Fahee North Butterfly Walk May 21, 2022

It seems wrong to start an event report with an ugly image of wanton ecological vandalism, but this scene pictured below, close to the Burren limestone near Gort, underscores in stark reality the brutality being meted out to our country, Europe and the planet. A more savage scene, of bulldozed limestone pavement near the Burren College of Art dragged my mood to a darker place. According to the Natural History Museum in London, out of all EU countries (including the UK) only Malta is worse in terms of biodiversity loss than Ireland.

See

https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2020/september/uk-has-led-the-world-in-destroying-the-natural-environment.html#:~:text=While%20countries%20such%20as%20Canada,UK%20only%20has%2050.3%25%20remaining.

This puts Ireland in the bottom 10% of countries globally in terms of biodiversity intactness. We have no natural habitats left, and our semi-natural habitats continue to suffer an onslaught. The greatest reason for biodiversity loss in Ireland is the change in land use, mostly for agriculture. Other drivers include climate change, pollution and invasive non-native species. The issues shown in this photograph are land-use change and pollution (increased carbon emissions).

Scrub, grassland and limestone were destroyed near Gort, County Galway.
View of Fahee North, County Clare, looking west from the Burren Perfumery. Idyllic vistas like this are declining in number, and many that are pictured require clever camera orientation to conceal habitat loss.

The Butterfly walk at Fahee North just north of the Burren Perfumery was eagerly anticipated. The walk, in outstanding and varied habitat in late spring, promised to yield so many species, including several rarities. But the weather was against us. Despite the forecast of sunny spells, it rained for much of the walk, although not heavily, which meant we saw no butterflies on the grassy area adjoining the road.

The habitat ingredients are all there and brightened by Early Purple Orchids. Added to this the site is managed for nature, with extensive cattle grazing and scrub control applied. But butterflies, especially spring species, are fussy about weather, and stubbornly remain out of sight during rain. Higher air temperatures in summer allow butterflies, notably the Dark Green Fritillary, Meadow Brown and Ringlet to fly in light rain, but in May butterflies refuse to do that.

We looked at various habitat features that favour butterflies, and we found Orange-tip eggs on Cuckoo Flower (we glimpsed a Cuckoo too!) growing at the edge of a stream, typically one egg per flowerhead.

We entered the limestone pavement (shattered type with some larger pavement) immediately west of the grassland and it was very interesting to note the change in temperature-the heat rising from the limestone juxtaposed with the cooler adjoining wet grassland. The cloud was thinning and finally, a Dingy Skipper darted into view. Everyone was impressed with this characterful butterfly, and we compared him with a male Common Heath moth, with both looking superficially similar on the wing.

I kept promising that any sun would yield a Pearl-bordered Fritillary, and flashes of yellow were reported, but no fritillary was confirmed.

Finally, there she was, in a really sheltered opening, fluttering low before alighting on a slab of warming stone. Netted and jarred, she was shown to her admirers. A major ‘tick’ for many in our band, some coming from Dublin to see their first Pearl-bordered Fritillary.

Then a snow-white female Wood White appeared, powdered white like an aristocratic lady from a Jane Austen novel. Her delicate, ponderous flight, gracefully slow motion, earned her praise.

Then a Dew Moth was caught and shown, its lovely deep yellow marked with black dots imbuing it with a taste of the exotic, and exotic it is, because this is a rare species in Ireland although happily not currently regarded as under threat, unlike the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, rated Endangered or the Near Threatened Wood White.

Abruptly, the walk ended as many of those attending were on their way to another walk elsewhere as part of the Burren in Bloom Festival. But everyone left happy, as the weather gave us just a glimpse of the glories of the Burren.

Glories like the butterflies and habitats shown in this post must be treasured. Beautiful, rare butterflies like the Pearl-bordered Fritillary cling on to their limestone habitats and are not found elsewhere in Ireland. Once destroyed, the habitat and butterfly are gone forever.

Our count of enchanted objects must diminish no further.

Brimstone caterpillar on Purging Buckthorn, Fahee North, County Clare. The caterpillar, in its first instar, is near the leaf stalk. J. Harding
A Pearl-bordered Fritillary rests on a hazel leaf. The butterflies seem to materialize by magic when the sun shines.J. Harding
Pearl-bordered Fritillary male basking on limestone during a cloudy interval. J. Harding
Wood White male on Herb Robert, Fahee North, County Clare. J. Harding
Dew Moth, Fahee North, County Clare. J. Harding
Transparent Burnet Moth, near Lough Bunny, County Clare. J. Harding

Thanks to all who attended the walk, and a special thanks to Pranjali from the Burrenbeo Trust, who helped to organize this event, a collaboration between Butterfly Conservation Ireland and Burrenbeo Trust.

 

 

 

 

May Moths

Below is a sample of the moths flying in May. All are nocturnal, as are 95% of our moths, except for the final moth, the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth, a day-flying bee mimic. We have over 1500 moth species in Ireland. Here are just a few.

Common Swift. This moth’s caterpillar feeds on the roots of grasses and other wild and cultivated plants.
Rustic Shoulder-knot. The larva feeds above ground on grass leaves, such as on Cock’s-foot Grass.
Broken-barred Carpet. This moth breeds on native trees including Common Hawthorn, Downy Birch and Pedunculate Oak. 
Pale Tussock moth. This species is better known for its funky, punk-rock larva.
Muslin Moth. The Irish form is cream-coloured, and the form in Britain is brown.
Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth. This moth flies and buzzes, like a bee.

 

Spring Scenes

The photographs that follow were taken this spring and show what is available right now. Get out and enjoy our wildlife!

