Hedgerow Destruction During the Bird Nesting Season Punished by the Courts

Ireland’s hedgerows are a vital resource for wildlife. The vast majority of the country’s hedges consist of native trees, herbs and grasses providing food and resting places for a great range of butterflies, moths, birds and mammals. About 595 species of larger moths have been found in Ireland. Many are dependent on hedges. Indeed, the Programme for Government mentions hedges and contains a number of commitments to review their protection (including enforcement of the relevant legislation). The government have indicated that they will re-double their efforts to protect Irelands’ natural heritage, including our hedgerows, our native woodland, our wetlands, and to complete a national hedgerow survey.

Peacock butterflies often breed on nettles growing as part of a hedge ©J.Harding

Aside from biodiversity benefits, hedges add enormously to the appearance of our landscapes. How naked and characterless would our countryside appear without hedges? It is vital that our National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) enforce the laws to defend this national resource. Their drive to protect hedges was evident when NPWS formerly of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht brought a case under Wildlife Acts before Judge Catherine Staines in Tullamore District Court on 20th July 2020.

The case was prosecuted for the Department by William Maher and the State Solicitor for County Offaly, Sandra Mahon. Mr Michael Cahill, Knockspur, Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary was summonsed under Section 40 of the Wildlife Acts for the destruction by grubbing up using a Hymac vegetation on lands not then cultivated and on vegetation growing in a hedge during the bird nesting season, which runs from the 1st of March to the 31st of August each year. The offences took place on lands at Gortcreen, Shinrone, Co. Offaly on April 09th and 10th 2019. This activity involved the destruction of over 300 metres of vegetation growing in a hedge, and on lands not then cultivated during the bird nesting season.

Mr Cahill entered a guilty plea through defending solicitor, Donal Farrelly. William Maher BL outlined the facts of the case to the court and highlighted the fact that the offence took place at a particularly sensitive time for nesting birds. Judge Staines warned the defendant that the matter had serious implications for nesting birds and other wildlife and told him not to engage in similar activity or come before her again on similar charges. If he did, the outcome would be more serious. Judge Staines then required a €300 contribution to be made by Mr Cahill to a suitable wildlife charity payable by the September sitting of Tullamore District Court in lieu of a conviction.

In that regard, NPWS Conservation Rangers who took the case nominated Butterfly Conservation Ireland.

Green Silver-lines moth breeds on hedgerow plants such as Wych Elm and oak.

Commenting, Minister of State at the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Malcolm Noonan said:

“I welcome this prosecution as hedgerows are vitally important for our wildlife and contribute hugely to biodiversity.

There have been other successful prosecutions this year taken by the NPWS for illegal vegetation clearance and hedge-cutting in counties Laois, Tipperary and Waterford.

The minister added: “It is the department’s policy to prosecute those found in breach of the legislation, including public bodies, and any incidents of illegal burning, clearing of vegetation or hedge-cutting should be reported to the local National Parks and Wildlife Service Office or an An Garda Síochána.”

Butterfly Conservation Ireland wishes to congratulate everyone involved. Their actions ensure that our heritage has the protection it so badly needs. We further hope that this case sends out the message that breaches of the wildlife laws will be prosecuted. We also wish to thank a journalist present in court for sending us the details of this case.


July Butterflies

Summer 2020 is a dull, wet contrast to the sunny, dry spring. But summer butterflies have to get out and get their business done. Butterflies are great at making the most of the brief sunny windows, flinging themselves into the sun, urgency the byword, feeding, mating and egg-laying achieved efficiently. The poor summer of 2009 was no bar to Silver-washed Fritillaries, despite fears that it suffered from a lack of opportunity to lay down the next generation. In the summer of 2010, it emerged in good numbers.

Of course, there have to be some good days. Prolonged bad weather can cause serious damage. Grassland butterflies can be badly hit by unsuitable weather. A long period of extreme, rainless heat can destroy larval foodplants. Bitter cold can ground butterflies, making them easy prey to amphibians, birds and spiders.

A good butterfly-watching tip is to visit good habitat on a warm sunny morning directly after a few days of rain. A burst of activity will often be your experience. I remember showing a friend a beautiful habitat in the Burren in County Clare on a sunny afternoon after a couple of days and a morning of heavy downpours. On this early August afternoon, dozens of butterflies fluttered around wet but fragrant blooms. There was tremendous energy and excitement in the air as though nature celebrated the sun’s revival. Golden Brimstones, chestnut Brown Hairstreaks, gleaming Small Coppers, shimmering Common Blues among others burst into view, happy to be out!

Butterfly life is often short so they have to make the most of their time. Their ability to fit so much into short intervals means that we generally have the most adaptable butterflies in Ireland. As long as our butterflies have their habitats…

Here is a selection of what is on offer in July.

Female Brimstone on Fragrant Orchid.
Female Meadow Brown feeding on hawkbit.
Silver-washed Fritillary basking on bindweed at the edge of woodland. This high summer butterfly is a magnificent flyer, and a stunning species when pristine.
A pair of mating Ringlets. While not a glamorous butterfly it has a gentle charm, bobbing gently as it does on warm, sticky July days. It even flies in the drizzle, making it ideally suited to Ireland’s climate.
A rarity in Ireland, the Essex Skipper is found in a few lucky, hidden corners in north Kildare and more generally south Wexford. This is a basking male. This species likes tall, dry grassland with a warm micro-climate.
Small Heath, a declining butterfly, is on the wing mainly in June and July and into August.
Small Purple-barred moth, a day flyer that is easily disturbed from flower-rich grassland.
The Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth caterpillar feeds on Devil’s-bit Scabious, the foodplant it shares with the Marsh Fritillary butterfly.
A flower-rich hedge-bank in County Meath. Butterflies need wildflowers and wild grasses. Don’t cut grass unnecessarily in summer.

