October Fare

The fairly dramatic deluges and winds of the past two weeks have altered the landscape and butterfly scene, underlining the onset of autumn. Yesterday, Sunday, October 6th, provided a welcome break, with sunshine and light breezes.

A late Small Tortoiseshell basking in a sheltered, south-facing nook. © J.Harding.

In October one must look more assiduously for butterflies, peering at shadows cast by a high-flying insect or shading eyes against sharp autumn light to check clusters of blackberries and ivy blossom for feeding moths and butterflies.

Indeed, Ivy is a very useful plant for moths, butterflies and many other creatures. At this stage many ivy plants are in full bloom, their yellowish-green inflorescence packed with nectar. At night it is a favourite with moths; in daylight, these same moths often roost in its dense, evergreen foliage. For anyone with patience, it is often well worth checking ivy draped over a wall that had Holly Blue butterflies flying around it in August and September. Check the stalk of the flowers for slug-shaped Holly Blue caterpillars. These are feeding on the developing berry, their heads deep within the oval cup, scooping out its goodness.

Common Ivy is an excellent plant for wildlife if allowed to flower. Clip it back, if you need to, in February but try to leave some areas uncut. © J.Harding.

While the clouds of Painted Ladies are gone, the scarlet and black Red Admiral is still about, feeding on wounded blackberries and ivy and, if it can find it, a tree leaking sap. I saw a few of these handsome butterflies yesterday but these are easily disturbed at this time of year, often flying into tree-tops when you approach one that is lower down on bramble.

Comma butterflies, still rare or absent in most areas, are nomadic in autumn and can turn up anywhere that nectar exists near woods, dense hedgerows or groves of trees. I was lucky to see one yesterday, perching briefly on a now bedraggled buddleia before gliding casually off to hide in tall willow. The Comma will sit still at other times, especially on fallen fruit or Ice Plant flowers, giving wonderful views of its deep orange-red upper surfaces and deeply scalloped wing margins.

Comma,  high up on Buddleia at Louisa Bridge, County Kildare. © J. Harding.

Finally, even though most butterflies have finished flying, their caterpillars can be searched for quite profitably in areas that were heavily frequented by the adults. With this in mind, I checked Common Sorrel leaves where I had seen Small Coppers loitering in early September. After finding hatched eggs on the upper sides of some leaves, I checked the undersides and soon found some young, first instar larvae. These will feed for a time before over-wintering deep in the grassy vegetation before resuming feeding in spring.

Small Copper larva, first instar, on the underside of a Common Sorrel leaf, County Meath. © J. Harding.

There are some lovely moths too, especially for moth trappers who leave their light traps out in good habitat on mild nights. Beaded Chestnut, with its rich wood-coloured wings, is really abundant in early October and if you are fortunate, a Merveille du Jour may turn up to brighten any October morning when you go out to inspect your catch.

Beaded Chestnut on an oak leaf. © J.Harding.

Keep on looking-autumn, the “season of mist and mellow fruitfulness” has much to offer and if one has to look harder to find it, the discoveries are all the sweeter.

Merveille du Jour moth, an autumn flyer and a favourite for moth lovers. You may have this in your garden if you have native oak trees. © J.Harding.


September 2019: Good for Butterflies

September 2019 has seen some beautiful weather allowing butterflies to remain active. As I write on September 21st, Painted Lady butterflies are numerous in flower-rich areas feeding prior to their departure southwards. The continued presence in the Painted Lady is most likely due to the large-scale successive migration events and breeding, leading to a succession of Irish-born Painted Lady butterflies.

After days of concentrated feeding, Painted Ladies leave Ireland. I observed a Painted Lady at Lullybeg on September 20th engage in behaviour that I had never seen before. It had been taking nectar on Devil’s-bit Scabious in a broad sheltered track during sunny, breezy conditions with the temperature at around 21 Celsius. Quite suddenly, it flew vertically upwards at speed climbing until it disappeared from view. This may have been a migration event. Research in Britain in 2009 found that not only does the Painted Lady fly southwards from Britain and Ireland to Europe in autumn, it also migrates at altitude.

It is this high-altitude flight, out of sight of observers that for so long convinced scientists that the entire British and Irish Painted Lady populations merely died off when cold conditions (temperatures below 6 Celsius) arrived in autumn. (Incidentally, the butterfly does not die at 5 or 4 Celsius.) The behaviour I saw at Lullybeg is certainly consistent with the high altitude migration method discovered by Rebecca Nesbit at Rothamsted Research in 2009.

September has thrown up some nice surprises. Butterfly Conservation Ireland member Pat Bell has had two Comma butterflies in his lovely garden in Maynooth, in County Kildare, where the figs he grows have drawn these remarkable butterflies to stay for several days. A stunning newly emerged Comma was observed on Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s reserve at Lullybeg, County Kildare, taking nectar on Devil’s-bit Scabious. This is the first time Commas have been observed on the reserve, bringing the number of butterfly species recorded there over the past three years to 24 species. Tantalisingly, two additional species, the Holly Blue and Clouded Yellow have been seen very close to the reserve.

Clouded Yellows are being seen now-both in coastal areas (see Myrtle Parker’s records for the Cork coast for September 17th) and inland-two were seen in Lullymore on September 20th. Keep a close watch for this beautiful fast-flying and striking butterfly.