The Purple Hairstreak caterpillars are busy feeding on fresh oak leaves and oak catkins, before the tree manages to pump tannin into the leaves, making them unpalatable. The availability of nitrogen is highest in oak leaves in spring, which is a further factor for early feeding by the caterpillars of the Brown Hairstreak, Winter Moth and Brindled Green Moth, among others.
This female Orange-tip has perched on the flowerhead of Cow Parsley, a favourite resting place. Her mossy undersides blend seamlessly with the frothy green and white mass, making her surprisingly hard to find. This butterfly will feed on Common Dandelion and other spring flowers but will lay her eggs on various crucifers, especially Cuckoo Flower. However, this female will not find it easy to find Cuckoo Flowers locally, as many of her fields have been sprayed with herbicide.
A male Orange-tip, showing why the butterfly is so-called. He is one of our most attractive spring butterflies, bringing the purest of delights as one sees his burning orange tips contrasted with the ice-white of the basal area of his forewing uppersides. He will be seen patrolling hedgerows from April to early July in search of a mate.
This newly emerged female Holly Blue is basking with opened wings during weak sunlight. Unfortunately, her uppersides are rarely seen in bright light, when they look exquisite, gleaming a deeper lilac-blue rather than powder blue as seen here. She will soon be scouring hedges for female Common Holly, which she uses as a key breeding plant, laying her eggs singly on embryonic berries.
This male Speckled Wood is basking on a Hogweed leaf. When warm enough, the male will patrol his territory, ejecting other males and pursuing females.
A female Brimstone laying on Alder Buckthorn. She is laying on a stem near the base of an unfurled leaf.
Here is a female Smooth Newt, busy breeding in weedy ponds on neutral and base-rich soils. She lays her eggs singly, inserting them into vegetation and securing them by glueing the aquatic vegetation around the soft, edible egg for protection.
Unimproved grassland on mildly alkaline/neutral soil, showing mass flowering of nectar-rich Common Dandelions, a favourite for all spring butterflies and bees.
Early Bumblebee on Common Dandelion. This bee will nest in old bird’s nests and rodent burrows. She has one yellow band on the thorax, one yellow band on the front of her abdomen and a reddish tip on her abdomen.
A Wall Brown pupa on fescue grass. This endangered butterfly has two or three generations each year, with the first emerging from April to June, arising from caterpillars that developed over the winter and earlier in spring. This pupa is about one month old. Shortly before the butterfly emerges, the wing colours can be seen through the wing cases.
This tiny Small Copper butterfly has just hatched and is holding his territory that extends from a farm gate, along a hedge to the corner of the field about 30 metres away. He hopes that a female will fly into his patch, attracted by the warm, sheltered conditions and nectar sources.

All photographs copyright J. Harding.

 

 

 

Butterflies of Siena

The Italian region of Tuscany is known for its high culture, history and landscapes. The birthplace of the Renaissance, Tuscany boasts great artistic masterpieces such as Florence Cathedral, perhaps most renowned for Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome, its bronze baptistry doors and frescoes, Michelangelo’s statue of the biblical David (Florence) that slew Goliath (France), Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus, the Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci. Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa with its magnificent cathedral and tower are more icons of the great age of art while the gentle rolling hills with vineyards, olive groves and hilltop woods, towering Apennine mountains and plains are pleasing to the eye. The cuisine is another feature of interest, being simple yet satisfying. Legumes, bread, cheese, vegetables, mushrooms, and fresh fruit are used. Wild Boar is a staple on menus.

Florence Cathedral.

Life seems easy there, and little wonder why. There are four seasons, and while the summer months are hot, autumn and spring temperatures are mild-warm. It rains, sometimes heavily, but summer is generally dry. November is the wettest month, but rainy periods occur in spring. Overall, the temperatures outside the summer months are not extreme, making for a pleasant experience.

The environs of Siena in April 2022. This photograph was taken at the edge of the city.

I visited the university town, Siena, twice, in September 2021 and April 2022, with similar maximum daytime temperatures in these months. A walled redbrick Medieval city, in the south of Tuscany, Siena is known for its enormous square, the Piazzo del Campo, with its showpiece town hall, The Palazzo Pubblico, much of it built between 1297 and 1310, and its steep narrow streets, for this city is constructed on three hills. The city is without the despoilation wrought by cheap contemporary architecture. Despite the dominance of clay brick and travertine stone, the city contains relieving green spaces and is compact, not sprawling, with greenery beyond the walls easily reached on foot.

The Palazzo Pubblico, in the Piazza del Campo, Siena.

On arrival on April 12th, I began to search for the best habitats, hoping to see butterflies new to me. As April is quite early for butterflies and I was not looking in habitats of special character, I felt my chances of seeing rarities and species I had yet to see were limited.

Tuesday 12th was blue-skied and warm, so I checked a steep grassy embankment overlooking the heavily wooded valley in Siena that I searched last September. Back then, Wall Browns Lasiommata megera, Meadow Browns Maniola jurtina and Small Heaths Coenonympha pamphilus were present, and two of these were there in April-the odd one out being Meadow Brown, a single-brooded butterfly not yet in flight.

Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria aegeria, Siena.

These were joined by Brimstones Gonepteryx rhamni, Large Whites Pieris brassicae and Small Whites Artogoeia rapae, Orange-tips Anthocharis cardamines, Holly Blues Celestrina argiolus, Small Coppers Lycaena phlaeas, Speckled Woods Pararge aegeria and Common Swallowtails Papilio machaon (not present in Ireland). In Ireland, one does not see the Brimstone in built-up areas; indeed, I saw one in the Piazza della Signoria, the main square in Florence. The avoidance of built environments in Ireland extends to the Small Copper, Wall Brown, and Small Heath, all strictly countryside species here.

This grassy embankment in the town holds a range of species, including Common Swallowtail, Small Copper, Wall Brown, and Small Heath.
Common Swallowtail, first generation, Siena.

A closer look at the Brimstone and Small Copper confirmed the differences between the Irish race and their Italian conspecifics; the Irish Brimstone has larger underside blotches while the male is paler than his Italian cousin. The Irish Small Copper has grey, not beige underside colouring, and a redder hindwing band. Their Speckled Woods are strikingly different to ours: we have the subspecies tircis, with cream dappling on chocolate brown wings replaced with orange on aegeria, the colour form found in Siena and most of Europe.

Irish Small Copper. Note the grey undersides (hindwing and forewing apex and margin) and crimson band compared with the paler specimens from Siena below.
Small Coppers mating in Siena, female on the left.