Photos J.Harding


The Dark Side of the Comma

Take a look at these two photographs, taken in  County Kildare this month.

The dark form of the Comma butterfly, Lullybeg, County Kildare. Photo J.Harding
The light form of the Comma butterfly, Castletown, County Kildare. Photo J.Harding

We are trying to understand more about the life cycle of this colonising butterfly. The colour of the butterfly is a major help in unravelling the details of the ways the butterfly breeds, especially the timing of breeding.

The Comma exists in two colour forms, the dark form which also shows a more deeply indented outline and the light, more golden form, known as the Hutchinsoni form, after the famous Comma breeder, Emma Hutchinson from Herefordshire, who bred the golden form named after her.

The light form is a short-lived, direct breeder while the dark form is the long-lived delayed breeder. The light form flies in July and August and breeds shortly after it hatches from the pupa and dies off long before winter. The dark form is usually seen in September and October and in spring. The dark form Commas flying now delay breeding until next year.

The Dark Commas flying now will be joined in hibernation by the offspring of the light form, all of which are dark Commas. This means that two generations of dark form Commas pass the winter in hibernation. These are the summer emerging dark form and the autumn emerging dark form Commas. All the Commas breeding in spring are dark form butterflies.

Until recently, the Commas reported in July were light form butterflies. Now we are seeing dark individuals, a development that is influenced at least partly by overcast weather during the larval stage.

We would like your help to investigate the prevalence of delayed breeding by the Comma in summer. Please send us your Comma records with photos to us at

Your records should be phrased as follows:

Mike Smith (21/07/2020)

Comma 2, one light and one dark at T 11261 25271, Raven Point Nature Reserve, Co. Wexford. Sunny, 21C.

We will publish your record on our Records Page unless you ask us not to.

If you are not sure what form you are seeing, we should be able to judge this from the photographs. The butterfly’s underside is a great help in determining the form, so images of the underside are really valuable.

The Comma can turn up anywhere, including in gardens, but rides and clearings in woods, canal and river banks with Stinging Nettles are the usual places to find it.

We look forward to hearing from you!


Milltownpass Bog National Heritage Area Prosecution

A raised bog at Milltownpass in County Westmeath was at issue in a case before the High Court on July 10th. A local man Daragh Coyne had been committed four weeks previously to Mountjoy prison by Mr Justice Barr for breaching court orders against him obtained by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Mr Coyne had defied these orders by cutting turf illegally and erecting a gate and signage on the bog.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service was concerned turf would be extracted from the NHA, because turf cutting equipment stored close to the where the material had been dumped.

The service claimed that in 2019 Mr Coyne had engaged a contractor to cut turf on the NHA and it was feared he would cut turf on the lands again in 2020.

Peat extraction from the bog was banned in 2017, the court heard.

On July 10th Mr Coyne came before the court and agreed to comply with the orders. He promised not to cut any turf on the site, which is partly owned by the Minister and by a member of Mr Coyne’s family.

Mr Justice Barr said that based on the undertakings given to the court by Mr Coyne he was satisfied that Mr Coyne had purged his contempt, and “was free to go home.”

The judge also agreed to a request by the service’s counsel James O’Donnell to adjourn the matter until late July to see if the undertakings have been complied with.

The bog at Milltownpass is located 1 km north-east of Milltownpass, in the townlands of Pass of Kilbride and Claremount or Cummingstown in County Westmeath. The site comprises a raised bog that includes both areas of high bog and cutover bog and can be accessed from the local road off the N6 to the east of the site.

The bog contains vegetation strongly representative of a high-quality midlands-type raised bog including some wet and quaking areas. Vegetation present includes Ling Heather, Hare’s-tail Cottongrass, White Beak-sedge, Cross-leaved Heath, Bog Asphodel,  Cranberry and Bog Rosemary.  It is of considerable importance especially given its easterly location.

Butterfly Conservation Ireland congratulates the National Parks and Wildlife Service for taking the case to protect the site. A well-staffed, vigilant and motivated service is vital for the task of protecting our heritage and we urge the new minister at the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Catherine Martin, to ensure the service has the resources it needs.

Ireland’s record on protecting the Marsh Fritillary butterfly

Marsh Fritillary Protected in Natura 2000 sites
Country Number of sites designated Position by site number
France 380  1
Spain 314  2
Germany 192  3
Italy 122  4
Portugal   48  5
United Kingdom   41  6
Poland   38  7
Slovenia   35  8
Sweden   31  9
Austria   29 10
Croatia   27 11
Hungary   22 12
Lithuania   22 12
Romania   22 12
Belgium   21 15
Czech Republic   21 15
Republic of Ireland   16 16
Bulgaria   13 17
Latvia   11 18
Estonia   10 19
Luxembourg   10 19
Greece     5 20

If you like Premiership soccer you are probably delighted it’s back. For the first time since 2013, I actually look forward to watching Manchester United play. Attacking with pace, style and confidence makes them a thrill to watch. I am kicking every ball.

