Butterflies in time of War

The twentieth century saw warfare produce industrial-scale slaughter that was unimaginable in previous times. These dark times saw combat involving all continents, a truly global scale. Even in the throes of trauma, people took the time to notice nature, especially butterflies.

Erich Remarque was a German soldier who served in the German Army in World War I.  His book describing the experiences of German front line troops appeared in 1929. Remarque’s brilliant exposé of the horror of modern war, All Quiet on the Western Front describes a brief moment of brightness following a ferocious battle the Germans fought against French troops in the summer of 1917:

“For the whole morning two butterflies have been playing around our trench. They are Brimstones, and their yellow wings have orange spots on them. I wonder what could have brought them here? There are no plants or flowers for miles. They settle on the teeth of a skull”. (Chapter 6, pages 88-89, Vintage Classics edition)

In fact, the wood where the German troops were sheltering had just been destroyed by shelling-presumably these newly emerged Brimstone butterflies came from that wood.

Brimstones in spring, faded by months of life; female with wings open, male on the right. Photo J.Harding.

Near the conclusion of the brilliant 2018 documentary (which used original war film), They Shall Not Grow Old produced and directed by Peter Jackson, a British soldier who gave testimony after the war reported that he was delighted to get the chance to see Camberwell Beauties and Common Swallowtails flying along a riverbank in France or Belgium-these butterflies are very rare in Britain.

In fact, despite the horrendous suffering on the western front, the heavy shelling of the battle zones in France and Belgium had some benefits for butterflies and the troops who needed to see the beauty in their ugly, nasty world. Soil disturbance often allows wildflowers to flourish, producing great conditions for grassland butterflies.

The British Prime Minister and war leader, Winston Churchill, planned a butterfly house at his home at Chartwell, Kent in 1939 but the war meant that he had to wait until the war ended to build his butterfly house to breed butterflies. This has recently been restored. Churchill also got his gardener to plant thistles in his otherwise formal garden to attract butterflies.

In her 2019 book, Love, Life and Loss on the British Home Front Caroline Taggart show us how Britons succeeded in keeping spirits up with her entertaining collection of first-hand reminiscences from people who lived through those six long years. Many children from London, Liverpool, Sheffield and other large cities were evacuated to the countryside to avoid Goering’s Luftwaffe. In rural settings for the first time in their lives, children came into intimate contact with nature and revelled in it.  One boy, Brian, returned to Surrey after two years in Cornwall and was astonished by the changes he saw:

“It was the summer (of 1944) of the great invasion; not by Rommell’s Panzers but by swarms of butterflies. In the park, where trenches had been dug across open fields to prevent German warplanes landing, thousands of tortoiseshells now sunned themselves on the tall thistles that had sprung unbidden from the disturbed clay.

As the summer advanced, clouds of migrant butterflies- peacocks, painted ladies, red admirals and clouded yellows-poured across the channel on the bombsite buddleias, where they hung in clusters, drinking in the nectar with watch-spring tongues until they were too drunk to fly”.

However, this great Clouded Yellow migration from the continent caused great alarm among the Coastwatch personnel. They watched the clouds of yellow pouring over the sea in shock, believing that this was a poison gas attack. Happily, this turned out to be a great Clouded Yellow year. So was 1947, a year when post-war rationing was still very much in operation. At least nature was unrationed.

In his memoir concerning his experience of Operation Torch in North Africa, Spike Milligan writes in “Rommel?” “Gunner Who?”  of seeing Cabbage Whites “along with several orange tips” on February 20th 1943 at El Aroussa, Tunisia. The countryside was bursting into bloom, especially Borage and blue and red anemones, giving Milligan the urge to paint. Instead, he had to content himself with leaving messages on stones for those who would come after him, “This way for World War II”. The orange-tip Milligan saw was not the Orange-tip Anthocharis cardamines we know, but Moroccan Orange-tip Anthocharis belia and or Desert Orange-tip Clotis evagore, both of which fly from February. The brightness and colour must have brought happiness-it reminded Milligan of the rather more peaceful South Downs in south-east England.