The Red Admiral, another migrant, is now appearing in good numbers. It has been greatly outnumbered by Painted Ladies this year; usually, it is the Red Admiral that is the most numerous migrant. The specimens I saw yesterday were in perfect condition, clearly just hatched. Like its more numerous relative, the Painted Lady, Red Admirals will move southwards soon.

Small Tortoiseshells are feeding eagerly too but they have other plans. They are residents; they will stick it out over our long, dull winter in its dry hibernation quarters until better times arrive in spring when it will emerge to breed. The vast bulk of the Peacock population is already in hibernation, with only the occasional individual still feeding. The Brimstone, a member of the white family of butterflies is likewise undercover now with just a small number still feeding. I saw just one, a male, on Friday, and this one fed only skittishly and abruptly roosted at 2:44 pm, in glorious sunshine.

The lovely weather of the past week, borrowed from summer, is now over. The final week of September is set to be unsettled, with rain and wind. We will most likely be saying farewell to most of our 2019 butterflies.

Now onto our autumn moths. We have some autumn moths with soft or muted ‘autumn’ colours. The Pink-barred Sallow is somewhat gaudier but its colours are soft, in tandem with the gentler and sombre colours of the autumn season. Many of these species breed on trees and some of these species are busy mating and egg-laying. Some are feeding up for winter. Like the over-wintering butterfly species, these will breed in spring.

Some moths will do so without males-the female Red-green Carpet moth will mate in autumn and hibernate until warmer weather arrives when it will lay eggs on oak, Common Blackthorn, Rowan and other trees.  Male Red-green Carpets die in autumn.  The Black Rustic moth looks a little sinister, rather like a cloaked grim-reaper figure. This moth breeds on Tufted Hair-grass, heathers and clovers. The Beaded Chestnut has an autumn leaf colour. Its larva feeds on herbaceous plants and when older it tackled Common Hawthorn and other trees. This species is numerous in wild gardens.

Autumn is a busy time for butterflies and moths. Keep an eye on flowering ivy over the coming weeks for late butterflies and moths.  Please do not trim ivy in autumn or winter- it feeds and shelters many species. Trim it back in spring, if necessary. When cutting tall grassland vegetation in the garden, leave some patches for over-wintering insects. Finally, take care when bringing turf or logs indoors to burn over the coming weeks because butterflies often conceal themselves withing log and turf stores to pass the winter. Place any butterfly in a cool, dry space to pass the colder months in safety. Release the butterfly in spring when you see butterflies in the wild. This will typically happen later in March during warm, sunny weather.

A pristine Red Admiral. © J.Harding.
Small Tortoiseshell feeding before going into hibernation. © J. Harding.
Male Clouded Yellow on Common Knapweed at Lullymore, County Kildare. © J.Harding.
This male Brimstone roosted shortly after feeding on this Devil’s-bit Scabious bloom. © J.Harding.
Pink-barred Sallow. © J. Harding.
Black Rustic. © J.Harding.
Beaded Chestnut. © J. Harding.





Hedge Brown butterfly on the brink of Extinction

During the glorious July of 2006, on our way to a family holiday in England, we stopped off at The Raven, in County Wexford. We were going to catch the ferry to Wales but had a day to spare so we headed to the beach. With a wife and three young children safely stowed on the lovely sandy shore, I slipped through the dunes into Ravenwood, a nature reserve and Special Area of Conservation which runs parallel to the dunes for around 8 km.

I was in my natural habitat now, with butterflies everywhere. The brightly-lit open wood with lovely, low-growing flowering bramble attracted many butterflies, especially our most striking Satyrid, the Hedge Brown, known to many as the Gatekeeper. This quiet but striking little butterfly is about the same size as the Ringlet. It is richly orange on its upper sides and basks to show off its warm colour, affording good but often brief views of its attractive wings. Its underside looks similar to that of the Meadow Brown. It is a restless butterfly, rarely perching for long. The adult is very dependent on sunshine for activity, settling very swiftly when direct sunshine is interrupted.

As far back as the records for the species go, it has, it appears, always been restricted to the south and south-east.  It is currently known from four counties: Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Kerry. In these counties, it is usually found in warm areas near the coast.  The mild springs seem to be important for the larva. The increasing temperatures over the last few decades would seem to favour the northwards expansion of the butterfly but it has not expanded its range in Ireland. By contrast,  its range in Britain has expanded northwards since the 1970s, during the 1980s and 1990s but since then it has declined in abundance there. Indeed in Britain, it is faring particularly badly, with a statistically significant 10 year and long-term abundance declines of 44% and 41% respectively.  Despite this serious decline in numbers there, it remains a widespread butterfly in England and Wales. In Ireland, it remains highly restricted in its range and there are signs that this butterfly is suffering a serious decline in both its abundance and range here.

Let me take you back to July 2006. Rambling along the brightly-lit woodland paths, Hedge Browns flitted from bloom to bloom, their orange colouring a sweet companion to the faintly frothy, delicate pink of the bramble petals. There were dozens of this butterfly and all seemed right with it then. Further north, at Old Bawn, south of Cahore, the species was also abundant, bobbing in the open scrubby, brassy dunes, mainly along the tracks.