United are trying to break into the top four and currently sit just outside, in the fifth position. There is a Champions’ League place for teams that finish in the top four, with eye-watering TV money and massive media exposure a clear incentive to achieve a top-four finish.

At the bottom end of the table, teams struggle to avoid relegation to the Championship, the division below the Premier League. No-one wants to drop. The loss of money, prestige, identity and momentum really hurts.

If Ireland’s record on protecting its special, protected species was part of a competitive league, we’d be fighting to stave off the misery of relegation. Ireland has only given specific legal protection to the endangered Marsh Fritillary butterfly’s habitat on  16 sites. As you can see from the table, we lie a miserable 16th but really it is worse than that. Much worse. We should be bottom of the league, staring miserably at more illustrious teams that celebrate their special butterflies and their special habitats.

Before this is explained a little background is needed. The Marsh Fritillary butterfly is protected under the Berne Convention and the European Union Habitats’ Directive 1992. All species listed on Annex II of the Habitats’ Directive are protected, and EU member states must designate core areas of habitat for the species on Annex II, such as the Marsh Fritillary. These sites must be managed in accordance with the ecological needs of the species.

Ireland has provided sixteen designated sites. But the butterfly is extinct on some of them. On some of the sites, breeding is sporadic and the butterfly is frequently absent from the site. The Marsh Fritillary has been absent from Killarney National Park since the early 1990s.  The butterfly disappeared from Ballynafagh Lake, County Kildare in the late 1990s. On these sites, part of the breeding area overgrew with rank grasses and woodland shaded out the remaining habitat.

In another designated area, Moneen Mountain, the species was not found when the area was surveyed around 2006. In its designated site in County Westmeath, it has been missing for some years. This site, Scragh Bog, does not hold enough or perhaps no longer has any suitable breeding habitat for the butterfly.  In Offaly, Clara Bog was designated for the butterfly where very little suitable habitat is present and the butterfly breeds there only intermittently.

In one of its Donegal sites, Sheskinmore, the species still occurs but in some years it is barely detectable. These do not appear to be “core areas” for the species as required by EU law, so why designate them for the butterfly?

There are suitable sites with large populations of the Marsh Fritillary, such as Cloonoo/Yellow Bog, just west of Loughrea, that are undesignated and therefore in a vulnerable situation.

Let us compare Ireland’s designation record to that of some other EU states. The Republic of Ireland’s 16 sites for a land area of 68,883 square kilometres compares unfavourably with  Luxembourg,  with 10 designated sites in only 2,586 square kilometres.

Greece designated just five sites. However, the Marsh Fritillary’s range in Greece is restricted to a small area in the north of the country while in Ireland the Marsh Fritillary’s range includes the entire island.

Belgium lies just above Ireland in the table with 21 designated sites. Belgium has an area of 30,689 square kilometres, less than half the land area of the Republic of Ireland and a much larger human population.

Let’s leave all that to one side, bad as it looks. Let’s see how well Ireland’s 16 designated sites are managed. All are listed here.

The sites are Ardara (Sheskinmore), Ballynafagh,  Barrigone, Bricklieve Mountains & Keishcorran, Bunduff/and Machair/Trawalua/Mullaghmore, Carrowbehy/Caher Bog, Clara Bog. Cloonchambers Bog, Connemara Bog Complex,  Gweedore Bay and Islands, Killarney National Park, Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and Caragh River Catchment, Moneen Mountain, Scragh Bog, Sheephaven Bay and  St John’s Point.

None of these sites has a management plan, according to the Natura 2000 forms for each site on the website of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Without a proper management regime, which usually involves cattle grazing and scrub control, the butterfly dies out on many of its sites. The state has used the passive conservation approach of declaring a protected area and abandoning its responsibilities to our wildlife. Without active management for the Marsh Fritillary, it is little wonder it was lost from, for example, Ballynafagh which had suitable habitat before it was allowed to deteriorate.

At Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s reserve at Lullybeg, County Kildare, a thriving Marsh Fritillary population exists on a managed site. We manage this reserve as volunteers. We do not have the resources the state commands.

In short, there is no excuse.

A country without its natural heritage is a wasteland. That’s what relegation looks like. At least when a football team is relegated it might win promotion the following season. With some habitats that are allowed to deteriorate restoration is not so easy and for destroyed bogs, impossible.

The Marsh Fritillary, rated vulnerable on the Ireland Butterfly Red List, together with its habitats must be better protected by the state and society as a whole. Photo ©  J.Harding

A nature-lover’s ramble

One of the benefits of technology for the nature lover is the digital camera. Back in time, developing photographs was time-consuming and expensive and the results often extremely exasperating. You handed in the film to be developed, often into a pharmacy. Then you waited for your photos to be “in”… Do you remember that?

If you do, chances are you appreciate the freedom that inexpensive digital photography provides. Point your camera, shoot and check your image. It’s so simple.

High-quality macro modes are standard on digital cameras, and the quality is often striking, even allowing butterfly eggs to show up well when the image is viewed later on your laptop. This assists identification in some tricky species. The Field Grasshopper, for example, can be separated from the Common Green Grasshopper by the presence of hair on its underside-a digital camera with a good macro mode shows this feature.

