Event Report: Outing to Lullybeg Reserve May 29 2021

Free at last! But freedom must be managed with the caution and restraint that characterized our outing but it was so refreshing to be in nature, in great company.

The morning began overcast but mild and the forecast promised sunshine. It kept its word.

Blackcaps and Song Thrushes were sweetly and prominently vocalizing the day’s rapture, and soon the first butterfly, a lovely male Marsh Fritillary, as fresh as the morning, flitted into our ken. Netted then released, he calmed obligingly, wings outstretched, with photo ops for all. What we did not know yet was he was the first of around 100 Marsh Fritillaries (all but one were males) we would see on our ramble, for the sun shone liberally for much of the duration.

Shortly after seeing our first Marsh Fritillary, an erratic flyer in an area of poor fen and wet heath stopped us. A Green Hairstreak, the first I have seen off a bog in Lullymore.  Looking around, the presence of Cross-leaved Heath, a breeding plant, provides a potential context.

Next, we entered the “corridor” linking Lullymore and Lullybeg, expertly managed by Pat Wyse over the winter months to bring in light and regenerating heath to an area under encroachment. Here the amazing Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth reigns-all the ones we sighted as pristine as the Marsh Fritillaries. Some amazing close photos were taken-see below. Again, they posed nicely for us; it was warm enough for activity but cool enough to discourage freneticism.

Marsh Fritillaries love this corridor too, having moved in to breed following scrub clearances. As a result, we now have an almost contiguous breeding habitat extending from the Irish Peatland Conservation Council Reserve in Lullymore to BCI’s reserve in Lullybeg. Brimstone egg-laying, with the female contorting her powdery abdomen in what looks like a painful procedure to deposit her precious egg, was observed close-up. Pat’s clearance means more Alder Buckthorns are now available for egg-laying Brimstones, so they can distribute their eggs over more plants, which may relieve predation pressure on the butterfly.

We passed through the corridor into the BCI reserve, looking fairly flowerless and bleached, but soon the colour of multiple Marsh Fritillaries brightened proceedings. I have not seen so many on the reserve on one day for at least a decade. This made for a momentous visit.

Another butterfly that seems to be thriving on the reserve is the Dingy Skipper-we saw at least 20, most of them in good condition. A large female Red Admiral fussed around some Meadowsweet plants, evidently mistaking the dark, wrinkled leaves for Stinging Nettles. Flashes of red revealed Small Coppers, with one tattered female laying on a tiny Sheep’s Sorrel on bare peat.

Cryptic Wood White, never numerous on the reserve, numbered five during our sojourn-a very respectably tally on this site. The southern side of the reserve was our last stop, and there were Marsh Fritillaries throughout-this is a new development-it was hitherto very scarce here. It is days like this that show that our hard work in managing the reserve is working-our resources are yielding tangible conservation results. This is thanks to all our supporters for all your help, both financial and practical.

We spent over three hours enjoying nature on this gentle, lovely day, enjoying everything from the tiny Small Purple-barred moth flitting jaggedly over the Common Milkwort to the mighty Buzzard soaring proprietorially above us.

I, for one, was delighted to be out. Thanks to everyone who took part in our walk, making the day so enjoyable.

A Marsh Fritillary, the first of our day. J. Harding.
Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoths mating in the corridor. Photo Malcolm McCamley.
Nut-tree Tussock moth. J.Harding
Dingy Skipper, one of twenty we saw today. J. Harding.
AS Brimstone in Lullymore laying an egg on Alder Buckthorn. J. Harding.
A newly emerged female Muslin Moth. J. Harding



Habitat destruction and butterflies it eliminates

Lockdown has been hard on people. Long periods without meeting friends and family, without working face to face with colleagues, without playing sports, and following our hobbies with other people are sorely missed. We need other people. That is how we are made.