Perhaps this is what butterflies and their landscapes offer-a sense of happiness, normality, a groundedness in a turbulent, uncertain and unjust world. By continuing to fly, to feed, mate and lay down the next generation, we are reminded of the sheer goodness of life when we have most need to remember.

The Clouded Yellow may arrive in Ireland from Europe from early spring to mid-autumn.




Take a closer look

A Bird, came down the Walk – Emily Dickinson

A Bird, came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –

He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head. –

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers,
And rowed him softer Home –

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim.

The American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote here about her encounter with a bird that appeared in her garden. In this poem, she celebrates the natural world and a unique feature of style here is Dickinson’s superb recording of minute detail: “And then he drank a Dew/From a convenient Grass.” Her focus is almost microscopic; she does not say “the dew” but “a Dew” as she records a small bird take a single droplet from a solitary grass blade. I was struck by her way of taking a simple action and communicating it in a fresh, innovative way.

Dickinson self-isolated in her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. This isolation was a decision she took-it was not enforced.  It probably contributed to her intense focus on minute detail, as you can see she did in this poem.

Most of us are currently in a similar situation today. Our restricted range has meant that we must stay close to home or even at home. We are able to look at those things we see close to us, often in our gardens or a local green space. More people are hearing birds and seeing butterflies-we have heard that “butterflies are everywhere” – it is not necessarily the case that populations are more abundant, it is more likely that butterflies are receiving more attention now.

Recently I observed behaviour in two species that I had not seen before, in two common butterflies that I probably take for granted.

The Speckled Wood, a fairly unspectacular abundant hedgerow and woodland butterfly is found throughout Ireland. This butterfly flies from April to October, in perhaps three generations, at least some of which overlap. Males are territorial and will expel another male from its home range. When a territory-holding male sees another male enter his patch, an aerial battle follows where each flies at the other in a tight spiralling orbital flight. After a while, the invader is repelled or he departs. Apparently, the holder of the territory always wins.

Recently while walking along a worn track bordered on both sides by lovely farm hedges near my home, I saw two males battling in a way I have not seen before or read about. Both were on a patch of dry, bare soil, facing each other head-on, like boxers engaged in close combat. Each was circling the other. Then the attack followed with head-butting and wing-flapping. One was clearly the more aggressive and the more defensive butterfly soon took flight, chased by his opponent. Luckily I caught the action on camera! See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JZQWEHpizg

Another drama I spotted was in the adjoining field where two male Small Coppers had emerged to find their preferred territory crowded. Two is not company as far as male Small Coppers are concerned. Watched over a two day period, frequent fairly aggressive altercations were ongoing, yet neither male was prepared to desist or depart. The ground fought for is a highly suitable site-a flowery area containing lots of the larval foodplant (Common Sorrel) in a warm area along a south-facing hedge. One of the males is larger and he appears to be the dominant force. Fights were aerial. When the smaller one managed to lose his pursuer, he landed and shook his wings violently, possibly to repel his rival.

The other male did not vibrate his wings-clearly not worried by his smaller opponent. I noticed that the smaller male shivered his wings even after the attack had come to an end-he looked, to me, as though he had been bullied. His behaviour was clearly influenced by the onslaught of the larger male. See this video of this smaller male feeding on Common Dandelion at https://youtu.be/knkqNFrO9xg

Even if we do not see anything unusual in our experience on our daily walk, we can enjoy the wonders of our world and its gems, our butterflies.

Small Copper. Photo J.Harding






Variety and Genetic Diversity

One of nature’s great wonders is the diversity of life on earth. Every conceivable habitat seems to have its own living things that can make a home there. But there is also diversity within a single species. This variety needs to be protected. Not only is this interesting and beautiful, but the existence of differences between individuals of the same species may also allow certain individuals to adapt to changes better than others, enabling the species to survive when conditions change.  Take a look at the following five photographs of the male Muslin moth, a moth that flies in Ireland in late spring and early summer. This year it has emerged earlier, no doubt the result of a warm, sunny April. The Irish form of the male is snowy white/cream. The male found in England, Wales and Scotland is grey-brown or sooty-grey.

