July Provision

The current very hot weather is welcome in some ways. Heat is very beneficial for many adult butterflies although you might not think so from the way they disappear when it is very hot. They retreat to cover during extreme heat to avoid overheating and death.  Drought (15 days with a combined total of <0·02 mm of rain with each day on top of this being counted as an extra day of drought) which can occur during prolonged extreme heat in Ireland is beneficial for the butterfly eggs of some species but not for adult butterflies and not for the larval stage of multi-brooded species during their second larval stage. However, drought is not regarded as having a very significant impact on butterfly species although butterflies may be more sensitive to more extreme drought conditions than those defined above.  However useful heat may be in summer, extreme heat in winter has proved harmful to some species.

A study by McDermott Long et al. 2017  that looked at the effect of extreme climate events concluded that butterflies could potentially benefit from increasing temperatures in the UK (and Ireland) in the future, but warmer and wetter winters and increases in severe weather events that have also been predicted (Defra 2009; Jenkins et al. 2009) could be detrimental to the survival of many of its butterfly species, and further research is needed regarding the balance of importance that these variables could have and whether the benefits of warmer summers will be outweighed by the harmful winter effects. Based on the results of this study, future conservation efforts hoping to mitigate against extreme climate events in the future should focus their efforts on the adult and overwintering life stages of our butterflies.

The best way to do this is to ensure that habitats are protected on a landscape scale and this requires very significant changes to the way we live. These changes will impact society, not just on farmers. But change is needed to protect our survival and the survival of our wildlife and habitats.

Changes are being proposed at EU level later in 2021 to address biodiversity loss and climate change and climate change impacts. This includes the EU’s Biodiversity strategy for 2030 (EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030.pdf), which plans to enlarge existing Natura 2000 areas, with strict protection for areas of very high biodiversity and climate value and the EU aims to restore degraded ecosystems by 2030 and manage them sustainably, addressing the key drivers of biodiversity loss.

As part of this plan, the Commission will propose binding nature restoration targets by the end of 2021. The New EU Forest Strategy for 2030 (https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/communication-new-eu-forest-strategy-2030_with-annex_en.pdf) is part of the EU Biodiversity strategy for 2030 and aims to protect, restore and enlarge EU’s forests to combat climate change, reverse biodiversity loss and ensure resilient and multifunctional forest ecosystems. It is interesting that the document notes that climate change is having damaging impacts especially in areas with mono-specific and even-aged forest stands. This is especially relevant in Ireland, where plantation forestry often consists largely of Sitka Spruce, with many areas simply a Sitka monoculture.

We have one of the highest rates of plantation forestry in the EU and the highest share of forest area dominated by introduced tree species, with large plantations of mainly Sitka spruce – native to North America – making up just over half of our entire forest estate. Other non-natives planted include Norway Spruce, Douglas Fir, Larch, and Common Beech (see https://www.thejournal.ie/spruced-up-pt1-5241271-Oct2020/).

Following a State-led plan in the 1950s and 1960s to plant in what was then seen as marginal land, much of it was planted on the very same peatlands and biodiversity-rich areas where remnants of our ancient native mixed-species forests have been discovered.

The latest data from the Forest Service – which sits under the Department of Agriculture (DAFM) – shows that Ireland’s forest estate is 71.2% conifers and 28.7% broadleaves.

The data highlights the dominance of conifer plantations where plots of trees of the same age are planted, thinned, and generally clear-felled after 30 or 40 years and then replanted.

According to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), this form of forestry is one of the biggest pressures on EU-protected habitats such as peatlands, biodiversity-rich semi-natural grasslands, and wetlands and the species that depend on them.

To make matters worse, Government data sent to the European Commission in 2019 shows that managed forestry may be releasing more carbon than it takes in, partly due to drainage and planting on sensitive soils, especially peat soils.

In short, the way Ireland has planted forests is how not to do it. Will we ever learn? We will if the EU forces us to change. This, it appears, is what it takes.

To close on a lighter note, our warm weather is allowing our butterflies and moths, and other insects, to proceed with the business of living. These photographs were taken in the last few days.  The warmth has resulted in such an explosion of moth numbers at my moth trap that bats have appeared to snap up the ones fluttering at roof height and below. A Wren entered my house looking for moths that entered when the windows were left open at night. Against warnings of doom, it is reassuring to see nature playing an intimate part in our lives and blurring the distinction between our external environment and internal spaces. Long may this continue.