That was then. In my recent visits to Cahore, I failed to find any, although the weather was not particularly good when I searched for it. More alarming, however, is the status of the butterfly in The Raven. In recent years I struggled to see it. In July 2017 I saw just five despite a lengthy search. Mary Foley of the Wexford Naturalists’ Field Club has checked the records from the reserve and these make for grim reading. Three were seen on the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme transect on 16th July 2019 and one on 26th and one on 31st. In 2018 only two were seen – one on 26th July and one on 8th August. Mary had a look back at some old records and from 2007-2010 the average on the transect was 115 but had dropped to 49 for 2011-2014. The flight times recorded for these years went from early-mid July to last week of August. Mary reports that no one has reported the butterfly from Cahore. Furthermore, the butterfly has not been seen in Ballyteigue, County Wexford, another site.

We could now be looking at the extinction of the Hedge Brown in County Wexford.

One of the last Hedge Browns in Wexford? This photograph is of a female, taken at The Raven on July 25th, 2017. © J.Harding.


Gardening For Butterflies

“All butterflies must have a happy home” (Lionel G. Higgins (author of A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Britain & Europe) 1891-1985)

Today there is a heightened awareness of the dangers posed to the environment by human behaviour. The ways humans farm, travel, exploit fossil fuels and construct infrastructure are under scrutiny as global temperatures rise and polar ice shrinks. There is, it appears, scarcely a political party that does not express opinions (often vacuous virtue-signalling) on the state of the environment. Environmental causes make themselves known in our inboxes, twitter feeds, TV screens, digital and print publications. Academics have risen from obscurity to become prophets of environmental Armageddon. Teenage climate change activists have become household names.

The zeitgeist of the age is fear of an environmental meltdown. The Amazonian fires are a powerful metaphor for global warming and ecological catastrophe. European Union countries threatened to block a trade deal with four South American countries unless the Amazon fires are doused while those same European countries will encourage more rain forest removal because the production of beef and other food forms part of the deal. In the midst of all this noise, confusion and despair develop in many, fearful of the apparently inevitable nightmare of global ecological and biological collapse.

The solution offered here is small and anti-climactic given the global scale of the spoliation of Earth’s natural goodness. But it is real.

Look after your garden.

Make it a home for butterflies. This will automatically protect all wildlife residing in your domain. A network of unofficial nature reserves can be built offering connected safe habitats for you and your wildlife. Gardens can be created and actively managed for nature. This message has already been heard and heeded by some of you. Here’s what just some Butterfly Conservation Ireland members have done to create a happy home for butterflies.

Looking after butterflies, moths, bees, hoverflies and a range of other invertebrates does not require a large space. A cleverly designed typical suburban garden can work wonders for butterflies. Let us look at Michael Gray’s garden in Rathfarnham. Michael’s elegant planting creates a striking vista, very inviting for people and butterflies. He has curved his herbs and shrubs around a central gravelled area, abandoning a lawn altogether. This arrangement has a number of benefits.  No mowing is one. A small lawn is unlikely to be of great value to butterflies and moths. The gravel plays its part too, helping to provide warmth around the plants, encouraging insects to linger while in cooler weather butterflies use the gravel to bask on.

The inducements offered are chiefly nectar resources. Buddleia, a butterfly’s delight is provided in three corners of the garden while Catmint, an important plant for bees edges onto the decorative gravel. Various other butterfly-friendly flowers edge the gravel too. Michael’s garden has so much nectar that some butterflies will stay there for days, drawing in the nectar needed for the next phase of their life’s journey.

Michael has not neglected larval foodplants. In the far right is a well-developed Alder Buckthorn tree, a small and rare native species that fits well. Holly Blue butterflies readily breed on the flowers and developing berries and fresh leaves while bees are obsessed with the flowers. Later, Robins will polish off the ripe berries. In the bottom left of the photograph, you will see nasturtiums, great for the caterpillars of the Large and Small White butterflies, while elsewhere his Borage, another great draw for bees, is used by his Painted Lady caterpillars. Michael also grows Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Kidney Vetch, Lady’s Smock and Common Sorrel which are all foodplants for butterflies. He even persuaded a neighbour to allow Common Ivy to grow up the wall (see wall to the left). The result? Holly Blue butterflies now breed on the plant!

Michael’s garden in Rathfarnham, Dublin. © M.Gray.

Some gardeners have the luxury and challenge, of a larger space. Marilyn Farrell, who lives in rural Kerry is looking after a large garden. Here, in her words, is what Marilyn and her husband have done.

“My husband and I bought our two-storey traditional farmhouse in 1996.  It had been abandoned and was not liveable then.  We also didn’t know until shortly before signing the contract that we got three small fields with the house!  A dairy farmer neighbour was using the fields for his cows so we let him continue to do so.

When we moved here permanently in 2003 after the house had been rehabbed, I planned as a retired person to just garden the area around the house.  However, I can’t seem to stop planting, so now, there is only one field left for cows!

Mini-Woodland in Marilyn’s garden.© M. Farrell.