All five were trapped in the same place last Friday (24th April). Each has a different number of spots/markings. Take a closer look at Green-veined White butterflies-these are highly variable too, on both the underside and upper-sides. Some authorities believe that there is a deeper significance in this variation, believing that the Green-veined White is in an active state of evolution. Others believe that the vast variety in this butterfly’s appearance across its vast range reflects its interaction with its habitats-in other words, the variety in wing colouration is a response to environmental factors, not genetic factors.

Butterflies and moths really are individuals, not products of mass production. Enjoy life’s variety!

Muslin Moth male. Photo J.Harding
Muslin Moth male. Photo J.Harding
Muslin moth male. Photo J.Harding
Muslin moth male. Photo J.Harding
Muslin moth male. Photo J.Harding

Lá Barr Buí

Tagann an Barr Buí le lá gréine Aibreáin isteach sna coillte grianmhara, le taobh na bhfálta sceacha, bóithríní a ritheann trí thalamh feirme, gnáthóga foscúla fliucha agus fiú gairdíní fiáine móra.

Bíonn an Barr Buí fireannach gníomhach an chuid is mó den lá fad is a bhíonn an ghrian ag taitneamh. Eitlíonn sé go minic feadh imill na gnáthóige agus é ag cuardach baineannaigh. Is féileacán álainn so-aitheanta é, le sciatháin bhána a bhfuil barra oráiste orthu. Tá an baineannach bán le barra dubha ar a sciatháin agus is fusa í a mheascadh suas leis an mBánóg Bheag agus leis an mBanóg Uaine. Tá íochtair na ngnéasanna cosúil le chéile, agus patrún deas le dath an chaonaigh orthu a gcabhraíonn leis an bhféileacán meascadh leis an bpeirsil bhó nuair a théann sé ar an bhfara um thráthnóna nó le linn drochaimsire.

Eitlíonn an fireannach anonn agus anall os cionn cheantar ag seiceáil aon rud a bhfuil cuma bhaineannaigh air. Taitníonn le go leor breathnóirí bheith ag faire ar an bhféileacán, ach bíonn sé deacair grianghraf ó tharla go bhfuil an fireannach an-mhíshocair. Ní chothaíonn na fireannaigh go minic, ach nuair a stadann sé le haghaidh deoch ag peasair fhiáin nó biolar gréagáin, ní chaitheann sé ach tamall beag ann.

Ní bhíonn an baineannach a oiread céanna gníomhaí ar chor ar bith, agus chomh luath agus a chúplálann sí, caitheann sí cuid mhaith dá cuid ama i bhfolach ó fhireannaigh. Is crá croí iad fireannaigh do bhaineannaigh a chúpláil cheana féin mar téann siad sa tóir ar bhaineannaigh atá ag iarraidh cothú agus a gcuid uibheacha a bhreith ar a suaimhneas.

Tá bealach ann do bhaineannaigh na fireannaigh a sheachaint, áfach. Téann na fireannaigh ar an bhfara níos luaithe sa lá ná na baineannaigh, chomh luaithe lena ceathair a chlog.

Bíonn an baineannach níos gníomhaí um thráthnóna. Lorgann an baineannach biolar gréagáin chun a huibheacha a bhreith ann. Toisc gur máthair mhaith í, déanann sí cinnte gan ach ubh amháin a bhreith ar bhláth an phlanda ionas go mbeidh go leor bia ag a hóga.

Seachnaíonn sí ubh a bhreith ar bhia planda a bhfuil ubh air cheana féin. Déanann sí é seo toisc go n-íosfaidh an bolb óg ubh nó bolb níos lú má thagann sé air.

Déanaigí cinnte go gcuardaíonn sibh bóithríní grianmhara duilleacha cosúil leis an gceann sa ghrianghraf; is cinnte go bhfeicfidh sibh é!

Barr Buí. Ghriangraf J.Harding
Barr Buí  ar Tursarraing bheag. Grianghraf J.Harding
Barr Buí Ghriangraf J.Harding
Bóithrín i Maol Hosae, Contae na Mí.