There are surprises too. At times a photo is taken but only when seen on a laptop screen do you realise that more was going on than you thought. The butterfly that appeared to be resting on a leaf was laying eggs. A spider had its fangs embedded in the Orange-tip’s thorax; it merely looked to be a docile, camera-friendly butterfly posing obligingly for your shot.

Another pleasure of photography is the anticipation it offers when your walk is over. The walk is over but there is more to look forward to as you contemplate looking at your photographs on your laptop, especially if you think you have the perfect pic that has eluded you forever.

The photo albums are a great record of your walk, your day, your summer, your year. Looking over your photos at the year’s end triggers happy memories of sunshine and healthy habitats and the promise of more to come in the year ahead.

Some butterfly lovers are waiting for the much loved Clouded Yellow butterfly.  The years when this gorgeous mustard-coloured migrant arrives en masse are infrequent but memorable. While it is here, we have a taste of the Mediterranean. We have not had a good Clouded Yellow Year since 2006, or a great year since 2000. Who knows, when we get another great year we might see the Pale Clouded Yellow, a serious rarity here, too.

On a more serious note, photography allows us to keep a record of what we saw, where we saw it and when. This can be valuable information, enabling us to track the health of habitats and species. These photos serve as a reminder of what is being lost and can excite action to address these losses. One day around 2004, I was shown a photograph of a Marsh Fritillary taken in Waterford. “It’s gone now,” the photographer said. This spurred on conversations about the terrible impacts we were seeing on our habitats and culminated in the establishment of Butterfly Conservation Ireland in 2008. Since then, we have brought habitat issues to the attention of the state, planners, private companies and the general public, feeding into the good work being done by the environmental movement.

That photograph was a spur to action.

That is what photographs can do. They inspire, excite, inform, educate, delight. Photography does not have to be a one-dimensional relationship with nature when a photographer ‘collects’ species in photographic form. It can be so much more…

Here, then, are the photos taken during a couple of recent rambles. Please enjoy them. Better still, share yours with us by sending them to our Facebook page.

Small Heath butterfly. This rarely sits still for long enough for a photograph to be obtained but a newly emerged female like this one will perch during an overcast interval.
This is a day-flying moth, the Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet, feeding on Field Scabious, a flower that grows in dry, semi-natural grassland. The moth breeds on Meadow Vetchling typically growing on damp soil.
A lovely Pyramidal Orchid, an inhabitant of dry, semi-natural grasslands such as coastal dunes, eskers and well-drained road verges.
Latticed Heath, an active day flyer that can be found on grassy heaths, limestone grasslands and other grasslands containing clovers and vetches.
A Fragrant Orchid growing on a cutaway bog. The fragrance is powerful and sweet. The flower looks exceptionally attractive when fed on by a fresh male Brimstone or Silver-washed Fritillary.
The caterpillar of the Oak Eggar moth can often be found at this time of the year basking on bare ground. This one measured over 6 cm.
A male Keeled Skimmer dragonfly at the edge of a raised bog. You are not very likely to get near him unless it is cloudy.
A Pale Brindled Beauty larva on Alder Buckthorn. The adult male flies early in spring, the female is wingless.
A Field Grasshopper. A grassland alive with the sound of the males is a grassland teeming with biodiversity for a range of species.
The Forester moth, uncommon sight today. This day flyer breeds in species-rich grassland containing flowers and Sheep’s Sorrel.
This Small Tortoiseshell is laying her eggs on the underside of a nettle leaf. Her offspring will be flying in your garden in late August and September and hibernating in your house if you let it.
A Small White, once very numerous, now less common but still widespread.
The Small Skipper, a mid-summer butterfly is flying now.

All photos J.Harding


How important are gardens for Butterfly Conservation?

Three new housing estates being built near my home contain mainly three and four-bedroomed homes. There are solar panels and the Building Energy Rating is ‘A’ for all homes. The facades are low-maintenance. So far, so good.

Then there are the gardens. In two of the estates, the houses have no front garden. There is a driveway for the car/s. In the other estate, the front garden for some houses is a courtesy green patch, tucked in at the corner. There are back gardens in all three estates. The public green spaces are the chief green areas, mainly grassed with specimen trees. Some of these are native.

In estates built in the area before the year 2000, there are back and rear gardens. However, in many cases, these front gardens are being replaced with a hard surface to accommodate vehicles and for ease of maintenance.

However, there is still a significant area given over to gardens. While there appears to be no statistics on the amount of land in Ireland given over to gardens, there are statistics for the UK, which has a similar outlook towards housing. In both states, the idea of living in a three or four-bedroomed house with a front and rear garden remains the common model.

These statistics are quite striking. Multiplying garden numbers by average area gives a total UK garden cover of 432,964 ha, which, using the standard area measure, is one fifth the size of Wales. Putting this in protected landscape terms, it is the area of the Norfolk Broads, and the Exmoor, Dartmoor and Lake District National Parks added together. One-quarter of the area of a typical city (and half its green space) is private gardens, so the potential national significance of gardens as a resource for wildlife is clear.

The study, Gardens as a resource for wildlife by Ken Thompson and Steve Head makes the case that habitats in gardens are a very important resource for some wildlife.

