The oak has a long and venerable history in Britain and Ireland. We tend to have an affection for the plant, probably because of its famed longevity. I recall seeing an oak plantation in the Nagshead Nature Reserve in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire. The Royal Navy ordered the cultivation of the trees to ensure the high seas fleet had access to oak timber in the years to come. The trees were planted during the Napoleonic Wars 1803-1815, commencing in 1811. 11,000 acres were enclosed for the plantation, which was ordered on foot of a report by Admiral Nelson who expressed alarm that the natural regeneration of oaks was being prevented by hogs that consumed the acorns and deer which barked the trunks of existing trees.
When I stood back and looked carefully, I realized that despite appearances, the woodland at Nagshead is not a natural wood. The trees are even-sized and in rows. The trees have good, straight trunks from which to fashion ship planks and are now ready for harvesting.
In 2004, Admiral Nelson’s flagship, Victory, was refurbished using two of the oaks, in time for the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 2005. The victory was commemorated in the Forest of Dean, including at the Easter Sunday Service in Lydney in 2005, an impressive occasion I was fortunate to attend.
Today, the oaks continue to grow, unharvested, no longer needed for the defence of Britain. The area is still government property, run by Forestry England, but as a nature reserve. Both oaks native to these islands, Sessile Oak Quercus petraea and Pedunculate Oak Quercus robur grow there.
Unlike the situation in England, Ireland is highly deficient in oak woods. Nearly all the oak woods are of Sessile Oak, located in upland areas in Wicklow and Kerry, and often species-poor in terms of the ground flora. The ground flora on these acid soils are typically limited; in Wicklow, the ground flora is often dominated by a dense thatch of Great Wood-rush Luzula sylvatica with Bracken Pteridium aquilinum, ferns and mosses.
Oak woods on fertile lowland soils are very rare in Ireland. This woodland type is known as oak-ash-hazel woodland. These deep, fertile soils rarely hold this native woodland, used instead for grazing livestock and for crops.
Where this woodland exists, the result is often a rich ground flora. The composition of the ground flora varies and may include Ivy Hedera helix, Wood Anemone Anemone nemorosa, Bluebell Hyacinthoides nonscriptus, Wood Avens Geum urbanum, Sanicle Sanicula europaea, Early Dog-violet Viola reichenbachiana, Lords and Ladies Arum maculatum, Ramsons Allium ursinum, Wood Speedwell Veronica montana, Barren Strawberry Potentilla sterilis, Pignut Conopodium majus, False Brome Brachypodium sylvaticum and ferns (Dryopteris filix-mas, Polystichum setiferum, Asplenium scolopendrium, Athyrium filix-femina.)
One example is the ancient wood at Charleville, Tullamore, County Offaly. This wood is remarkable for its highly impressive ancient oaks, especially the most famous Pedunculate Oak in Ireland, the “King Oak.” Even the merest glimpse lets you know that you are gazing at greatness. Massive trunk, long-limbed, and lustily luxuriant foliage, it survived a lightning strike in 1963 that left a wound but this resilient behemoth overcame this shock. It has some help; it is fairly sheltered by its neighbours and some of its lower branches are buttressed. One of the lower limbs is over 76 feet long.
Unlike its younger, more upright fellows, the king no longer produces an abundant acorn crop. The King’s reign appears to be of several hundred years duration already. One expert has speculated that it may be 800 years old. There is no signage to describe its magnificence and importance. Why not?
There are other large oaks in the wood, and some individuals have been aged by tree-ring counts at between 350 and 450 years old. These trees are considered to be indigenous Quercus robur. In an era when we are supposed to be protecting our indigenous biodiversity, buying oaks from nurseries may be deleterious to our remaining indigenous stock, because the acorns often originate in Germany and The Netherlands. Collect your own acorns from the ancient oak wood closest to your locality to continue the aboriginal stock.