So now, without the use of chemicals, my husband and I have our own vegetables all summer, we have hedges everywhere as we are very near the ocean and the winds do howl, we have planted a mini-forest consisting of native trees (and have persuaded our sceptical neighbours to plant trees as well). I dug a small pond that produces many frogs each year, we have flowers year-round, many of which are wildflowers growing with the domestic ones, we are in the process of making a part of the forest field into a native wildflower meadow, and the entire property is bordered with wild, freely growing hedgerows full of nettle, blackberries dog roses, and other plants for butterfly larva.  And the ”grassy” areas are more clover and wildflowers than grass.

Marilyn’s greenhouse border is especially eye-catching. The Sea Pinks Armeria maritima is a native plant and loved by bees, while Marilyn’s Buddleia and Ice Plant Sedum spectabile are very popular with butterflies.

Bee favourites: Sea Pinks, Forget-me-nots and Columbines in Marilyn’s garden. © M. Farrell.

Another interesting garden, one I have had the pleasure to visit is Lesley Whiteside’s near Mullingar in Westmeath. Lesley noticed an orchid on her front lawn so avoided mowing. Soon there were dozens, mainly Common Spotted Orchids but also Pyramidal Orchids and Common Twayblades. Orchids are sensitive, fussy plants that need very ‘clean’ soil. The soil must remain free of added chemicals if orchids are to survive.

Orchid lawn-a very rare sight in modern gardens. © W. Whiteside.

Here Lesley reports on her garden’s story

“My garden is almost an acre. When we moved in, there were Leylandii hedges on three sides, lawn, a border and three or four trees. The first autumn, I planted a native oak, birch, fruit trees and started a vegetable and soft fruit garden. Next, I took out the two hedges which belonged to me and began developing borders planted with shrubs, bulbs, grasses and herbaceous perennials closely related to native wildflowers, such as Achillea (related to Yarrow). Wanting to garden for biodiversity, I have provided plants all year round for pollinators, such as Sarcococca in winter, Pulmonaria in spring, Lavender and Marjoram in summer and Asters in autumn.

A close view of wildflowers-Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Self-heal and Red Clover in Lesley’s meadow. © L.Whiteside.

During our first summer, I noticed wild orchids popping up in the gravel and decided to allow the lawn to grow as a wild meadow, only cutting a strip around the outside and in strategic places along the way. Nothing has been added. It has been a great success, so each summer butterflies and moths visit an ever-growing variety of flowers and grasses. We trap moths from March to October and always bear in mind their particular needs. I added a wildlife pond two years ago. In August, Painted Lady, Peacock and Red Admiral butterflies flit between Marjoram, Monarda and Eupatorium as well as the Common Knapweed in the meadow. Willowherbs have only recently begun to spread locally, so having Fuchsia in the garden supports the spectacular Elephant Hawk-moth which is appropriately pink. Likewise, there isn’t an abundance of Honeysuckle locally, so having some in the garden attracts the Ypsolopha dentella moth”.

This Elephant Hawkmoth was found in Lesley’s garden. © L. Whitehouse.

A work in progress, Lesley’s garden will draw in more species as it matures.

Another Westmeath garden is Jennifer Strevens’ large and fascinating garden a short stroll from the eastern shore of Lough Ree. I visited on a lovely sunny day in late August and could easily have stayed all day. Jennifer has about two acres of assorted borders of flowers, lots of shrubs and ornamental trees, a kitchen garden, greenhouse and tunnel and an orchard of about 80 assorted fruit trees and a deciduous forestry plantation of 60 hectares. Jennifer spoke to me about the land: “The property runs down to Lough Ree and I have about a kilometre of lakeshore. There are many wildflowers and no fertilisers or sprays whatsoever have been used on any part of the property in 20 years since we sold our dairy herd and planted a largely deciduous plantation. Apart from butterflies, there is a wealth of other wildlife from Red Squirrels to Pine Martens, Badgers and lots of birds from Ravens to Herons, owls, Common Buzzards, harriers and even the occasional eagle!  There are nine bat boxes and a very large and varied nursing colony of bats”.

One view of Jennifer’s butterfly-rich orchard.© J.Harding.

The orchard is particularly interesting and valuable. The trees grow in a grassy meadow. Many are from Seed Savers, an organisation that seeks to preserve older varieties of fruit tree. There are a number of plum trees, apple trees, Medlar trees among others, including a Kiwi trained against a wall! The orchard has large nettle clumps growing in ideal places for breeding by Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma and Peacock butterflies as well as Burnished Brass moths. The lush grasses are perfect for Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown and Ringlets. The garden was awash with Red Admiral, Peacock and Speckled Woods on the day of my visit-mostly taking juices from apple (Speckled Wood) and plum (Red Admiral and Peacock). I was delighted to see Brimstone in the garden-I never saw wild Brimstones in an Irish garden before! Small Copper, the two “cabbage whites” and Small Tortoiseshell were also present-the whites breeding on brassicas in Jennifer’s kitchen garden.

Brimstone above and Peacock below in Jennifer’s garden. © J.Harding.

The land beyond the garden is wilder and mainly under native broadleaf tree cover. I thought Jennifer’s Sessile Oaks looked impressive-the elusive Purple Hairstreak might well be present in the lofty oak canopy! This area is not strictly part of the garden but is contiguous with it, blending easily with the garden around the house. But that part of the land is part of a wider story of managing a large area for nature which, wonderfully, is what Jennifer does.

Red Admiral resting on a plum tree in Jennifer’s garden. ©J.Harding.