Take the issue of garden ponds. According to the 2001-2002 Survey of English Housing, 10% of households had a pond, which works out at around 2½ million garden ponds in the country. The garden surveys suggested a higher proportion of 16%, giving a total of just over 3½ million garden ponds in UK gardens. Ponds averaged about 1m2 in area, so if the higher total is correct, that is a total of 349 hectares of standing water. Windemere, the largest natural lake in England is only about four times this area. A 2010 report estimated that there were 478,000 countryside ponds in Britain (and this is only a third the number in 1880), so gardens hold 86% of Britain’s ponds, but only a small proportion of the total area, since most garden ponds are much smaller than those in the countryside.

Despite this, that small surface area is distributed over a large area, so nowhere in our towns and cities is far from the nearest pond. Most pond animals are also excellent colonists, so almost all ponds are used by aquatic organisms; they are a haven for amphibians, aquatic invertebrates and plants in residential areas, including some of specific conservation concern (e.g. the Great Crested Newt, Common Frog and Common Toad). Garden ponds also provide drinking and bathing water for birds, as well as supporting a variety of invertebrates that are an important food resource for other animals.

The Common Frog has benefitted hugely from garden ponds. It readily breeds in gardens and controls slug populations. © J.Harding

This certainly tallies with my experience. My garden ponds hold a range of species that could not breed without the pond habitat; Common Frog, Smooth Newt, a number of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) including Brown Hawker, moths with aquatic larvae (the china mark moths, such as Beautiful China-mark Nymphula nitidulata),  hoverflies and a number of species that spend their lives in water. Elephant Hawkmoth, Green-veined White and Orange-tip butterflies have bred on plants growing in my ponds or in the wetland fringing the open water. Plenty of bird activity is also part of my pond scene. In brief, ponds are an excellent addition to a wildlife garden as long as they are not stocked with fish.

While no figures are provided for compost heaps, these are remarkable for nature. I remember checking a compost heap in Gloucestershire to see it used as a breeding site for Slow Worms and Grass Snake. It was also used by a Bank Vole, Common Toad and a mass of invertebrates, especially woodlice, ants and earthworms. Many gardens, even small ones, have a compost heap. Let’s keep this facility in place in our gardens.

And so to garden trees. According to the UK study, 54% of gardens contained one or more trees taller than 3 m. The average number of trees per garden was 2.4, giving us a national estimate of 28,730,986 trees within domestic gardens. One study looked specifically at tree cover in gardens, reporting that 11% of garden area was tree-covered, which translates to a national tree coverage of 47,402 ha. The area of the New Forest National Park is 56,600 hectares, but 10,000 hectares of this is heathland and mires, and there are large areas of farmland as well. In fact, the total area of the New Forest ancient beech and oak woods is only 3,692 hectares. (Sadly, a large part of the forested area in the New Forest consists of non-native plantation species which has dramatically reduced butterfly abundance there.)

There are about 123 million live trees outside woodland in Britain so domestic gardens contain just under a quarter of the total number of trees outside woodland for the whole country. Trees in residential areas contribute to ecosystem services such as climate regulation and air filtration, and they also provide important habitats for wildlife. The Sheffield BUGS project, and other work, all confirm that the total volume of vegetation (to which trees make a large contribution) is a major determinant of the diversity and abundance of many taxonomic groups. Many urban trees are of course non-native, but such trees are far from useless for native wildlife.

In an Irish context, we can easily see the value of garden trees given the tiny amount of native trees that exist in our landscape. In the EU, only Malta has a lower percentage of its land given over to trees than the Republic of Ireland.  According to the Central Statistics Office, forestry accounted for 10.9% of Ireland’s total land area in 2015. In contrast, 35.5% of the total land area in the EU in 2015 was under forest cover.

The vast majority of plantation woodland here is non-native, usually coniferous species. These species are of less value to native biodiversity than native trees. Furthermore, the dense planting method used means that the ground beneath is dark, useless for native flora. By contrast, many gardens have non-native trees like Common Beech and lime which do offer value for some wildlife. On a more positive note, many gardens have Silver or Downy Birch, Common Holly while some large gardens have native oak. These are crucial for native invertebrates; for example, the Purple Hairstreak butterfly breeds only on oaks.

Purple Hairstreak female © J.Harding.

While I have not seen a Purple Hairstreak on an oak tree growing in an Irish garden, I have seen one in an English garden. I see no reason why this lovely butterfly would not occur on a good-sized garden oak here if it is near oak woodland.

A well-planted garden, by which I mean a garden stocked with native herbaceous plants, native shrubs/hedging and trees which features a pond, mini-wood and grassland will produce ideal habitat for a great many of our widespread species. If chemical use is avoided, the vast insect resource will mean there will be little if any need to feed birds.

A large area of ‘clean’ land can be developed which will be a help to nature beleaguered by modern agriculture and land drainage. Let’s take some CSO figures.

In 1990 18.3% of our land was wetland. This declined to 16% in 2014.

Our beautiful wild wetlands are in decline. This stunning wetland is in Kildare, close to County Offaly  © J.Harding

In 2014 60.7% of the land was grassland but much of this is a monoculture and much of our grasslands are fertilised using synthetic fertiliser; in 2015 331,000 tonnes of Nitrogen fertiliser was sold and presumably used; only 1.2% of agricultural land was used for organic farming in 2013, the second-lowest in the EU. Ireland had the 7th highest consumption of fertilisers of the EU Member States where data were available in 2013, at 94.7 tonnes per 1,000 hectares of agricultural land. The highest consumption in the EU was the Netherlands at 136.7 tonnes per 1,000 hectares of agricultural land.