Another oak wood type is wet pedunculate oak-ash woodland. This type occurs on seasonally flooded soils. This type has a tall ground flora, consisting of plants that like water-logged or wet soils like Meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria but also plants of drier conditions like Primrose Primula vulgaris, Common Dog-violet Viola riviniana, Enchanter’s-nightshade Circaea lutetiana, Ivy and Bramble Rubus fruticosus agg. Examples are the woodland along the River Barrow near Borris, County Carlow, Garryland Wood, County Galway, and The Gearagh, County Cork.
All three oak wood types are interesting and rich in biodiversity. Oak trees allow light to reach the ground, vital for encouraging ground flora and associated insects. The leaves, flowers, and acorns are very important food for a wide range of invertebrates and birds. Ireland’s oaks directly support at least 67 species of macro moth (they use it as a larval foodplant) and one butterfly, the Purple Hairstreak, a highly localised species given the limited distribution of its habitat. In addition, many micro-moths use oaks for food too.
In addition, other species use oaks for food but in a less direct manner. Sap bleeds are eagerly fed on by Red Admirals, while the aphid ‘honeydew’ secreted on the leaves during July and August are fed on by many insects, including the Holly Blue, Purple Hairstreak, and Comma butterflies. The Silver-washed Fritillary lays its eggs on oak trunks which ideally contain deeply fissured bark on which the butterfly can conceal eggs and where the caterpillar can hibernate.
The leaf litter warms the vegetation that develops around the litter in spring, which is ideal for the caterpillar of the Silver-washed Fritillary which needs warmth around its violets to develop. The leaf litter is also fed on by some invertebrates, including some moth larvae.
The shelter in oak woods provides a refuge for a vast range of species. Extreme temperatures are kept at bay, with a narrower range of warmth and coolness than open grassland. Thus, the woods are great for hibernating moths and butterflies. The Comma shows signs of being adapted to spending its winter in oak woods; the lobed wing outline and dead leaf underside hues help it blend among fallen oak leaves.
The large number of moths using oak leaves for the larval foodplant is a great draw for woodland birds seeking protein to feed their young in spring. The larvae typically start to feed on the leaves shortly after the leaves burst from their buds in spring. Oak woods are incredible places for bird song in spring and early summer, seemingly bursting with life. Sometimes nature in an oak wood surges into overdrive with serious defoliation of the trees. When this happens, the tree looks doomed but reserve buds produce new leaves and the tree survives. Old woodland that has been allowed to grow for a long time will usually have a mix of old and younger trees, resulting in a range of canopy heights, an understorey of younger or smaller tree species, a shrub layer and ground flora. These habitat layers add to the biodiversity of a woodland.
If you want to see how important our native oak woods are, take a spring walk through a coniferous plantation, typically Sitka Spruce Picea sitchensis and Lodgepole Pine Pinus contorta, alien species. These woods are even-aged, of uniform height, extremely quiet, and empty, with little or no ground flora.
Sadly, some of our oak woods contain some plantation forestry and non-native invasive shrubs, especially Cherry Laurel Prunus laurocerasus and Rhododendron Rhododendron ponticum which seriously damages biodiversity. Non-native deciduous trees, such as Sweet Chestnut Castanea sativa Sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus, and Common Beech Fagus sylvatica, do not help either, especially the latter two species, which are highly invasive and have a far lower number of associated invertebrates.
You can help by growing our native trees grown from seed from ancient sources obtained locally. If you are lucky to have plenty of space, plant a native woodland, using the nearest native wood as your template to determine the species that are naturally occurring in your area. If you have a farm but do not want to plant a woodland, plant oaks in your hedgerows and let them grow.
If you have a typical garden, try to grow one or two native trees; there are smaller trees and tall shrubs that can be accommodated: examples include Common Hazel Corylus avellana, Rowan Sorbus aucuparia, Common Holly Ilex aquifolium, Irish Whitebeam Sorbus hibernica, Common Yew Taxus baccata, Common Spindle Euonymus europaeus, Guelder Rose Viburnum opulus, Alder Buckthorn Frangula alnus and Common or Purging Buckthorn Rhamnus cathartica.