Exiting the town via Porta Tufi or Tufi Gate, I quickly found patches of uncultivated land containing light woodland, scrub, hedges and open grassland, some of it containing colonies of the Green-winged Orchid Orchis morio, a rare plant in Ireland. Just a ten-minute walk from Siena, it felt like a world away. In addition to the butterflies already seen, I happily discovered more. In a grassy field dominated by buttercups, I found Green Hairstreak Callophry rubi, Sooty Copper Lycaena tityrus, Green-underside Glaucopsyche alexis, and Scarce Swallowtail Iphiclides podalirius.

Grassy field containing Scarce Swallowtail, Green-underside Blue, Sooty Copper…

A reminder of home, the Green Hairstreak was found in a habitat I have never seen it use in Ireland. It was flying in a grassy field, which was quite well vegetated but with fairly dry soil. In Ireland, it is strongly associated with wet places, especially bogs and wet heath. Unlike most Irish specimens, the example I saw had almost no white markings on its undersides.

Green Hairstreak, Siena.

The same small grassy field yielded two more gems; a Sooty Copper and a Green-underside Blue, neither of which I’d seen before. The Sooty Copper is around the same size as the Small Copper but rather darker on its uppersides. It behaves quite similarly too, and the one I saw was a female, and she posed often, making photographing her quite easy, although she perched with angled wings, like the Small Copper so a full image of outstretched wings is rarely possible.

Sooty Copper upperside, Siena.
Sooty Copper, underside, Siena.

The Green-underside Blue is one of the easiest continental blues to identify and as the photograph shows, it lives up to its vernacular name. A spring and early summer species, it is a delightful creature. I wish I managed a photograph of the uppersides, a deep blue in the male that is unforgettable.

Green-underside Blue, Siena.

Two lovely Scarce Swallowtails fluttered around high scrub before departing, not landing low for a photo! The spring generation usually feeds on tree blossom, as the nectar-rich grassland flora is not available to it in spring. But just to see these large, exotic butterflies fluttering delicately in the warming air brought pleasure!

An adjoining field with herb-rich vegetation added a female wood white (not identified at species level), Clouded Yellow Colias crocea, and Grizzled Skipper Pyrgus malvae (busy laying her eggs, singly, on the underneath of leaves of a potentilla species, possibly Creeping Cinquefoil Potentilla reptans). This was the first sighting of this dizzyingly difficult flyer for me. Its sharp chequered pattern adds to its dizzying flight pattern, making tracking it tricky. Later, I saw it in a park in the city, on similar grassy vegetation. This little spring butterfly, single-brooded or double brooded depending on locality and latitude, also occurs as a scarce butterfly in the south of England but it is not present in Ireland.

Grizzled Skipper female, Siena.

Nearby, another skipper, another first, the Mallow Skipper Carcharodus alceae. Larger, and much duller, this breeds on Mallow Malva sylvestris. Males have a strange habit of lowering their wings below their thorax and elevating their abdomens, in low light and low temperature. Captive males kept in darkness retain their bizarre-looking posture for hours.  The males I saw were not put in this situation and did not perch in any spot for long.

Mallow Skipper male, Siena.

Further out in the field while observing a male Common Blue Polyommatus icarus I spotted a fidgety copper butterfly looking for a place to lay her eggs. I was delighted to see another species for the first time, the Lesser Fiery Copper Lycaena thersamon. The butterfly is absent from most of Europe, being found in Italy and the Balkans. It breeds on a fairly common plant, Common Knotweed Polygonum aviculare. While she would not sit still, I managed a half-decent photo, enough to identify her!

Lesser Fiery Copper, Siena.

While chasing her up the steep slope a Clouded Yellow crossed my path, one of several I saw including some seen from the train window on route to Siena, along with the occasional Geranium Bronze Cacyreus marshalli, a curious little butterfly now established in southern Europe from South Africa. It is described as a “pest on Pelargonium cultivars” but it rarely if ever destroys these ornamental plants. The walk back to the city yielded a fleeting glimpse of a male Cleopatra Gonepteryx cleopatra, a Brimstone with a deep orange splash on the forewing upperside. Alas, he did not pause for a photo!

A female Brimstone on a Green-winged Orchid.

This April, I recorded 23 butterfly species in and around Siena. The area is not known for its biodiversity but to a person from Ireland or Britain, it offers plenty of excitement. Interestingly, the city is divided into contradas, or districts, each with a symbol. One contrade is named Bruco, the caterpillar. Its insignia is a rather aggressive green caterpillar on a rose. While the origin of the name is unclear, Bruco’s residents worked in the silk trade, offering a likely background to the title. The contrada is famous for leading a rebellion in 1371, to overthrow the Sienese council and establish a people’s government. This great change alludes, fancifully at least, to a caterpillar’s metamorphosis via the chrysalis, a symbol of change.

Hopefully, the presence of butterflies in and around Siena will continue, a feature that adds to the charm of the area for the travelling naturalist.

The Small Heath is abundant in Siena, and flies in at least two generations, while in Ireland it has one brood.

All photographs © J. Harding

Conservation of Butterflies Across the European Union

Europe’s butterflies are in crisis, especially populations in Northern Europe, and especially grassland butterflies. There has been a 75% decline in insect biomass in reserves in western Germany over 27 years Hallman et al. (2017). In northern Germany, the populations of Marsh Fritillary are being supported by importing caterpillars from Denmark.  Denmark has lost the Swallowtail Papilio machaon. The declines are not confined to northern Europe. According to Laszio Rakosy, a Romanian expert, the Apollo Parnassius apollo has been lost from the Romanian Carpathians over the past 25 years. Malta has, it seems, lost the Brown Argus Aricia agestis and Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas and may lose their endemic Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina hyperhispulla.

Apollo upperside and underside. It is a montane species that is declining in many areas. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies the Apollo as ‘near threatened’ in Austria. In other countries, it is critically endangered (e.g. in Poland), or extinct (e.g. in the Czech Republic). Photo Michael Friel

The EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 offers some hope for habitats in the EU. Member states must send in pledges to the European Commission to protect 30% of the land and sea area of the EU. Protected Area Pledges are needed to contribute to EU level targets for well-managed and protected areas across 30% of EU land. The situation across the EU for grassland butterflies is deteriorating. In the Article 17 Reports 2013-2018, the conservation status of the various grassland types protected under the Habitats’ Directive, such as calcareous grassland, Nardus grassland, Molinia grassland, lowland and upland hay meadows was recorded as unfavourable in most regions.