The use of chemical fertiliser destroys many plants and invertebrates, including the Small Heath and Small Copper butterflies. Both species are in decline according to the data from the National Biodiversity Data Centre, and a recent study implicates chemical fertilisers poisoning the larvae.

Small Heath female, Pollardstown Fen, County Kildare. © J.Harding.

However, there are many species of butterfly and moth that cannot exist in a garden. Our rarer and more specialist species such as the Large Heath, Green Hairstreak and Dark Green Fritillary need high-quality semi-natural habitats for their survival.

Much can be achieved in gardens and it is notable that many gardens, where these exist as a connected network, hold more species than so-called ‘green’ farmland. Farmland that is intensively managed is typically very poor for butterflies and biodiversity generally.

However, there are other features that impact negatively on the value of gardens in enhancing biodiversity. Many gardens change hands when the house is sold and new owners frequently change the garden. Native plants may be removed to grow whatever is in fashion. Parents with young children may fill in the pond. While animals like butterflies can move next door, plants cannot. More seriously, the popularity of garden make-over programmes like Ground Force encouraged a great trend for extensive areas of paving and decking, convenient for parties, but next to useless for wildlife.  Decking is quite a challenge to maintain, though, and can become dangerously slippy. When gardeners realise these drawbacks they may reverse the trend.

Furthermore, garden areas are being lost to development especially around towns where a large back garden is lost to build a new house or where an old house with a large garden is demolished to build several homes. Sheds, greenhouses and house extensions swallow up more garden space and often the remainder is paved. While people need homes, people in urban areas need greenery too, for fresh air, visual amenity and happiness. Wildlife is part of our experience of happiness too, as well as being important for its right to be here.

Butterfly Conservation Ireland wants you to enjoy nature. Our free leaflet is available here BCI-Garden-leaflet

We also encourage you to monitor the butterflies that visit your garden. Our survey form is simple to complete and we send all participants a report early the following year. The form is here National-Garden-Butterfly-Survey

If you need help to identify any butterfly you see, check our gallery at or send a snap of your butterfly to

Garden for nature. The rewards are real.

You’ll live a better life for it.

This Small Tortoiseshell is feeding on wildflowers in a garden managed for nature. © J.Harding





Living with Nature

Occasionally I idle away my time on the property websites, gazing dreamily at some of the elegant houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially homes built in the Georgian style. There is something reassuring and lovely in the ordered, symmetrical arrangement of the front facades of Georgian buildings. Order and stability had great appeal to people living in times of great political upheaval of the French Revolution and the great technological, social and economic changes arising from the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions.

Builders recognised this need to cater to their clients’ need for security.  Many advertisements for homes promote the idea that their home is a haven from the perils and pressures of the tumultuous world outside. Houses built in historic styles are especially attractive; stone and brick finishes hark back to bygone times (despite the accommodation for most of the population in previous centuries bearing little resemblance to these homes). It worked and still works. The evidence is that we build what we want.

A related feature is the locality around our houses. In the inter-war period, four million houses were built in Britain, with the bulk being built in London and the south-east of England. The vast majority were built in the countryside. Brochures for these homes which were constructed in historic styles showed drawings of cows grazing in fields, leafy lanes or ducks swimming in ponds.

A guidebook published by the Metropolitan Railway extolled the virtues of country life; Chorleywood has “beautiful woods, a gloriously open common, and a salubrious atmosphere…” Another advertisement promoted health and financial benefits: “Perfect rural surroundings, lovely views, extraordinarily healthy. Properties on this estate cannot depreciate in value”. The gardens were attractive too; all houses had a small front garden and a much larger garden behind.

Not everyone welcomed the expansion of the city into the countryside. E.M. Forster wrote that in the suburbs “nothing had to be striven for, and success was indistinguishable from failure”. Ian Nairns stated that we were “wrecking the environment so that man can see everywhere the projection and image of his own humdrum suburban life – mild lusts, mild fears, mild everything”.  However, some saw the move to the suburbs in a more positive light – the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions drove people into towns and now people were returning to their rural roots.

Another model that was tried was the “town country”.  Applying attractive historic architecture, homes were built along a spider’s web of streets radiating from a central square. All the necessary facilities, including factories, were built along with the houses to create an instant, self-contained community.

The brainchild of Ebenezer Howard, Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire was his response to the pollution of London and the departure of farmworkers from the countryside. His larger vision was of cities like Letchworth connected to each other by canals, rail and road with the protected countryside in between. Welwyn Garden City followed from 1920. Again, greenery was incorporated into the settlement with generous gardens and green spaces to promote health and happiness. A happy workforce, Howard and others including Thomas Bata believed, would be an efficient workforce.

There appears little doubt that we are profoundly influenced by our physical surroundings. Why, for example, do people love birds, butterflies and flowers so deeply? There is an argument for extending this thinking by making the case that people in close contact with nature are happier, healthier and more motivated.  Offering close contact with nature has become an explicit selling point for some housing developers.