My East Meath garden stands on about half an acre of ground. My philosophy is to use native plants to build habitats found in the wild. This means squeezing in a meadow, wetland, pond, woodland, scrub, hedge and limestone grassland so that the site is fairly diverse if somewhat over-planted. Despite the purist emphasis on native species, I have a couple of beeches, grown as part of the hedge, a cultivated apple, Buddleia and Verbena but all these species have a value. If growing non-natives please ensure these do not escape and invade the countryside where they can do great harm. I have most of the native Irish trees which I grew from seed. For example, I collected acorns from sources that are the most likely to hold an original stock of Irish oak to preserve the indigenous genetic identity of these plants.

My garden in early summer showing Kidney Vetch, Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil and Ox-Eye Daisy. © J. Harding.

My meadow is chiefly a summer and early autumn flowering grassland, chiefly reliant on Common Knapweed and Devil’s-bit Scabious for colour, pollen and nectar. The meadow is uncut from a date in May until a date in September, with mowing dates, decided according to the season. All cuttings are removed to the compost heap to maintain the low fertility needed to prevent dense grass growth. Sowing Yellow Rattle and Red Bartsia helps thin out the grasses too!  I have had over half of our native butterflies visit the garden and most of these have bred! It really enhances your chances of your butterflies breeding in your garden if, plant wise, you go native!

Some wild gardens are in their infancy. Building the garden and watching what turns up is really intriguing. Here Richella Duggan whose garden is in Mullingar talks about her experience.

“My garden isn’t very remarkable and has had very low numbers this year. I have Buddleia, Hebe, Cotoneaster, Common Holly, Alder Buckthorn and small amounts of nettles. Not much in the way of wildflowers but I do have Lesser Celandine and dandelions early in the year and later on lots of White Clover and self-heal. This autumn I’ll be sowing Common Knapweed, Yellow Rattle and Field Scabious so that I have some later-summer flowers next year. I get quite a few bees – Common Carder and Buff-tailed mostly but sometimes Red-tailed. I leave the grass long at the side of the house all summer and there is a Common Carder bumblebee nest in it for the first time this summer – which I was pleased with.”

A final garden to profile is Pat Bell’s remarkable plot in Maynooth, County Kildare. Pat has really pulled out the stops for butterflies in his back and front garden. Although compact, Pat makes incredible use of the space and gets big numbers in his garden. Native planting is the main framework of the garden, with natives like Gorse, Alder Buckthorn and Common Hawthorn forming hedging. The herb borders in the front garden combined with the Buddleia get lots of attention from a range of butterflies, including the Comma which is currently enjoying Pat’s hospitality. What is perhaps most striking is Pat’s ‘Butterfly Table’. Butterfly food is laid out on a marble-topped table and the butterflies and moths come to feed, in stunning numbers. Fig fruit, when ripe, is placed there and the colourful species, like the Comma and Red Admiral, sit happily feeding away. One can simply sit back and enjoy the antics-its like a bird table.

Red Admirals feast on figs on the Butterfly Table in Pat’s garden. © P.Bell.

What is happening to parts of the natural world beyond our gardens is shocking. We are often left feeling helpless even after we make ourselves feel a little better after signing an online petition. But as the gardens profiled here show you can make a real difference in your garden. If all of us grew native flowers, trees and shrubs in our gardens our butterflies, moths, dragonflies, bees are among the vast range of invertebrates that can be given a home. These in turn feed frogs, newts, birds, bats. A great enrichment will follow. Then we will want to extend these habitats into the green spaces in our estates, villages, towns and cities. These developments are already happening in some places but there is so much that can be done to return the land to nature. We urge you to adopt the approach of our members who have shared their garden stories with you.

A Small Copper can spend weeks in one garden. © J.Harding.

One of the really nice things about gardening like this is that you get to know your butterflies. Not only will you learn to identify the different species, but you will also observe their habits and manner. You will even get to know individual butterflies-some will stay in your garden for several weeks. A little idiosyncrasy or physical characteristic will help you recognise him or a her-a distinctive kink in a hindwing, a paler than usual hue, a little tear in a wing will aid recognition. You will follow his or her adventures over the days and weeks; you will find out which flower is his favourite, where he holds his territory, where his rival holds court; you will see battles between territorial species, some lengthy and ongoing. You may see courtship, mating, egg-laying. You might even find their caterpillars and eventually their pupae. Keep a notebook, take photos. Bond with your butterflies. These days, butterflies need us to be their friends.


The Continuing Story of the Painted Lady

It is late August now, soon to be September. Since the third week in August we are seeing large numbers of newly emerged Painted Lady butterflies. How can we distinguish these from their immigrant parents? New emergents are far more vibrant in colour as well as lacking wear and tear. A feature of some fresh Painted Ladies is that the orange band on the upper-side of the forewing has a pinkish flush, a subtle but striking hue.

Here we have them, looking delightful and energetic, darting around flower patches at high speed,  easily disturbed by an approach from a human observer and by each other. This behaviour is common in many newly emerged butterflies. These often look unsettled and no clear or obvious intention is apparent in many individuals. It is as if they are unfamiliar with everything, new to the world and unsure about how to behave.