What are Article 17 Reports?

Article 11 of the Habitats Directive 1992 requires EU member states to monitor the habitats and species listed in the annexes (habitats in Annex I and species in Annexes II, IV and V of the Habitats’ Directive), and Article 17 requires a report to be sent to the European Commission every 6 years following an agreed format. The core of the ‘Article 17’ report is the assessment of the conservation status of the habitats and species targeted by the directive.

Article 17 reporting covers the habitats and species in the whole territory of the Member State concerned, not only those within Natura 2000 sites.

Conservation status is assessed using a standard methodology as being either ‘favourable’, ‘unfavourable-inadequate’ and ‘unfavourable-bad’, based on four parameters as defined in Article I of the Directive. The parameters for habitats are range, area, structure and functions, and future prospects. For species, the parameters are range, population, habitat of species and future prospects. The conservation status of each habitat and species is assessed separately for each biogeographical or marine region in which it occurs (https://www.eionet.europa.eu/etcs/etc-bd/activities/reporting/article-17).

Why is Action Needed?

The main problem lies with the condition of habitats. The prevalence of threats to grasslands described in the Article 17 reports show that abandonment of grassland management (no grazing or cutting of vegetation) is the chief threat, with 385 mentions in the reports. The second most prevalent is mowing or cutting of grasslands at 254 mentions, followed by overgrazing (240), natural succession resulting in change in the species present (148), use of chemicals to protect certain agricultural plants (111), afforestation (110), conversion from one type of farming use to another (87), conversion from other land uses to housing, settlement and recreational use (78), use of synthetic fertiliser on farmland (76), collection of wild plants and animals (72) and conversion to other forest types including monocultures (70). This information is derived from EU member state reports, so the causes of decline and the improvement steps needed are known. This needs to start in protected areas and in the new protected areas.

Solutions to be tailored to Species’ Habits

Simona Bonelli, from the University of Turin, believes that butterfly experts across the continent have the data and scientific knowledge to identify new areas that require protection under the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 which aims to protect 30% of the land area of the EU. Often the current protected areas are too small, and not well managed. Such distribution data and knowledge of the needs of specialised butterflies (specialised butterflies are those with highly specific habitat needs) can be applied to expand protected areas for species like the Scarce Large Blue Phengaris teleius in northern Italy.

What about species that move in a landscape, such as the Southern Swallowtail Papilio alexanor, which is expected to move due to climate change? Bonelli suggests mapping likely future habitat and stepping stones likely to be used to reach this future habitat to ensure these areas are safeguarded.

For protected habitat specialist butterflies such as the Apollo Parnassius apollo that is currently well distributed in alpine areas in Italy, the approach being used is to calculate the Favourable Reference Value for the population to judge how many sites must be placed under protection. To calculate Favourable Reference Value, required viable population size or species-specific or habitat type-specific features such as habitat suitability or required area for proper functioning are considered. Such an approach has been described to protect the Apollo in the Italian Alps (Bonelli et al. 2021).

For rare endemic species, such as Sardinian Chalkhill Blue Polyommatus gennargenti, specific action plans are needed to cover issues such as monitoring population size, high-resolution distribution data and management of protected areas.

A further approach that can be applied in Ireland is the umbrella approach. Some habitats regarded as priority habitats under the EU Habitats’ Directive such as semi-natural dry grasslands (EU Habitat Code 6210) are species-rich. By identifying areas of this habitat containing endangered butterflies protected under the EU Habitats’ Directive, such as the Marsh Fritillary, a case can be made for including such areas within the enlarged protected areas required under the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030. Protecting habitats for the Marsh Fritillary protects many other species, making the Marsh Fritillary an umbrella species.

For species that appear to have adequate protected areas but which are suffering from changes occurring in these areas, such as changing farming practices, we need to work to persuade farmers to adopt measures to protect the habitat. Beautiful, charismatic species like the Large Copper Lycaena dispar should be used to promote the protective practice, using funding from the CAP and other sources. Agricultural intensification is a great threat to this and many butterflies.

Large Copper, a beautiful species that can be used to publicise the need for conservation practices. Photo J. Harding.

The False Ringlet Coenonympha oedippus, a species in decline across the EU needs another approach. This species breeds in Molinia grasslands, and the larval foodplants are winter greens. The larva needs structured vegetation with leaf litter.  Populations are being lost from protected sites because of natural succession. Action plans need to be written with a clear management prescription.

Overall, Bonelli believes that management and monitoring (especially the use of citizen science), as well as protection from damaging activities are key to butterfly recovery. The approach she suggests is integrating the Butterfly Monitoring Scheme with specific guidelines for monitoring species listed in the Habitats’ Directive (in Ireland’s case, the Marsh Fritillary, currently under-monitored here). This approach requires working with citizen scientists and experts.

Conclusion

While Butterfly Conservation Ireland, the Irish Peatland Conservation Council and the National Biodiversity Data Centre monitor the Marsh Fritillary, we simply do not have enough transects (fixed-route walks carried out annually) to monitor this butterfly. A serious effort to apply the Favourable Reference Value to assess the Marsh Fritillary’s populations in important landscapes, like the Burren, Sheskinmore and Ballydermot in County Kildare, should be used by the state to increase the protected areas that Ireland needs to pledge to the EU by the end of 2022 to help to address the biodiversity crisis afflicting our world.

While the measures proposed by Simona Bonelli would be very welcome if applied these are not adequate to protect butterflies and biodiversity across the European landscape. Most of our landscapes will not be strictly protected and even strictly protected areas will not necessarily benefit from these measures in the absence of much wider changes in how society operates. Pollution is playing a major role in biodiversity loss. The harm caused by atmospheric nitrogen deposition, raised CO2 levels, is now being studied.

Of interest are the findings in a German study by Habel et al. (2015) entitled Butterfly community shifts over two centuries. This looked at the impact of atmospheric nitrogen loads and climate change over the period 1840-2013. The study found that high rates of atmospheric nitrogen deposition (from exhaust emissions, the burning of fossil fuels, wood, industrial incineration and the application of nitrate fertilisers) change nutrient-poor ecosystems, resulting in the replacement of plants in nutrient-poor habitats with plants that enjoy soils enriched with nitrogen. This results in butterflies that depend on nutrient-poor habitats, such as limestone grassland and heathland, disappearing, leaving a smaller number of butterfly and moth species that are adapted to plants containing high nitrogen levels.