Photographs J.Harding

Northern Eggar/Oak Eggar.
Ringlet butterflies, male below.
Gold Spot
Blue-tailed Damselfly (female).
Brimstone (male) on Fragrant Orchid.
Meadow Brown, female on the left.


Something to Mull Over

In the following article, BCI member Fionnuala Parnell brings us news of a wonderful discovery.

Many of us have a butterfly, moth or larva that we would love to see. After the larva of the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth mine was the Mullein Moth larva. Wishful examination of the Mullein plants in my front garden over the years failed to yield any of the colourful creatures. Because they aren’t present in Ireland that was hardly a surprise.

On Monday 12th July I noticed a large white larva with black and yellow markings feeding on figwort in my garden. A dash to consult my Field Guide to the Caterpillars of Great Britain and Ireland led me to three moths: Mullein, Toadflax Brocade and Striped Lychnis. It seemed I had a Mullein Moth larva! Many photos later which I submitted to the Mothsireland FB page, I got confirmation of Mullein. The Mullein Moth has not been recorded in Ireland since 1952 and then only in locations in coastal County Cork. My garden is large and in rural north Co Dublin surrounded by tillage farms.

The garden is managed for insects and, this year has the best growth of Figwort I’ve ever had. Mullein/Verbascum grows in the front garden. A bigger surprise came on Tuesday evening when another larva was discovered on a poor specimen of Figwort in another part of the garden. That one has gone down into the plant pot not to appear again and hopefully will be ok. The original larva is still happily munching away. I will keep watch on the larva and continue to photograph it as it matures. My neighbours have been in to see this wonder and are now on the hunt in their gardens. This has to be the highlight of the year for me although I still long to see that elusive Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth larva.

Editor’s Note: The Mullein moth was declared extinct in Ireland in the Irish macro-moth red list published in 2016 by the National Parks and Wildlife Service  Ireland (Red List No. 9 Macro-moths (Lepidoptera)).

Photos copyright Fionnuala Parnell

Mullein moth larva on figwort
Close up of the feeding larva.
Underside of Mullein larva.

Why is this still happening?

Digger on Drehid Bog. It is likely that this was recently used to destroy part of this species-rich raised bog.
The bog has been cut, in the last few days, at this face.
The bog is being destroyed for turf. Here the turf has been laid out to dry. It will be burned, polluting the atmosphere, damaging human health and the ecosystem. The exposed peat left behind will release Carbon Dioxide, contributing to catastrophic climate change.
The remaining, and still beautiful fragment of raised bog, showing the golden Bog Asphodel.
Bog Asphodel.
The Large Heath butterfly, flying on Drehid Bog today, is reliant on wet, undamaged bogs. This colony, on Drehid Bog, faces extinction.

Drehid Bog, owned by Bord na Móna, is located near Timahoe village in northwest Kildare. This bog contains a high-quality remnant that contains a population of the endangered Large Heath butterfly. It also holds Green Hairstreak, Dark Tussock moth, Oak Eggar, and birds such as Cuckoo, Skylark, and Meadow Pipit (the latter two are birds of conservation concern, amber-listed and red-listed by BirdWatch Ireland).

Last November, Bord na Móna announced that it had ended peat extraction on all its bogs. Along the Derrymahon Road, one entrance to the site had bollards fitted, the other had a gate fitted (this is the gate the bog’s destroyers accessed). The site was safe from further removal of habitat, or so it appeared. Furthermore, this bog is to be restored by Bord na Móna under a government-backed scheme to address atmospheric pollution that is contributing to climate change.

This is not the poverty-stricken Ireland of the 1950s when the population of the Republic of Ireland fell to 2.8 million, with mass emigration to the UK and USA, when people were questioning the wisdom and value of Irish independence. It is not the economically depressed Ireland of the 1980s when our young people fled our shores for decent opportunities in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. This is 2021, when the economy is booming, despite the interruption wrought by the pandemic. In truth, the economic trajectory has been upwards since the mid-1990s. There is just no excuse for destroying our unique wild places if there ever was.

Here is our question.

Why is the damage shown here still going on? Bord na Móna (carrying out the rehabilitation) and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (the peatland rehabilitation scheme is regulated by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS)) need to answer this question.

Update (posted 5th July 2021)

Bord na Móna has confirmed that this is “unauthorised activity”. Their land team is investigating this damage.