Although it is difficult to say how every individual butterfly will behave, most Painted Lady butterflies will settle down to feed in a concentrated manner. They become less easily agitated and easier to approach. Then there will be time to get close views and good photographs to record your memories of this remarkable summer for this butterfly and the message it is giving us about our world. This switch in behaviour enables the butterflies to build up vital fat reserves for their next big step, their great reverse migration south. In 2009 in the area where I watch butterflies most often, the vast majority of the butterflies departed early in the second week in September. The chances are that you will wake up one day to find they have gone.

This year, this appears the most likely outcome. I have not seen any evidence of breeding among the new butterflies which indicates these are preparing to depart. While these are still present, go out in your garden, parks and anywhere there are flowers to see them. They are seemingly everywhere now and might be more numerous than the numbers that reached our shores this summer. In 2009 there were millions more reverse migrants than immigrants and this may be happening in 2019.

The Painted Ladies flying now look well developed. Many large specimens are present, evidence of high-quality larval foodplants. We had good temperatures and good moisture levels, especially during August. The Painted Lady butterflies flying around my garden at the moment took around 50  days (July 2nd to August 21st, seven weeks) to develop from egg to adult. It is not easy to say whether we have two native generations of the Painted Lady up to this point in the year but we definitely have one home-grown generation. Depending on the weather over the coming weeks, we may get a second generation arising from the immigrants that reached Ireland in late July and early August. This will give us another Painted Lady peak in late September. Until then, we will have to see if there is another chapter left in this remarkable story.

Native-born Painted Lady basking during a cloudy interval, August 2019.. © J. Harding.
A newly emerged, native generation Painted Lady on Common Knapweed, August 2019.© J.Harding.
At this time of the year, the priority of new Irish Painted Lady butterflies is to feed to prepare for migration southwards. © J.Harding.

Event Report

Our Burren walk on Sunday, August 4th met on the Green Road just past the turn for the Lough Avalla Loop Walk. The weather was very inclement. It rained very heavily within the hour before our start time of 2 pm. It offered the prospect of a wash-out.

We parked in a field and assembled. Would there be anything to see? An introductory talk on the Burren’s butterflies was followed by showing some moth specimens trapped at Carran the previous night and a Grayling caught in the morning sunshine and a  beautiful male Wall  Brown fortuitously caught in the field before the walk. Moths shown were the Dark Spectacle which was well-received-seen head-on, pale tufts resemble eye-glasses, creating amusement in our group. A yellow Scalloped Oak well-named for its scalloped edges but not for the oak which it does not resemble. Oak is a larval foodplant for the moth, but so far a number of trees. The Burren Green was a star, though, living up to its name by being a green moth confined to the Burren.  The moth settled happily on one lady’s coat and refused to depart.

We proceeded to the nettle patch near the field edge. The nettles were very vigorous with hundreds of Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars from at least three growth stages (instars). Folded leaves were opened to show a solitary Red Admiral larva in each one. A thistle patch held Painted Lady caterpillars, feeding as quietly as the Red Admirals.  The larvae and their behaviour received great attention from our enthusiastic group. The open feeding habits of the Small Tortoiseshell larva contrast sharply with the solitary, well-concealed strategy of its relatives-why is this? Do the Small Tortoiseshells need to bask openly to digest food?  Are the softer-bodied Red Admiral and Painted Lady larvae more susceptible to being stung by parasitoid wasps?  These are possible reasons for the different living arrangements.

A Ringlet and Meadow Brown butterfly were spotted and closely approached, their eye-spots providing a ready definer as members of the “brown” family. The placement of spots around or near wing edges deflects bird attacks away from the vulnerable head allowing the butterfly to escape with just a nip to the wing edge.

About an hour and forty minutes into our event, the swollen clouds burst. We closed our event but had seen a surprising amount for the weather we had. Thanks to everyone who made the trip. Everyone was very appreciative which made up for the damp conditions. Thanks also to John Marrinan for letting us park in his field and to the Burrenbeo Trust who helped to organise the well-attended event.

See the Burrenbeo Trust Facebook page for images of the event.

Burren in August. © J. Harding.

Painted Lady arrival now Countrywide

The Painted Lady migration over the last two weeks, first noted along the northern coasts is now being recorded in a range of places on the coasts of Ireland. Records of large numbers arriving have now been received from the Dublin, Wicklow and Kerry coasts. The butterflies are initially feeding in coastal locations, on flower-rich sand dunes and coastal gardens before moving inland. The butterfly is currently (August 8th 2019) abundant in Lullymore, Kildare, in the midlands. Presumably, it is present inland in many other flower-rich locations. The massive numbers are attracting widespread public attention and media interest.

What happens next?

The butterflies are now busy feeding. Some will disperse and migrate further, while others will settle down to breed here.  If the weather remains warm, their offspring will probably reach the adult state in September.  The previous Painted Lady influx in late June and early July breed; these larvae are now reaching their final growth stage and it is likely that some have pupated. These will hatch as adult butterflies in two-three weeks depending on temperature.

We could have overlapping generations in flight over the next six weeks. If the weather remains warm, it could be the most numerous Irish butterfly. The newly emerged Irish-born butterflies might not breed here. Irish-born butterflies may behave differently to their foreign-born parents. Their parents probably migrated shortly after they hatched from their pupae. The native Irish butterflies usually spend several days in a calm, settled state, feeding in flower-rich areas to develop fat reserves to prepare for migration southwards, not northwards. Suddenly, without any sign of restlessness in advance, the butterflies in an area will disappear.