A current brochure for one residential development built by Cairns in Maynooth, County Kildare states, ” we believe design can transform the way we live and create a real sense of belonging, one that extends beyond four walls. We go to great lengths to make spaces where communities can flourish; from the green areas and parks to cycle-paths, sports facilities and playgrounds. For us, it’s all about creating great places where people will love to live.”

Close contact with nature is strongly emphasised: ” We have selected a broad palette of planting to ensure points of interest during every season and for biodiversity benefit. Over 600 metres of native hedgerow and over 300 trees will be planted before the first house is complete.”

Supporting visuals include photos of a Blue Tit, Honey Bee and wildflowers, followed by the biodiversity clincher: “We promote a holistic approach to landscaping and preservation in all our developments. Biodiverse planting, insect hotels, native trees and ground cover create the perfect environment for indigenous Irish birds and fauna.”

In the development, signage is used to identify various native tree and shrub species, leaving one with a positive outlook.  More people are conscious of the need to promote biodiversity in their immediate environment, a mindset that is very encouraging.

Yet we are often highly selective. Poppies, Cornflowers and Ox-eye Daisies are great, Stinging Nettles, Garlic Mustard and tall wild grasses are ugly.

There is rarely a more discouraging sight than a gloved, masked gardener spraying ‘weeds’ along roadsides, path edges, garden walls, hedgerow edges. This is dreadfully destructive behaviour, lethal to bees, hoverflies, moths, butterflies and so much else.  I wonder if there is some disjunct thinking here; after all, who would tear wings off a butterfly? One gardener told me she loves seeing the butterflies that visit her garden but that she hates the caterpillars.

A commitment to biodiversity means conservation of all native biodiversity.  In our gardens, where we are in control, we must make room for all the native plants that occur naturally in our local environment if we are to look after nature and ourselves.  In essence, planting for nature means growing native plants. If your mainstay plants are native, you will encourage far more biodiversity than you would by using cultivated varieties and non-indigenous species.

No native nettles, no Peacock butterfly.

No native Garlic Mustard, no Orange-tip butterfly.

No caterpillars, no butterflies.

No nettles
No caterpillars
No Peacock butterfly

Photographs © J.Harding

Separating the Burnets and Cinnabar

Walkers along tracks in sand dunes will often flush bright red moths which flutter prettily in the sunlight before collapsing into the vegetation, often failing to settle long enough to allow a close inspection. Sometimes masses of red and black moths are seen feeding, on other times just the odd one is seen feeding on clover tor thyme.

These moths can look quite similar especially when seen briefly so identification can be tricky. Here we provide photographs and identification pointers of these moths.

Perhaps the most abundant of this group of moths is the Six-spot Burnet moth. The moth is very abundant on some coastal sites; great sites for it include dunes at The Raven, County Wexford, Fanore, County Clare, Stradbally, County Kerry and Portrane, County Dublin.  On these sites, it can be seen in hundreds, even thousands. The moth is day-flying, has six red spots on the upper surfaces of the mainly iridescent black forewings and back-bordered red hindwings. The antennae are strongly hooked.  The larvae feed on Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil and the yellow cocoons are found on plant stems from May to August.

Six-spot Burnet moth © J.Harding.
Six-spot Burnet larva and pupa © J.Harding

The species it most closely resembles is the Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet moth. This moth is much rarer than the Six-spot Burnet and is usually found on flower-rich damp sites where its main larval foodplant, Meadow Vetchling, occurs in ungrazed or lightly grazed grasslands. This moth is rated vulnerable on the Ireland Red List No. 9 Macro-moths (Lepidoptera) published in 2016. Both the adult moth and larva looks very similar to the Six-spot Burnet but it has five, not six spots on the foregoing. Its antennae are not as prominently hooked as the Six-spot Burnet’s. It is rarely as numerous on its sites as its common relative and appears to have a shorter flight time, appearing mainly during June. Good sites include Balydoyle Race Course near Portmarnock, County Dublin and Pollardstown Fen, County Kildare. It is more common in northern areas of Ireland.

Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet © J.Harding
Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet larva © J.Harding

Another burnet, the Transparent Burnet, is smaller than the spotted burnets. The Transparent Burnet has two connected red bars on the forewings which are a charcoal colour but are somewhat see-through. This moth occurs mainly in the Burren where it is often very abundant. It is a day-flyer and feeds avidly on thyme flowers. The larva looks quite different from the larvae of the spotted burnets-mainly dark olive in colour. It eats thyme and can be seen in April and May. Good sites include Clooncoose, County Clare and the Black Head walk, County Clare.

Transparent Burnet © J.Harding
Transparent Burnet larva feeding on thyme © J.Harding

The Cinnabar moth has red hindwings like all the burnets but it has both spots and a bar on its forewing upper surface. The Cinnabar moth is a more widespread species occurs on brownfield sites, coastal sites, farmland,  gardens and grassland heavily grazed by rabbits. It has a very distinctive larva-hopped in black and yellow. Despite its black and red colouring, it is not in the same family to the burnets, being related to the tiger moths. The Cinnabar is skittish, flying uneasily in sunshine but it is really a nocturnal species. However, it is commonly seen during the day and has a long flight season, flying from May to August. The moth is toxic because the larva feeds mainly on Common Ragwort, a plant containing a cyanide compound. Birds quickly learn to avoid the adult moth and larva! Good sites include Mornington, County Meath and disused sand pits throughout west Wicklow, such as near Blessington.