The study further suggests that while habitat generalists (like the Peacock) have benefited from increasing temperatures, habitat specialists have been negatively affected by increasing temperatures and rainfall. These effects may be explained by increased vegetation growth rates triggered by the combination of increased moisture, temperature, and atmospheric nitrogen. Greatly increased vegetation growth may also explain the apparently paradoxical situation that heat-loving species are declining in response to increased temperatures. However, higher vegetation growth rates, fostered by the combination of increasing plant nutrients, precipitation, and higher temperatures may produce a cooler and more humid microclimate close to the soil. The environment just above the soil is of particular importance in the development of the larvae of many butterfly species, including the Small Heath and Wall Brown. Eeles (2019) reports elevated levels of carbon dioxide which increases larval development times as another possible reason for the decline in the Small Heath.

The Small Heath is a widespread butterfly across Europe and attention is mostly focused on much less widespread species that are judged to require special protection. However, the decline in widespread grassland butterflies should set the alarm ringing, the proverbial canary in the mine. Unless the drivers of climate change are tackled, no amount of site protection will save our biodiversity.

The full Butterfly Conservation Europe event held on 29th March 2022 to discuss butterfly conservation across the European Union can be accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1PUk__cO_o&t=2175s

References:

Eeles, P. (2019) Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies. Pisces Publications, Berkshire.

Bonelli, S.,  Barbero, F.,  Zampollo, A.,  Cerrato, C., Genovesi, P.,  La Morgia, V., (2021) Scaling-up targets for a threatened butterfly: A method to define Favourable Reference Values, Ecological Indicators, Volume 133, 2021, 108356, ISSN 1470-160X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolind.2021.108356

Habel, J., Segerer, A., Ulrich, W., Torchyk, O., Weisser, W., and Schmitt, T., (2015). Butterfly community shifts over two centuries. Conservation Biology, Volume 30, No. 4, 754–762, accessed 28 December 2020, https://conbio-onlinelibrary-wiley-com.jproxy.nuim.ie/doi/epdf/10.1111/cobi.12656

Hallmann CA., Sorg M., Jongejans E., Siepel H., Hofland N., Schwan H., et al. (2017) More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0185809. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185809

 

National Garden Butterfly Survey 2022 Starts Now

Butterfly Conservation Ireland members and members of the public are invited to participate in Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s garden survey.  If you have been involved up to now, we’d love you to continue. The survey period runs from March to November inclusive. The survey form is available as a download from www.butterflyconservation.ie (see also below) and by post on request. The form asks you to record the first date each butterfly listed on the form was first recorded in their garden in each of the following three-month periods: March-May, June-August, and September-November. In a final column, the highest number of each butterfly species seen and the peak abundance date is given.

Finally, you are asked to indicate which of the following attractants are provided in their gardens: Buddleia, butterfly nectar plants other than Buddleia and larval food plants. Twenty butterflies are listed for recording. All Ireland’s butterflies can be seen by clicking on Gallery. Hover over each image for the species name.

Gallery

At the end of the year, a report is made that comments on the flight season, outlines the status of these butterflies in gardens, offers interpretations and comments on the findings. The report concludes by urging conservation and involvement in recording garden butterflies. Last year’s report can be found in the Annual Report under Garden Survey Report:

Butterfly Conservation Ireland Annual Report 2021

The garden butterfly recording season begins in March. March 2022 has been cool, with sunshine and strong wind on some days and cloudy with heavy rain on others. We are not having an early season this year, unlike 2019 when the butterfly flight season began in earnest in mid-February, the records for which you can see here:

https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/records/2019-2/.

Spring Butterflies in the Garden

The second half of March is usually when we begin to see our butterflies and moths take flight, starting, in the case of butterflies with the four species that pass the winter in the adult stage: Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Comma. This quartet is gradually becoming a quintet with the growing number of Red Admiral records early in the year. The Red Admiral might be passing the winter in Ireland mainly in the immature stages (egg, larva, and pupa) but adults have been found too, with these probably comprising long-lived over-winterers, arrivals from overseas using mild January weather to reach us, or home-grown newly emerged adults. We know that we are seeing breeding during the winter in the Red Admiral, while the faded condition of adults found early in the year suggests migrant or over-wintering butterflies.

If your garden is near the coast, especially the east and south coast, it is worth keeping an eye on your nettles for Red Admirals, even during the ‘off-season’ for butterflies, from November to February. Three decades ago, butterflies were very unlikely to be seen flying outdoors during winter. While this remains the case for most areas, especially inland, it is changing, probably because more people are looking out for butterflies and the climate is warming.

This is where the garden survey can help. Your garden adjoins your house so checking on how life is going on there is easy, even during winter and early spring. Pay heed to minutiae. A close inspection of the upper surface of a young, tender nettle leaf may reveal a green, ribbed, barrel-shaped Red Admiral or Comma butterfly egg. A perusal of ivy berries may register a Holly Blue caterpillar, even in December/January. Common Ivy growing on a south-facing wall can expedite the development of a Holly Blue caterpillar, so the beautiful adult may be seen basking in the spring sunshine on shiny ivy leaves in early March. Turn over a late turnip or cabbage leaf in December/January to see if a slow-growing Small White caterpillar is present. Check beneath sills to look for the Small and Large White pupae.

The onset of warmer, sunnier spring weather makes butterfly watching easier. Suburban and rural gardeners growing holly and ivy can expect first-generation Holly Blues from later in March to May/early June. Gardeners growing Cuckoo Flower, Jack-by-the-hedge/Garlic Mustard or Honesty may get Orange-tip, while nettle growers may be visited by the Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, and even, if lucky, by the Comma.

Small White and Large White butterflies will be around too although these are more abundant in gardens and elsewhere in summer. The Speckled Wood is unique among our species in passing the winter either in the larva or pupa stage, and those that over-wintered as a pupa will be the earliest of their kind to fly, so gardens with native hedges and bordering grasses may see this lovely cream-dappled chocolate brown butterfly dancing around newly unfurled shrubbery.