Unseen, Unknown, Gone Part 2

The main drivers of decline are intensification and abandonment so these are the areas that must be tackled. In the case of intensification, foodplants for butterflies usually disappear or become unsuitable due to their absorption of chemical inputs. The character of the vegetation around the foodplants is often altered making the breeding habitat unsuitable. Where abandonment of traditional farming practices occurs, the habitat undergoes successional changes, where the grassland grows taller, ranker species dominate, eventually displacing or shading host-plants. The grassland also develops scrub and eventually may revert to woodland, eliminating much of the biodiversity, including butterflies.

There must be a de-intensification of farming to save the biodiversity of the broader farmed landscape. A return to hay-saving, which is made more practicable by our warmer summers, should replace silage-making with involves earlier and multiple cuts of the grassland, killing the chicks and eliminating nesting habitat for ground-nesting birds. Multiple cuts also remove breeding sites for butterflies, as host-plants such as Lady’s Smock are cut in June while they are holding butterfly larvae. A major reduction of chemical inputs is needed. Recent research indicates that added nitrates taken in by host-plants kill larvae or kill the host-plant, depending on the concentration applied.

Where intensive farming continues, strong regulation of application practices to prevent leaking of chemicals to nearby land containing high biodiversity value should be applied. These regulations should include buffer zones and spraying in windless conditions. In these areas, the marginal sites that are unfarmed and still support wild creatures, such as road verges, should be cut as hay meadows. Smaller fields should be reintroduced by reinstituting hedgerows consisting of native trees and shrubs. Drain-blocking should be carried out to restore ponds to farmland. While there may be little data on the presence of amphibians on farmland, I suspect that a great decline has taken place.

Stocking rates (number of sheep/cattle per hectare) need to be reduced and we must be prepared to pay a little more for milk and meat. It is feasible to rear animals on unfertilised pasture-this still occurs on smaller holdings, even in high value pasture in County Meath. For EU member states, Common Agriculture Policy supports can be re-directed to the achievement of biodiversity targets, not just on high nature value farmland (low‑input farming systems with high biodiversity and low-intensity management) but also on intensively farmed land.

In areas of high nature value farmland where people are leaving the land, socio-economic supports to promote the continuance of traditional farming must be introduced. Some very good templates already exist, such as in the Aran Islands and the Burren (http://burrenprogramme.com/) where farmers are financially incentivised for results, not actions. These programmes work and deliver great results for biodiversity and people. The extension of these programmes to other areas of high biodiversity value should be instituted.
Furthermore, land within nature reserves needs to be farmed/managed-otherwise areas set aside for nature will continue to show deteriorating habitats and species loss.

There are unfarmed areas that hold high biodiversity value. These include out hedges, grassy verges, parks and gardens. The management of the hedgerows along roads is sometimes very suitable but cutting adjoining verges in June is very destructive and must be avoided-cut from September instead. Leaving a thin strip uncut should be considered where possible. Any grant of planning permission for a one-off rural house must include a hedgerow retention element. The onslaught on hedges in such circumstances is extremely worrying and aesthetically offensive. Anyone offending against this condition must be compelled to remove laurel/beech/leylandii hedging.

Parks need to be managed without herbicides, pesticides and insecticides unless there is a necessity, such as rodent control. Spraying of Stinging Nettles, for example, is a serious offence against nature and should be banned.

Likewise in our gardens, we should garden with nature as a top priority. Habitat creation and management bring enormous personal joy and benefits for nature. The approach, which essentially involves attempting to make natural and semi-natural habitats using native plants really works. A national network of back garden nature reserves can be created, a source of energy, pleasure and biodiversity abundance to provide a small pay-back for what we have taken away.

High nature value farmland managed for nature in the Burren, County Clare. Photo J.Harding

Unseen, Unknown, Gone

According to the United Nation’s World Urbanisation Prospects, at some date between 1st July 2006 and 1st July 2007, a major milestone in the history of humanity was passed, largely unremarked. The percentage of the world’s populations living in urban areas passed 50%. In 2018 that figure rose to 55% and is expected to reach 68% in 2050.