How do Painted Lady butterflies head south in autumn?

The way the butterflies depart is interesting. In 2009 researchers at Rothamsted Research in the UK discovered that the Painted Lady returned south in autumn.  The research also discovered, using radar, that the butterflies fly on average, at altitudes of about 500 metres when leaving us (some Painted Ladies may also travel northwards at altitude). This differs from the departure of their relative, the Red Admiral, which migrates at eye level. The altitude at which the Painted Lady butterflies depart from these islands is a key reason we believed that this cold-sensitive species simply died off in Ireland and Britain when cold weather arrived.

Expanding our understanding of the Painted Lady survival strategy

The view that the butterfly embarked on mass migration to Britain, Ireland and northern Europe followed by breeding and expiry of the population sounds like ecological suicide. This view appears a highly improbable outcome today. One interpretation of this behaviour before 2009 was that this migratory behaviour was a long-term strategy to survive inevitable climate change, in that somewhere a colony would be favourably located to replenish the population over time.

This hypothesis may still hold some relevance. The Red Admiral which also has no diapause in its life cycle (in other words, it has no diapause or ‘rest’ stage and reproduces continuously) is now breeding year-round in some milder coastal locations in these islands. The less hardy Painted Lady may breed here over the winter if the climate continues to warm. Indeed, Frank Smyth, who discovered Red Admiral breeding over the winter at Howth is monitoring the Painted Lady there to check if it breeds during our colder months. The young stages of the Painted Lady have not yet been found in Ireland over the winter months.

This is to speculate on changes that may occur. However, to focus on a change that has taken place: in my lifetime, the Painted Lady has never had four consecutive years of abundance (2016-2019) and has not arrived in large numbers in the dark, murky depths of an Irish January as it did this year. What else the butterfly has to teach us about our environment? We will have to wait and watch carefully…

What can you do to help?

The Painted Lady is not a fussy species. A habitat generalist, it occurs anywhere there are flowers. Waste ground (the early English lepidopterist and artist Moses Harris, a member of the Aurelians, the world’s first entomological society, produced a painting of the Painted Lady for a book The Aurelian published in 1766. The plate featured the butterfly and its immature stages on Spear Thistle growing amid broken pottery, clay pipe and glassware. The book cost about Stg £800 in today’s currency), gardens, parks, wood edges, mountains, sand dunes, bogs, fields will attract the butterfly.

All you need is flowers that produce nectar.  Late in the year, allow ivy to flower. And to look after its breeding requirements you can plant or allow to grow any of these: Creeping Thistle, Spear Thistle, Marsh Thistle, Common Nettle, Common Malva (and other mallow species), Borage and Artichoke, among others. Grow these in an unshaded area.

As a butterfly-friendly gardener, you will have the satisfaction of seeing the butterfly and contributing to international conservation. Indeed, in 2009 it was calculated that millions more Painted Ladies departed these islands that autumn than had arrived that summer! If it breeds in your garden you will get the chance to study its development. The larva rarely moves far and you will have no trouble finding the larval tents, made by folding a leaf or leaves together with silk. The fully fed caterpillar usually leaves the plant to pupate but very occasionally it will pupate within the larval tent. The butterfly will most likely remain in your garden for a few days in autumn, feeding on your nectar before its amazing southbound journey. The southern parts of its European range, where some Painted Lady butterflies remain over the summer, will be cooler and the vegetation will have turned green again, making these areas suitable for the butterfly once more.

Finally, send us your records so we can track the butterfly over the coming weeks. For the details needed and how to send us your record, see https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/records/

A Painted Lady butterfly on African Carline-thistle, southern Europe, July 2019. © J.Harding.
An arid limestone valley in southern Europe, July 2019. Few butterflies breed in areas where many plants have dried out. The Painted Lady’s search for breeding sites sends it northwards in spring. In some southern areas that retain larval foodplants, over-population may trigger the Painted Lady’s movement. This valley will turn green when it rains in September. © J.Harding.
Painted Lady butterflies in Lullybeg, County Kildare on Common Knapweed, August 2019. © J.Harding.


Donegal Island and coast sees mass Painted Lady Arrival (See news update below)

The Painted Lady scene had quietened since early July. There was large-scale immigration in late June and early July but reports of the butterfly quickly declined. Many of the butterflies settled to breed and as expected larvae are now being reported. The larva in the photograph is in the fourth of five instars. The egg that this caterpillar hatched from was laid on July 4th. In the final stage (fifth instar), the larva feeds so voraciously it does not interrupt its feeding even if touched-some feed for a whole hour without a pause! We would expect, given warm weather, for the home-grown butterflies to begin to fly from mid-August.

Painted Lady larva, fourth instar, on Creeping Thistle. It also breeds on other thistle species, Borage, mallows, Burdock and nettles. © J. Harding.