These plants greatly trump non-natives in attracting our butterflies, moths, and other invertebrates, but use plants grown from native seed and cuttings. We destroyed our lowland oak woods. Let’s put them back.
October is not the happiest month of the year. Mud-coloured clouds, autumn deluges, diminishing light, and declining warmth signal winter’s onset. The skies are darkening in the global environmental, economic, and political realms too, with little to relieve despondency. Reminders abound that all things must pass, including the happiest experiences of life, and loved ones so deeply missed.
Butterflies are our most beautiful creatures. Aesthetic delight is the antidote to the gloom, brightness that creates hope. Over the years, we have received wonderful accounts about how butterflies helped people to see hope in extreme sadness, particularly at funerals where the sight of a butterfly fluttering around a coffin or alighting on it, inspired faith when all seemed dark.
Recently, a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly danced about the coffin of a relative of my wife’s family. Recalling many accounts I heard over the years, I pondered the meaning of this event.
I lack the skill to shape my response to mystery, but there are some, like the poet Vivienne McKechnie, with the gift to interpret such experiences. In A Butterfly’s Wing, Vivienne explores finding hope amidst grief. Vivienne interprets the sustaining power of beauty and powerfully presents the butterfly, a delicate being, as a metaphor for possibility, resilience, and strength. Taken from her first collection, A Butterfly’s Wing, the eponymous poem following says so much. Enjoy this reflection.
A BUTTERFLY’S WING
Now I linger, looking longingly at every winged being,
knowing the impossibility of a hug,
knowing the fragility of love,
knowing the swiftness of life’s flight.
Now, never thinking of you in the earth,
I see you everywhere.
You, who did not lie down willingly,
but who life took in a sudden stroke.
I, who could only stroke your hand and watch
appalled as you slipped the noose of life
and left me numb.
You were silent and elusive, transient
as the butterfly which appeared at your funeral.
It rose delicately out of the lilies which adorned your coffin
allowing me the poise and sustenance of sudden beauty
to read for your departure.
Now I linger, looking longingly at the Painted Lady
which touches the petals of the rose
and realize that in the fragility of a butterfly’s wing
there is strength enough to fly.
Reproduced with the kind consent of Vivienne McKechnie.
Miss Earth Ireland is an environmentally-themed beauty pageant that promotes conservation and sustainability. This year’s winner of Miss Earth Ireland, Alannah Larkin from Galway, will represent Ireland at the final in The Philippines.
Alannah and her mother visited Lullymore in search of butterflies and beautiful habitat. Happily, the weather held good so Alannah was able to enjoy the late summer flora, especially the blue haze that radiated from the mass blooming of Devil’s-bit Scabious.
Alannah, whose favourite butterfly is the endangered Small Blue, is planning to promote the cause of butterfly conservation through her social media output.
Butterfly Conservation Ireland congratulates Alannah for her success in the competition and we wish her every success in the Miss Earth final in November.
I will lead them up and down. (III. ii) Midsummer Night’s Dream
In the 1992 EU Habitats’ Directive, member states of the European Union were obliged to protect from harm certain habitats. Member states were to submit sites to the EU as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), according to criteria drawn up by the EU. The Directive was transposed into Irish law in 1997. Some bogs both raised and blanket bogs were designated as SACs. These are to be maintained and in some or even in all cases restored to the condition needed for full ecosystem functioning.
6,345 sq. km. of our land is designated as an SAC or 9% of the land area of the Republic of Ireland.
So much for what was supposed to happen. Now the truth.
The SAC bogs, instead of being maintained, are being destroyed by mining operations, reducing the bog area until in many cases the bog no longer corresponds to the criteria for which it was designated as an SAC. There are now moves to de-designate some of the SAC bogs that have been destroyed.