This development is taking place alongside the increase in the size and population of cities. This is changing profoundly many aspects of human life, exposing more people to pollution, making people more vulnerable to pandemics, mental and emotional health difficulties by making people more concentrated.

There are potential benefits of urbanisation-it may be easier to deliver health, education, housing to a concentrated rather than to a dispersed population.

Whether we want this type of mass urbanisation or not, it is happening. Man is leaving the land, where increased use of chemicals and machinery requires fewer workers and moving to cities to find a home, employment and a new way of living.

Humans are losing contact with the natural world. The world of glass, steel, concrete, smoke, noise, buildings, roads and anonymous masses of people replaces open sky, trees, grass, clean rivers, lakes, animals and neighbours.

People living more and more indoor lives often don’t know what time of year it is-the idea of seasonality, of the cycle of the year, means little or nothing to us when we have central heating and light at all times at the flick of a switch or touch of a fob. If you think I am exaggerating, I have frequently asked urban-living second-level students what season we are in. Rarely have I received a correct answer.

Even when urban dwellers know that it is hotter and brighter in summer and colder and darker in winter there is so much that is missed. As I glance out my window this April morning, the native hedges outside are sprinkled with fresh, lettuce-coloured foliage, the birches similarly are brightening. Only my oaks remain stubbornly unresponsive as yet.  But their time will come soon. The grassy areas are a subtly deeper green, highlighting the deeper yellow of the flowering Cowslips, a real delight in April. These succeed their fading primula cousins, the Primrose. Change is unregistered by many of us who live in towns. We just don’t see it.

And what we don’t see is not happening.

The fear is that as species slip from the obscurity of decline into the oblivion of extinction, no-one sees it happen. We are too far away, in our artificial urban world. If you think I exaggerate, look at Keelings, the fruit growers in north County Dublin. This firm cannot find Irish people to pick fruit and must import workers from Bulgaria to considerable public disquiet. But it demonstrates that the Irish people, once close to the land increasingly have no relationship with it. The same issue has arisen in England where Romanians have been flown in to pick fruit and harvest vegetables although some English people have agreed to do the work.

The changes in society and settlement patterns are a worry for nature. We are not in west Africa to see China, the world’s biggest timber importer, demolishing the rain forests. We don’t see the billions of tonnes of raw sewage  China discharges into the Pacific Ocean every year. We didn’t see the extinction of the Javan Rhinoceros, discovered in 1988 and extinct in 2010.

Why should we? These places are far from our homes. True. But we don’t see the dire damage done here. We don’t see or care about the extinction of raised bogs. We don’t see (or care about?) the decline of creatures we presumably love, such as butterflies and birds. The Corncrake, Lapwing, Curlew, Eurasian Skylark, Meadow Pippit all in trouble, some of these facing extinction.

In 2006 Butterfly Conservation UK published research from the Rothamsted agricultural research facility on moth populations that ran over a 35 year period, 1968-2002. The findings are that moth populations have undergone a remarkable decline, worse than that experienced by birds, butterflies and wildflowers. Two-thirds of the 337 moth species were declining; 80 species by 70% or above. This has a massive knock-on impact on the other species that share moths’ ecosystems. In The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2015 published by Butterfly Conservation UK (I mention the UK because there is far more data available there) it was stated that 76% of the UK’s resident and regular migrant butterfly species declined in either abundance or occurrence (or both) over the past four decades (since 1976).

In Ireland, the data is less extensive but the conclusions reached in the 2010 Red List for butterflies shows that 33% of the Irish butterflies are in decline; of these 18% is under threat of extinction and 15% is near threatened.

However, since 2010 the situation may have worsened. There are, for example, some species that are likely be added to the threat of extinction categories. What adds to the alarm is that some formerly very common and still widespread butterflies, such as the Small Heath are in deeper trouble ten years on from the 2010 assessment.