However, the Painted Lady story has just taken a new twist. A massive front has made land in Scotland and along the Donegal coastline. From Tory Island Grace Meenan described her experiences of seeing a huge number “like a carpet full of them, amazing to see!” The influx into Donegal is unusual in that it is not being reported arriving in numbers along the south coast. The factors that have seen it arrive there are not known but may be connected to their place of origin, wind direction and temperature. Regardless of the factors, the butterfly should be enjoyed. Unbelievable as it may seem in a year of abundance, it can almost disappear the following year. In all of 2010, for example, I saw just one, having seen hundreds in a moment in May 2009!

Here is a photograph of a settled Painted Lady sent by Grace from Tory Island.

Painted Lady on Tory Island, Co. Donegal.© G. Meenan.

We would like to hear from you about any Painted Lady sighting and indeed any butterfly or moth you see. For a valid record, send your name, date of sighting, the number of each species seen, a grid reference (see https://irish.gridreferencefinder.com/) and the place name and county to conservation.butterfly@gmail.com. All records are acknowledged.

It helps if you visit good habitats containing the plants that butterflies need. A walk in a flower-rich habitat, like this marvellous meadow at Castletown House, County Kildare, should be a butterfly-filled pleasure!

Flower-rich grassland at Castletown House, Kildare, home to the Small Copper, Common Blue, Painted Lady, Peacock and more. © J. Harding.


Sam Hanna from Kilkeel near the County Down coast reports around 100 Painted Lady butterflies in his garden, feeding on verbena and lavender. It seems that the butterfly is arriving in numbers on both sides of the northern part of Ireland.

Rare butterfly discovered in County Kildare

A butterfly last recorded in County Kildare pre-1941 has been discovered in Leixlip, County Kildare by Butterfly Conservation Ireland member Eddie Gilligan. The Purple Hairstreak, confined to oak woods is rarely seen in Ireland because it spends almost its entire adult life in the oak trees, usually high in the canopy. The old record for Kildare was for the Athy area and was phrased vaguely, raising considerable doubt about its accuracy.

However, Eddie saw the butterfly using binoculars, obtaining a clear view of the distinctive undersides.

The species is recorded mainly in scattered locations in Ireland. The pattern of records probably reflects recorder activity as well as the scarcity of oak woodland. Any records are gratefully received at conservation.butterfly@gmail.com. For the details of a record that we need, see https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/records/

One tip if searching for Purple Hairstreak is to check the sunny side of oaks from 5 pm to 7 pm when activity levels peak. The butterflies may then be seen darting about high in the canopy. It will often look silvery in the evening light, like a handful of silver coins tossed in the sunlight!

Purple Hairstreak underside. This specimen is a female but the underside is similar in both sexes. © J.Harding.

Butterflies to watch in July

A much better spell of weather during July has redeemed summer 2019. While the summer of 2019 is not comparable with the quality of last summer there are butterflies out now, some fresh, some past their best, but not in the abundance evident last summer.

Peacocks are just starting to appear, certainly not late, but in 2018 the butterfly emerged very early. Brimstones are also out now, surely with many more yet to emerge. I suspect we will not see these two in last year’s abundance; on August 3rd in 2018, I found 116 Peacocks and 15 Brimstones along a well-known ride in Lullymore, in County Kildare. Today (July 27th 2019) I found just two Peacocks and two Brimstones in that location.

I found a freshly emerged male Small Copper there-this gorgeous species is usually found in low single figures in any site but can reach high abundance but such years do not neatly correspond with fine summer weather.

The dramatic mid-summer Silver-washed Fritillary flies in good quality woodland throughout Ireland. In Lullymore and Lullybeg as elsewhere, there are some really large examples of both sexes but where I watch them I see much smaller individuals this year. This reduced size might be a result of the foodplant (Common Dog-violet) being less nutritious following the long drought from May 2018. The butterfly certainly looks less dramatic this season although last summer’s heat will have encouraged it to colonise new woods and encounter other populations.

Finally, a delicate and very widespread butterfly that some scientists have predicted will undergo a major decline if the climate continues to warm is flying now, but not in good numbers.  From Donegal Frank Smyth reports that a marsh that would typically have hundreds has just two or three on a given day. A species that likes wet meadows, damp hedgebanks, marshland and other wet, humid sites, the Green-veined White flutters around its sites feeding, seeking mates and egg-laying. Short-lived, it can be present in high figures in suitable habitats, such as flooded meadows containing water-cress but occurs in lower numbers in less suitable spots. The butterflies we are seeing now are the second generation and show darker wing-tips on the upper side of the forewing than their parents. This butterfly is often mistaken for the Small White but the latter lacks the markings that pick out the veins on the underside of the hind wings.

Keep an eye on your garden-all of these butterflies will visit gardens, although Brimstone and Silver-washed Fritillary needs to be present close by to drop in for nectar.  Common Knapweed, Creeping Thistle, wild mint, Common Marjoram and bramble are particular favourites at the moment.  Water these plants in dry weather to increase nectar release-this will keep your butterflies fed!

(Note: the following photographs were taken on July 27th)

Silver-washed Fritillary, male. The males are especially restless during warm, sunny weather. © J.Harding.
A beautiful Peacock, wings outstretched on bracken. Judging by its pristine appearance, it emerged this morning.© J.Harding.
Brimstone, male, on bramble. For the first few days of its adult life, the Brimstone is very hard to approach, flying into trees when disturbed. © J. Harding.
Small Copper. © J.Harding.
Green-veined White, sharply reduced in number in 2019. © J.Harding.