Keep your eyes open for your garden butterflies and continue to record them for our garden survey. If you are not doing the survey, please join in! It’s a recording scheme available to all! The more, the better!

Here is the Garden Survey recording form:

National Garden Butterfly Survey

Best wishes to all butterfly gardeners!

Butterfly Conservation Ireland

A spring-generation female Holly Blue, from a garden in Clontarf, Dublin, about to lay an egg on the unopened flowers of a dogwood. J. Harding

Everything is Connected to Everything Else

The announcement on 6th March 2022 of a meeting between the Minister for Agriculture, Charlie McConalogue and farming groups to take place on Tuesday 8th March to discuss food and animal feed security in the light of the ongoing war in Ukraine carries reminders of measures taken to feed the population of Éire during The Emergency, as World War II was known in southern Ireland during the years 1939-1945.

As such the Minister’s call has created a stir, adding foreboding to the general stress people are experiencing to see the war in Ukraine with its destruction and exodus of three million Ukrainians. President Vladimir Putin’s plan to achieve his objectives with minimal Ukrainian resistance and tokenistic responses from the western countries has not succeeded, and there may be a prolonged military conflict and a lengthy period of heightened international tensions. For everyone’s sake, let us hope this is not the case.

The implications for food production are rightly of concern to the Minister for Agriculture. Ukraine and southern Russia are the great wheat-growing areas in Europe. Without this wheat, we have shortages. Wheat is used for many foods, such as bread, pasta, breakfast cereals and as fillers in a range of foods. Wheat is used by industry to produce starch, paste, malt, dextrose, gluten, alcohol, vinegar and other products.

The financial sanctions applied against Russia may affect Russian wheat production by impacting commodities markets, with supply implications for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Food shortages in the latter two regions are likely to spark hunger, mass migration and political instability.

Because over 20% of the fertiliser used in Ireland comes from Russia, we are likely to see fertilisers rise in price. This will create the dual impacts of having to grow more wheat with increased applications of more expensive fertiliser. The connectedness of international trade means that events like the Russian attack on Ukraine and the international responses to the war will reverberate around the globe.

It is hard to see how wheat production in Ireland can be increased sufficiently, or that wheat quality can be raised. According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), 393,000 tonnes of wheat was produced in 2020, down 38% on 2019. The area sown decreased by 16,500 hectares (-26%) and the yield decreased by 16.5%. Ireland is heavily reliant on imported grain. According to the data site knoema.com, Ireland imported 2.12 million tonnes of cereals in 2020.

Many farmers lack the equipment and experience to grow cereals, and wet soils do not favour cereal crops, especially wheat. Fertilisers, already expensive will be more expensive with shortages and rising oil and gas prices, and all this while we are trying to reduce fertiliser inputs to reduce atmospheric, soil and water pollution associated with fertiliser use. Certain concentrations of fertiliser are toxic to insects, including butterflies.

In short, this war is a human nightmare and may become an environmental disaster.  It exemplifies the oft-quoted maxim, “Everything is connected to everything else.” Our response to the challenges posed by this conflict may mitigate some negative effects, and we suggest one way to minimise the impact on Ireland’s environment.

As a conservation organisation, we want the best outcomes for our environment and all living things. One simple step to mitigate the impact of any increase in land used for grain crops and any increase in the area where fertiliser is applied is to retain native hedgerows and maintain an extended field margin unplanted with crops and untreated with chemicals, adjoining hedgerows. These areas are vital for several animal groups and contain vital plant habitats.

Hedges are especially important for butterflies and moths. 65% of Irish butterflies use hedges. Some use hedgerow trees as breeding plants, some use grasses and flowers growing on the warm margins for breeding. In addition, many adult butterflies use hedges as territory, mating stations, nectar sources, flight paths, dispersal routes and hibernation sites. The Brimstone butterfly uses hedgerows for all these reasons, while the Brown Hairstreak uses hedges for breeding, meeting and mating, feeding and as a flight path.

The Brown Hairstreak relies on hedgerows and adjoining biodiverse grassland. Photo J. Harding

A study by Merckx et al. (2012) found the hedgerow trees and extended width margins locally increased the number of larger moth species (also known as macro-moths) but not abundance. Interestingly, they found that species richness and abundance was not affected by intensive farming, measured by the amount of arable land in the landscape. Both mobile and less mobile larger moths did better when extended width margins and hedgerow trees were present. The benefits of trees in the hedgerow were especially strong for tree-feeding species. Increasing the density of hedgerow trees was recommended to lessen the effects of agricultural intensification. The study underlined the value of hedgerow trees, claiming “a disproportionate effect on ecosystem functioning given the small area occupied by any individual tree”.

The study also found a link between increased macro moth populations and ecosystem functioning (in other words, the higher moth abundance and species richness improve biological community functioning). Why is this? Moths are associated with higher pollinator success, which benefits crops and animals, and moths are an important prey base for a range of species.

A study by Coulthard et al. (2016) showed that hedges are very important flight paths for moths. 68% of moths in the study were observed at 1m from the hedge and of these 69% were moving parallel to the hedge. Hedges are believed to provide the sheltered corridors needed by flying insects in our generally open, farmed landscapes.

These studies highlight how crucial hedgerows and hedgerow trees are for butterflies, moths and biodiversity generally. It is crucial that hedges are protected and correctly managed. A badly managed hedgerow can be disastrous for some of our rarer species. For example, many species that breed on hedges lay eggs on the newest growth. Unfortunately, it is this outer part of the hedge that is removed by cutting. The Brown Hairstreak butterfly is extremely vulnerable for this reason, and Berwearts and Merckx (2010) report studies that found that annual mechanical cutting of hedges removes 80-99% of Brown Hairstreak eggs. A rotational cutting system that involves cutting one-third of the hedgerows in an area each winter resulted in the butterfly’s longer-term survival.

Our native hedges are crucial to our landscapes, giving our countryside character, building a sense of place, and hosting much biodiversity. The poet William Wordsworth described the hedgerows as “Little lines of sportive wood run wild.” Our hedgerows need to be valued, respected and maintained if the biodiversity remaining on farmland is to be preserved.