Another insightful indicator of how butterflies are performing is found in the European Grassland Butterfly Indicator:1990-2011. The European Grassland Butterfly Indicator is one of the status indicators on biodiversity in Europe. It is based on the population trends of 17 butterfly species in 19 countries. This report presents the fourth update of this indicator now covering 22 years. A number of species found in Ireland were included in the assessment. These are Dingy Skipper, Orange-tip, Common Blue, Small Blue, Marsh Fritillary, Wall Brown, Meadow Brown and Small Heath. The supranational EU trends of the 17 butterfly species of the European Grassland Butterfly Indicator showed that Dingy Skipper, Orange-tip and Small Blue populations were stable but that Common Blue, Marsh Fritillary, Wall Brown, Meadow Brown and Small Heath were in decline. Overall, the indicator shows that since 1990 butterfly populations have declined by almost 50 %. The European Grassland Butterfly Indicator shows a clear decline, and the main drivers behind this are identified as intensification and abandonment.  Additional factors are urbanisation and afforestation of grasslands.

The key factor identified is agricultural intensification, which involves a wide range of activities, including the conversion of unimproved grasslands to arable crops, and permanent grasslands into temporary grasslands, heavy use of fertilisers, drainage, the use of herbicides, insecticides and pesticides, enlargement of fields, removal of landscape features and field margins and the use of heavy machines. In its most extreme form, the remaining agricultural land is virtually sterile with almost no butterflies. In such situations, butterflies can survive only on road verges, in remaining nature reserves and urban areas. Even then butterflies are not safe, as wind‑drifted insecticides kill many larvae on road verges next to sprayed fields and nitrogen deposition fertilises nutrient‑poor meadows (Butterflies typically thrive on nutrient-poor soils). This fertilisation speeds up succession (grass and scrub growth) and leads to the paradox of micro‑climatic cooling in combination with climate warming.

Abandonment of farming might be thought a positive development for butterflies and moths. For a few short years, this is often the case.  The cessation of crop-growing and application of chemicals may see the return of some flowers, native grasses and the associated butterflies. When abandonment occurs in the more remote, less agriculturally productive areas especially on nutrient-poor soils and in steeper, rocky land, a population resurgence often occurs. This is a brief revival because natural succession, the process which sees this land colonised by scrub and trees eliminates grassland habitat and the butterflies that require it.

These problems can be tackled but greater societal awareness and desire to address the challenges is needed. Education will play a vital part in educating increasingly urbanised children on the wonders of the world around them and the world of the broader countryside. For primary level, the current “Heritage for Schools” scheme, a great outlet and learning opportunity for our children should be expanded. At second-level, science programmes at Junior Cycle should include a practical habitat study project where habitat creation and management should be carried out. The Civic, Social and Political Education programme should also have a strong biodiversity element with an action project that involves habitat creation initiatives/study.

At Leaving Certificate, the study of biology involves an ecology element, which typically involves an ecosystem study. The introduction of a  compulsory or optional research project involving an ecosystem study which comprises 20% of the mark for the course may deepen interest and awareness in the workings of our wonderful natural world. Aesthetic appreciation can be deepened through the art syllabus; one element of the art portfolio can be a representation of a butterfly. In order to facilitate these developments, a comprehensive system of in-service training for teachers needs to be instituted. This can be done on dedicated in-service training days and during Croke Park Agreement hours.

Some other ways to tackle the biodiversity crisis will be described in the next post.

The need to recognise the beauty of nature, so vital if we are to recognise the need to protect our world, might be encouraged if we seek out and enjoy the butterflies we have…

The Orange-tip, a grassland butterfly with a stable population across 17 European states, is a beautiful creature, a real delight for any nature lover. Photo J. Harding
The same Orange-tip as above, with wings open. Photo J.Harding



Easter Butterflies

Easter is a time of hope for all. But this year COVID-19 has brought heartbreak to some and isolation and worry to many people, here and across the world. The virus can infect anyone, whether you are a prime minister or a health worker, a child or an elderly person.

The rare gift of sustained good weather has brought butterflies out into the so welcome sunshine. The startlingly clear spring light shines on masses of golden Common Dandelions allowed to bloom this year, a flower greatly needed by our spring bees and butterflies (what a pity Wordsworth eulogised daffodils instead of dandelions in his best-known poem “I wandered Lonely as a Cloud”).