This ongoing damage is well-known to the Irish Government. Here is an extract from the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) description of All Saints’ Bog SAC:
An extensive area in the north-east corner of the bog, representing about 20% of the bog surface, is being cut for turf, with drains running into the eastern edge of the birch woodland. This appears to be leading to the bog drying out, as the surface is reported to be much drier than when first surveyed in the mid-1980s. (https://www.npws.ie/sites/default/files/protected-sites/synopsis/SY000566.pdf)
The damage is ongoing and is observed by NPWS using drones and aircraft, but nothing is being done. The steady march to oblivion of our national heritage is being ‘monitored.’
There is a weak scheme dated July 2021 called the Protected Raised Bog Restoration Incentive Scheme (PRBRIS) which is a voluntary scheme for owners and those with turf-cutting rights. This scheme offers payments to owners and those with turf-cutting rights whose land is within an SAC or National Heritage Area (NHA). These can opt to sell the land to the state or accept compensation for not cutting the bog (see https://www.npws.ie/sites/default/files/files/prbris-terms-and-conditions-english.pdf). The document states the cessation of peat-cutting and non-interference with the bog hydrology must be in perpetuity for its land management agreement scheme.
Why does the state not purchase the raised bog SACs and National Heritage Areas (NHAs), and avoid the damage being wrought on our most sensitive habitats? The EU Commission has finally lost patience with the Irish Government (after warning the Irish Government about its inactivity since 2011) and on September 29th, 2022 it threatened to refer Ireland to the Court of Justice of the European Union within two months unless the Government takes effective action to halt the continued cutting of peat within Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) designated to conserve raised bogs and blanket bogs under the Habitats Directive.
The Commission notes:
cutting activities are still ongoing and enforcement action appears to have stalled. Restoration activities have begun on some raised bogs SACs, but this is too slow given the importance of this priority habitat and its precarious state. With regard to blanket bogs SACs, there appears to be no regime controlling ongoing cutting with the cutting for domestic use exempt from control.
The Commission has dragged its feet too, despite numerous complaints from Irish citizens and organisations. Soon there will be no bogs left to protect, and the issue will be dropped.
That is my personal reading of the situation and appears to be how turf-cutter representatives see it too. Recently, a spokesman for turf cutters countered calls for cutting to stop by saying that “It is coming to an end anyway.” It is coming to an end because the bogs are almost gone.
We are being led up and down. The Government has no interest in biodiversity, carbon absorption, flood and pollution control, or the rule of law when it comes to the environment, just doing as little as possible and getting away with it.
Without a dramatic change in attitude, there will be no chance for our bogs. Let us hope that attitudes don’t change when it is too late.
Attitude lies at the heart of this existential crisis for our bogs. Bogs have often been ignored or dismissed. Even the great naturalist and botanist, Robert Lloyd Praeger, had nothing positive to say about Ireland’s bogs:
Offaly…is the most bog-covered part of the Central Plain, no less than one-fifth of its area buried under that strange vegetable blanket. But the remainder makes up for this by being often pleasant well-farmed country, with plenty of trees and some good towns. (The Way that I Went, p. 237)
Praeger was and is wrong. Bogs are crucial habitats for rare biodiversity, such as the Eurasian Curlew, Merlin, Hen Harrier, Eurasian Skylark, Meadow Pipit, the Large Heath butterfly, a range of mosses and other bog specialist plants like Bog Rosemary. The area just above the bog surface teems with activity from late April to October, with bees, flies, moths and butterflies with the soundtrack of bog birds, from the Cuckoo to Willow Warbler, adding aural texture and warmth to the wilderness experience of an undulating habitat extending to the horizon, engendering a feeling of being a small individual in a vast void, with nothing between you and the sky. It is a landscape of dreams, of imagination, of escape from today’s bland, impoverished agricultural land where little remains of wildlife that once found their homes on the farm.
Do not buy peat, wherever it comes from, in any form, for any purpose. This defends our peatland heritage although it must be admitted that for most of our bogs, it is too late to save them as they were when R.L. Praeger dismissed them in the 1930s.
Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s reserve at Lullybeg in County Kildare is one of only two reserves in Ireland managed with the needs of butterflies as the main priority. The other example is located nearby in Lullymore West, managed by the Irish Peatland Conservation Council.
Both reserves contain mosaics of grassland, scrub, woodland, and open water. In addition, Lullybeg Reserve contains bare peat and marl soil, which is very beneficial for butterflies. Both areas support orchids, which are mentioned not because these are particularly important for butterflies but because orchids are generally indicative of ecological richness.
Grazing and scrub control is applied on the reserve to maintain open habitats. These are rich and varied on Lullybeg; applying level 3 of the Fossitt Classification Codes and Descriptions, the grasslands/heath that Lullybeg contains are wet grassland (some is calcareous and in places wet grassland grades into poor fen and flush), dry-humid acid grassland, marsh, and wet heath.
These habitat conditions provide a home for a high range of moths and butterflies as well as hundreds of other invertebrate species.
A bumper Marsh Fritillary population during the flight period in May and June is indicated by a transect count of 95 Marsh Fritillaries on the 27th of May with many other Marsh Fritillaries present elsewhere on the reserve outside the transect line (a transect is a fixed route where butterflies seen 2.5 metres on either side and 5 metres ahead are counted). A search on the 28th of August revealed 73 Marsh Fritillary larval nests, with a further nine nests on the ground directly adjoining the reserve located on the 1st of September. This figure of 82 larval nests represents the highest abundance yet recorded on the reserve and vicinity.
The positive conservation outcome does not end with the Marsh Fritillary butterfly’s upward trajectory, which has been building steadily from a low point in 2015.
The Marsh Fritillary breeds on a perennial flower called Devil’s-bit Scabious. The Marsh Fritillary caterpillars feed mainly on the basal leaves of the plant. The plant produces many nectar-rich flowers on branched stalks. These are in bloom mainly in August and September and into October. Because the plant which is abundant on the reserve produces a mass of flowers throughout late summer into mid-autumn, the reserve is very attractive to late-flying butterflies and moths.
One of the late flyers is the Comma butterfly. This species was not part of our butterfly fauna until the early 2000s, when it colonized the extreme southeast of Ireland, probably from southwest England. It was confirmed breeding in Ireland only in May 2014 and is spreading northward and westward. In 2019 the Comma was seen on the reserve when just one was seen. No Comma was seen there in 2020 and 2021, but several have been seen on the reserve this year, with 12 Commas seen on Devil’s-bit Scabious on the reserve on the 24th of September 2022, after five were observed on September 20th.
This abundance strongly suggests local breeding. It might be using nettles on the reserve or nearby, perhaps on nettles growing on the bank of the Crabtree River. Unlike its relatives, the Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock, the Comma is rarely found in abundance so finding 12 individuals on the site is noteworthy.
After feeding for a few days, the Commas will settle deep in wooded cover, wings closed, until spring. There is an abundance of such cover on the reserve, so it is expected that the butterfly will use the wooded habitat for over-wintering as well as feeding up for their long sleep on the open grasslands.
This autumn the Red Admiral has been present in good numbers too, feeding alongside the Comma. But the Red Admiral has a different strategy for dealing with the long, cold, nectarless months: migration. When the reserve’s Red Admirals are well stocked with nectar, they will fly south, making landfall in warmer parts of Europe where they will breed. Red Admiral migration certainly occurred between September 20th when 41 were counted and September 24th when just six remained.
I saw what must have been a migration flight by a Red Admiral on the 24th of September 2022. It flew up from Devil’s-bit Scabious, directly over my head, and flew strongly upwards in a southerly direction until it vanished from sight. It began its upward flight at a c. 45-degree angle, ascending afterward at about 60 degrees, and before disappearing from view its angle of ascent increased. The wind was northerly, about force 2-3 on the Beaufort Scale, ideal for a southbound butterfly.
These are just some of the highlights from the reserve. You can read a more comprehensive report on the reserve’s progress in our forthcoming Annual Report 2022.