With their bird song, butterflies and flowers, hedges evoke a joyful atmosphere, and the peace we can all do with.

Hedgerows consisting of native trees, shrubs and herbs are a vital landscape feature and crucial for biodiversity in modern farmed landscapes. Photo J. Harding

References:

Central Statistics Office 2020, Area, Yield and Production of Crops, Central Statistics Office,  Accessed 06/03/2021, https://www.cso.ie/en/statistics/agriculture/areayieldandproductionofcrops/

Coulthard, E., McCollin, D. & Littlemore, J. 2016, “The use of hedgerows as flight paths by moths in intensive farmland landscapes”, Journal of insect conservation, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 345-350.

Cross, J. (2012) Ireland’s Woodland Heritage A Guide to Ireland’s Native Woodlands National Parks and Wildlife Service, Dublin.

knoema.com 2020, Ireland – Wheat imports quantity, Accessed 06/03/2021, https://knoema.com/atlas/Ireland/topics/Agriculture/Trade-Import-Quantity/Wheat-imports-quantity#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20wheat%20imports%20quantity,255%2C103%20thousand%20tonnes%20in%202020.

Mag Raollaigh, J., Minister to discuss food security with farming groups in light of Ukraine conflict https://www.rte.ie/news/politics/2022/0305/1284650-mcconalogue-ukraine-farming/ Accessed 06/03/2021

Lysaght, L., Marnell, F., National Biodiversity Data Centre (Ireland) & Global Biodiversity Information Facility 2016, Atlas of mammals in Ireland, 2010-2015, National Biodiversity Data Centre, Carriganore, Waterford;Place of publication not identified;.

MERCKX, T. & BERWAERTS, K. 2010, “What type of hedgerows do Brown hairstreak (Thecla betulae L.) butterflies prefer? Implications for European agricultural landscape conservation”, Insect conservation and diversity, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 194-204.

Merckx, T., Marini, L., Feber, R.E., Macdonald, D.W., Kleijn, D. & Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet 2012, “Hedgerow trees and extended-width field margins enhance macro-moth diversity: implications for management”, The Journal of applied ecology, vol. 49, no. 6, pp. 1396-1404.

Sullivan, M.J.P., Pearce‐Higgins, J.W., Newson, S.E., Scholefield, P., Brereton, T., Oliver, T.H. & McKenzie, A. 2017, “A national‐scale model of linear features improves predictions of farmland biodiversity”, The Journal of applied ecology, vol. 54, no. 6, pp. 1776-1784.

This article was edited on March 20th 2022 to update the refugee figure which stood at 3 million on March 20th.

Lullybeg Management Day 26th February

After two weather-related postponements, we finally met at Lullybeg to work on a section of the southern section of the reserve.  It was a grey-skied day suitably supported by a stiff chilling breeze but our work site provided shelter from its effects.

We choose an area that contains Common Dog-violet, Devil’s-bit Scabious, Purple Moor-grass, and various mosses. The area is used by the Dark Green Fritillary and Marsh Fritillary for breeding and we caught our first sighting of Marsh Fritillary larvae this year, on a scabious leaf that faces south. This gave our work added impetus because birch saplings were working their way into this breeding area.

We uprooted hundreds of birch saplings and some young willow, carefully replanting any herbs disturbed by our work. There is something strangely satisfying, even during winter, at seeing the pile of saplings rise and the grassland become free of shading scrub.

We took a break for lunch, sheltering near our vehicles and catching up with each others’ news. Our prandial discourse was enlivened by a fierce altercation between two large mink, squealing and scrapping in the tall grasses. One ran out of cover so we got a full view of this beautiful yet invasive and destructive predator.

We resumed our work and cleared the work zone. We look forward to seeing how our butterflies respond in the coming months.

Thanks to all those who attended and to all our members and supporters.

Marsh Fritillary larvae on our work area. Photo J. Harding
Cleared grassland at Lullybeg. Photo J. Harding

The Marvels of Bogs and the Future of Bord na Móna Bogs

One hectare of undisturbed raised bog stores around 3,000 tonnes of carbon. This is 10 times the equivalent area of rainforest. The total carbon stored in Irish bogs is about 2.22 billion tonnes. Half of that amount is contained in the few undisturbed bogs and bogs that were cut only at the edges. However, drained bogs release carbon (Renou-Wilson et al). For example, degradation switches peatlands from being carbon stores and sinks to carbon sources, and estimates indicate that degraded peatlands will contribute 8% of the global anthropogenic CO2 emissions by 2050 (Urák et al. 2017). In addition, degradation results in reduced water quality, changes in regulation
of water flow and loss of biodiversity (Martin-Ortega et al. 2014, 2021).

According to a recent paper ( doi: 10.1111/rec.13632 ) peatland restoration, and wetland restoration in general, is viewed as a cost-effective nature-based solution, assisting in the conservation of wetland habitats, while also serving to reduce negative trends in ecosystem services (Bonn et al. 2016; Maes et al. 2020). Ireland is a global hotspot for peatlands, with over 20% of the national territory covered by peatland or peat soils (Connolly & Holden 2009). Conversion of peatlands to other land uses (agriculture, conifer plantation and/or peat extraction) ongoing since the 18th Century has been one of the main pressures resulting in drainage and loss of typical peatland vegetation. Combined with additional pressures, including overgrazing, burning, recreational use, and the development of renewable energy infrastructure (solar and wind farms), these activities have resulted in the overall degradation of more than 80% of Irish peatland ecosystems (Connolly 2019). All peatland types listed under Annex I of the EU Habitats Directive are considered to be of unfavourable-bad conservation status since the start of reporting in 2007 (NPWS 2019).

The authors of this study developed a risk register for peatlands in two contrasting catchments in Ireland, based on available information relating to peatland stocks (extent and condition) and flows (services and benefits) as well as knowledge of pressures.  One of these areas is the peatlands in northwest Kildare, which includes Lullymore and Lullybeg. This approach allowed for the identification of areas to target peatland restoration, by highlighting the potential to reduce and reverse negative trends in relation to provisioning, regulating and cultural services, flows relating to non-use values, as well as abiotic flows (such as drinking water). The authors also highlighted ways to reduce and reverse the effects of historical and ongoing pressures through restoration measures, aligning their approach with that outlined in the SER International Principles and Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration.

