again on similar charges. If he did, the outcome would be more serious. Judge Staines then required a €300 contribution to be made by Mr Cahill to a suitable wildlife charity payable by the September sitting of Tullamore District Court in lieu of a conviction.

In that regard, NPWS Conservation Rangers who took the case nominated Butterfly Conservation Ireland.

Green Silver-lines moth breeds on hedgerow plants such as Wych Elm and oak.

Commenting, Minister of State at the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Malcolm Noonan said:

“I welcome this prosecution as hedgerows are vitally important for our wildlife and contribute hugely to biodiversity.

There have been other successful prosecutions this year taken by the NPWS for illegal vegetation clearance and hedge-cutting in counties Laois, Tipperary and Waterford.

The minister added: “It is the department’s policy to prosecute those found in breach of the legislation, including public bodies, and any incidents of illegal burning, clearing of vegetation or hedge-cutting should be reported to the local National Parks and Wildlife Service Office or an An Garda Síochána.”

Butterfly Conservation Ireland wishes to congratulate everyone involved. Their actions ensure that our heritage has the protection it so badly needs. We further hope that this case sends out the message that breaches of the wildlife laws will be prosecuted. We also wish to thank a journalist present in court for sending us the details of this case.