One of our compensations is nature’s beauty, needed and appreciated more in our restricted circumstances. Bird song really cheers especially during spring when many species are in full voice. The Blackcap is particularly evocative of spring, having a varied, sweet, and melodious broadcast. He sings throughout the day in spring and well into summer. Gardens, woods, and hedges are occupied by this modest-looking bird, which appears to be thriving. Goldfinches, Linnets, Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, Chiff-chaffs are very vocal right now, often singing at the same time, making separating their songs tricky.

A rarer sound now is the call of the Curlew, a sweet but haunting call, made all the more evocative when heard drifting across a vast expanse of bog, surely our wildest and loneliest looking habitat. A dreamy, melancholic repeated note, there is just something mystical about the call, something that stirs in the soul.

So much rarer now, the species is numbered at around 130 pairs, a catastrophic crash mirroring the mass destruction of our bogs. The plummeting population of the Curlew and other birds are well recorded but many species are declining without our knowledge, silently vanishing, having no voice for us to notice their plight.

The mass decline and extinction of species from many areas is a stark underliner of our loss and mortality. By replacing natural habitats with agricultural grassland, we exchange the profound for the banal, biodiversity with impoverishment.  Our sense of place is altered, affecting us culturally and psychologically.  Who can sigh with satisfaction after replacing flower-filled limestone grassland with acrylic green sward nibbled to nothing by sheep? Who beams with pleasure when the character is ripped from the countryside? The ‘blanding’ of our landscapes carries on as I write; there is a hideous human drive, it seems, to ‘improve’ land.  The outcome is that we are all diminished and have so much less to leave to following generations.

In butterfly terms, many losses do not show up on distribution maps. The maps are often produced at the 10 km resolution, which does not pick up local extinctions. In some of these 10 km squares, a population of a particular species is confined to a single site but the map gives the impression that the species is well represented in that square.  A study by Thomas and Avery (1995) showed that maps at the 10 km resolution probably reflect real declines in only the rarest species, whereas declines of species of intermediate rarity may be underestimated by as much as 85%, and population losses of common species are unlikely to be detected at all.

One species that is now locally scarce but is not showing range contraction on butterfly atlases is the Small Heath. For species that are declining strongly, like the Wall Brown, the 10 km maps are showing range contractions. For butterflies like the Small Heath and Small Copper, To obtain a clearer reading of the status of butterflies like the Small Heath and Small Copper, maps with a more detailed level of resolution are needed.  If you can help with recording, please send in your records, according to the details here  https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/records/

Why are declines happening?

Recently, a conservationist who carries out site surveys told me that he is seeing “habitat destruction everywhere” he looked. One does not need to look hard to see this depressing situation. Here are just some examples of habitat destruction and some butterfly losses arising.

Limestone grassland and pavement, even in areas protected by law, are being altered unnecessarily to facilitate farming. J. Harding
Limestone grassland south of Corofin, County Clare that is not legally protected, being destroyed. J. Harding
The Wood White ranked near threatened, relies on wooded habitat on carboniferous limestone that is being destroyed, especially in areas outside the Burren, such as around Lough Corrib, County Galway. J. Harding
The Pearl-bordered Fritillary is also reliant on habitats on karst limestone. Any removal of these habitats results in this threatened butterfly being lost permanently from that area. J. Harding
The Pearl-bordered Fritillary is named for the seven pearls bordering the underside of the hindwing. J. Harding
A raised bog in Kildare being destroyed for fuel. 2004 was the last year that Curlew was recorded on this bog. J. Harding
Green Hairstreak is a gorgeous, characterful and diminutive bog butterfly. It especially breeds on Cross-leaved Heath, a plant found on wet bogs. J. Harding
The Large Heath is tied to wet bogs. In his 2014 book, The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland, Jeremy Thomas, Professor of Ecology at the University of Oxford, warned that the Large Heath is experiencing “numerous local extinctions” in Ireland, which he describes as “a very great cause for concern”. Photo J. Harding

These are just a few examples of habitat damage. But there are many more, including around our own homes. Spraying chemicals to control “weeds” create damage, and this anti-social behaviour, while not as conspicuous as industrial-scale pollution and habitat loss, damages ecosystems too and says so much about our attitude to nature. Conservation starts at home. Let us all play our part.