The drive towards peatland restoration is being applied by the state through Bord na Móna. The aim of the Peatlands Climate Action Scheme (PCAS) being implemented by Bord na Móna on about 33,000 hectares of its landholding is to optimise climate action benefits of rewetting the former industrial peat production areas by creating soggy peatland conditions that will allow compatible peatland habitats to redevelop. The scheme follows the announcement by Bord na Móna of the cessation of peat production on all their bogs. Under the Integrated Pollution Control Licence issued to Bord na Móna by the Environmental Protection Agency, Bord na Móna is obliged under Condition-10 of this licence, to decommission and rehabilitate bogs when industrial peat production ceases.

In line with Bord na Móna’s accelerated decarbonisation strategy, and the availability of government funding, the company has also committed to ambitious enhanced peatland decommissioning, rehabilitation and restoration measures, targeting circa 33,000 hectares in over 80 Bord na Móna bogs. These measures are currently underway on several of their bogs, such as Castlegar Bog, County Galway, Belmont Bog, County Offaly and Clooniff Bog, County Roscommon.

Among the rehabilitation goals and outcomes on many of these bogs, including Garryduff Bog, County Galway is optimising hydrological conditions for the further development of wetland, Reed swamp, wet woodland, fen habitats and embryonic Sphagnum-rich peatland communities on shallow cutaway peats, along with management of existing wetlands.

Rehabilitation will support the National Policies on Climate Action and Greenhouse gas mitigation by maintaining and enhancing the current residual peat storage capacity of the bog (locking the carbon into the ground).

It is expected that the bog will have reduced emissions (reduced source) as it develops naturally functioning wetland and peatland habitats. It will also support Ireland’s commitments towards Water Framework Directive and the National River Basin Management Plan 2018-2021.

While climate action is the main objective of the rehabilitation measures, the plan expects the measures to support biodiversity.

Enhanced rehabilitation measures, which go beyond Bord na Móna’s obligations under its EPA licence, are being carried out under the PCAS scheme. On Garryduff Bog these measures, which are like those on other bogs, are drain blocking, building berms and re-profiling of the peat surface to slow water movement and retain water, turning off or reducing pump use, blocking outfalls, planting sphagnum, planting reeds, seeding of areas of bare peat slow to recover vegetation. The rehabilitation plans are adjusted to consider the biodiversity that has developed on some areas of the cutaway bog such as the presence of sensitive ground-nesting bird breeding species (e.g., breeding waders) or larval webs of Marsh Fritillary butterfly and to avoid damaging archaeology and flooding of adjoining land.

Post-rehabilitation monitoring is planned to determine the effectiveness of the measures applied, and interventions will be undertaken if needed.

In relation to Garryduff Bog, which is close to several protected sites, the future looks positive. The Rehabilitation plan states:

Any consideration of any other future after-uses for Garryduff Bog, such as amenity, will be conducted in adherence to the relevant planning guidelines and consultation with relevant authorities and will be considered within the framework of this rehabilitation plan.

 This statement occurs in the rehabilitation plans for other Bord Móna bogs.

However, the measures will not restore the sites to undisturbed raised bog within our lifetime. The development of active raised bogs occurs over a period greater than 1000 years, and Bord na Móna estimates that it will take 30-50 years for naturally functioning peatland ecosystems to re-establish.

It is vital that these bogs be allowed to recover so that the peat holds instead of releasing carbon, improves rather than damages water quality, gains and retains instead of losing biodiversity, and it is vital that the few undamaged bogs remain uncut.

It is not easy to put the jigsaw back together when it takes so long to find regenerate the lost pieces.

Butterfly Conservation Ireland along with six other environmental organisations is pressing for the bogs in northwest Kildare referenced in doi: 10.1111/rec.13632   to be declared a national park. These bogs have not been included in PCAS but hold exceptional biodiversity, and currently have five nature reserves, including Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s Crabtree Reserve. For more information on this initiative, go to https://www.nationalpeatlandspark.com/

The Green Hairstreak is a butterfly that occurs mainly on wet peatland habitats. Photo J. Harding.

References

Bonn A., Allott T, Evans M, Joosten H, Stoneman R (2016) Peatland restoration and ecosystem services: an introduction. In: Bonn A, Allot T, Evans M, Joosten J, Stoneman R (eds) Peatland restoration and ecosystem services: science, policy and practice. Cambridge University Press, pp.1-16

Connolly J, Holden NM (2009) Mapping peat soils in Ireland: updating the derived Irish peat map. Irish Geography 42: 343-352 https://doi.org/10.1080/00750770903407989

doi: 10.1111/rec.13632

Martin-Ortega J, Allott TH, Glenk K, Schaafsma M (2014) Valuing water quality improvements from peatland restoration: Evidence and challenges. Ecosystem Services 9: 34‑43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecoser.2014.06.007

NPWS (2019) The Status of EU Protected Habitats and Species in Ireland. Volume 1: Summary Overview. NPWS. URL:
https://www.npws.ie/sites/default/files/publications/pdf/NPWS_2019_Vol1_Summary_Article17.pdf

Renou-Wilson, F. (n.d.). Peatland Properties Influencing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Removal. [online] www.apa.ie. County Wexford: EPA. Available at: https://www.epa.ie/publications/research/land-use-soils-and-transport/Research_Report_401.pdf [Accessed 15 Feb. 2022].

Urák I, Hartel T, Gallé R, Balog A (2017) Worldwide peatland degradations and the related carbon dioxide emissions: the importance of policy regulations. Environmental Science & Policy 69: 57-64.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2016.12.012

 

 

Butterfly Conservation Ireland Annual Report 2021

The Butterfly Conservation Ireland Annual Report 2021 is now published.  It is available on this site under the Report tab.

It is available in hard copy format to non-members for €8. If you are not a member of Butterfly Conservation Ireland and would like a copy, contact us by email for details.

A special thanks to everyone who contributed to the report.

Enjoy the report.

Striped Hawkmoth. Photo Philip Strickland.