Cinnabar moth © J.Harding
Cinnabar larva feeding on Common Ragwort © J.Harding

We would encourage you to let us know where you have seen these moths. If you see any of these species, contact us by email at

Tell us  your name, date of observation, the species you saw, the numbers of the species, habitat and placename of the site and a grid reference for the site which you can find here:

Your record can be stated like this:

John Smith  (16/06/2020)

Cinnabar moth 10 at  O159757, sand dunes at Mornington, Co. Meath.

We will publish your record on our Records page. The records will be sent to the National Biodiversity Data Centre at the end of the year so that the records will be saved by two organisations that track biodiversity.


The Rise and Fall of Ireland’s Butterflies 2008-2019

The recently reported increase in the population of the Purple Emperor in England offers a wonderful uplift and an antidote to the gloom and sometimes paranoia pervading our outlook on the seemingly unending downward plunge of biodiversity across the globe.

And we all need a boost, especially in the current social, political and economic uncertainties bombarding us each way we look. And butterflies, the most beautiful animals in the world can provide this much-needed balm.

While our suite of butterfly species on this side on the Irish Sea does not include the Purple Emperor, we do have some good news to share about the progress of Ireland’s butterflies. This good news is backed by science. We have been counting butterflies here systematically for the past 13 years so we have a good idea about how populations stand.

What do we know? We have 35 butterfly species that we encounter every year-three are regular migrants, the others are year-round residents. We have recorded data on all of these species. The findings from the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme published by the National Biodiversity Data Centre tells us that seven have increased in population size since 2008, five species are stable, there is uncertainty about five species while the status of 11 is unknown due to the small number of sites being monitored.

Some increases are spectacular. Based on the 2019 figures, the Peacock, surely our most beautiful butterfly, is up 250% since 2008. The Brimstone,  golden yellow in the male and greenish-white in the female has jumped 191%. The deep black patterned orange Silver-washed Fritillary, our largest native butterfly showed a rise of 57%. The latter two butterflies are benefitting from a warming climate and an increase in the woodland habitat that is developing throughout the Irish midlands as native woods develop on cutaway bogs. The Holly Blue is up 34% on 2008 figures-this looks like a beneficiary of warming too, for it loves to lay its eggs in hot shrubbery, particularly in urban settings. It can even be seen fluttering its azure blue wings in Dublin city centre.

The situation may be a little different from that reported by the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. It appears that at least nine species have increased in abundance. This includes two species not included in the scheme’s increase data. These two are the orange-red Comma, first confirmed breeding in Ireland in May 2014 by Jesmond Harding and Brian Power, now spreading throughout the south and east of Ireland and the Cryptic Wood White, a delicate, slow-motion flyer that loves bushy, grassy areas that must be benefitting from a more relaxed style of land management.

One butterfly that many have seen in abundance this spring is the charming and exquisite Orange-tip. The male sports gleaming orange wing-tips on his upper surfaces which blaze hotly against the otherwise starched white wings. Reports to Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s recording scheme (see ) show many accounts of our prettiest spring butterfly. While it appeared to be so numerous this year, a note of caution must be struck.

This year’s Orange-tip populations were laid down last year when the eggs were laid. Therefore, the 2020 population size largely reflects 2019’s conditions. Although 2019 was not a stellar year, it was a good year. But the boom in Orange-tips this April and May reflects the weather this year. Typically, Orange-tips emerge from their pupae from early April to early July according to the on-off weather in the more usual Irish spring/early summer. But because the weather this spring was consistently sunny, dry and warm the Orange-tips burst upon our countryside in numbers over just a few weeks in April and the first half of May. Their flight period is already over, excepting a few stragglers.

While it is heartening to see such beauty in abundance, we must be mindful of declines. The Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme shows that five species have declined, two of these sharply (Small Copper and Small Heath by more than 5% per year). While it cannot be confirmed due to lack of data, Butterfly Conservation Ireland takes the view that the Large Heath and Green Hairstreak butterflies, both bog specialists, are in decline, especially the Large Heath which is fully dependent on wet bogs which are being destroyed at an alarming rate.

Interestingly, all three parties involved in negotiations on a programme for government, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, made manifesto commitments to conserve and restore the bogs. We shall see…

But we should not wait for politicians to improve the environment. All gardeners can help to protect the commoner species. Avoid using peat. Your garden does not need it.  Don’t use any herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilisers. Grow native flowers and shrubs to provide nectar and breeding sites for butterflies and moths. Build habitats that reflect those found in the countryside around your home. Around 20 of our species have been recorded in gardens so there is much you can do to help.

More information can be found on our website at and our Facebook page.  If you would like to record butterflies take a look at the Records page on our website. Butterfly Conservation Ireland is a charity that was established to conserve butterfly and moth populations. Butterfly Conservation Ireland is keen to receive new members to boost the drive to save our loveliest creatures.

Brimstone, up by 191% from 2008-2019. © J.Harding
Peacock has shown an increase of 250% 2008-2019. © J. Harding
Silver-washed Fritillary, up 57% over the period 2008-2019. © J.Harding
Holly Blue has shown an increase of 34% during the period 2008-2019. © J.Harding
The Comma is rapidly expanding its range in Ireland. © J.Harding
The Orange-tip was abundant during April and May 2020. © J.Harding