Seeing nature flying free, not locked down and restricted, must be a powerful symbol of hope. Some of our butterflies, such as the Peacock and the Brimstone prepared for winter, a time of hunger and cold. They survived the dark, wet winter as adult butterflies, symbols of resilience.  Now they are fulfilling their destiny, seeking and finding each other in the good times,  and laying the foundations for the next generation to emerge in high summer.

Other butterflies that are in flight now, such as the Speckled Wood, over-wintered inside the pupa. Cocooned in the immobile homes, they too fly free. Nature recognises the right time to move to the next stage in life, reading the signs-increasing daylight is carefully registered so emergence takes place when nectar for the adult and the food needed for their offspring is available. Success depends on timing. They cannot just emerge from the cocoon when there are a few warm days; if they just responded to temperature cues, the Speckled Wood could emerge out of synchronisation with the development of its caterpillar foodplants. Butterflies indicate the benefits of getting the timing right.

Symbols of resilience, hope, timing, freedom, hope and beauty-is it any wonder we love butterflies?

Happy Easter

A male Brimstone, faded after his long winter and ongoing search for a mate, but still healthy, active and beautiful. As is the case for most butterflies, Common Dandelion is a favourite nectar source. J.Harding
A female Peacock basking just after inspecting nettles to determine their suitability for her eggs. Shortly after this was taken, she flew into a ditch to drink water then flew off to continue her search for a breeding site.J.Harding
A male Peacock (sexes look identical) in his alert pose, ready to launch himself after a rival or mate. J.Harding
A male Speckled Wood, freshly emerged, keeps his vigil on a  trackway. Like the male Peacock, the male Speckled Wood is fiercely territorial. J.Harding
Holly Blues mating in a garden in Rathfarnham, County Dublin. Keep a watch in your garden, especially now while we are confined. Photo Michael Gray


Night time in Spring

Spring is a stunning season because the activity is accelerated after a period of dormancy for most of our wild plants and animals. Spring lifts us, especially the frenetic activity of birds and early spring butterflies. As the season develops there is a scent in the air, especially on warm, calm days-the sweet, exciting rather nostalgia-building fragrance of Sweet Vernal Grass is a special experience for the stroller in unspoilt countryside. A delicate scent is emitted by banks of sunny primroses, delicate, subtle but there for anyone determined to experience it.

Small Tortoiseshells and Peacocks seem to be everywhere now, flying widely in the countryside and suburbia, searching for nectar, mates and breeding sites. These long-lived butterflies readily visit gardens whose gardeners thoughtfully allow the dandelions to flower. A sparkling galaxy of Lesser Celandine will also attract these butterflies. Holly Blues will occasionally take this nectar too.

But there is another world that occupies the hours of darkness. The night is not day-time’s winter but a time of intense life and action. This is the realm of bats, slugs, owls, newts and other less glamorous but very intriguing animals. While that list sounds like the ingredients of a witch’s cauldron, the night-shift is no less active and beautiful in its own subtle way. If you know of a pond nearby that holds newts, take a torch and bring your child or grandchild along with your torch. The antics of courting and egg-laying newts will amaze and delight. Try the pond during the daylight too-I watched a pair of combative dragonfly nymphs fight over a water louse for a half an hour with no end in prospect by the time I lost sight of their battle.

The world of the night is where most of our Lepidoptera species hold sway. Most of our Lepidoptera species are moths; we see 35 butterfly species in Ireland every year. We have around 1475 moth species! Most of these are nocturnal and some have large populations. Because many fly in the darkest time of the night we can be utterly unaware of the enormity of these populations. Moths conceal themselves so effectively during the day that we can go through habitats with large populations and never know they even exist. There is good reason to stay obscure. Moths are often plump-bodied packets of goodness, greatly appreciated by a range of hungry bats, birds and amphibians.

Spring moths are cryptic in colour-easily blending into the blander tones of dry grass, stone walls, boulders, tree trunks, branches and darker recesses in ivy and bramble. The trees still await leaves, so spring moths cannot sport the vivid brass, iridescence and multi-coloured patterning of their summer cousins.  But subtlety will encourage closer observation. A more focused careful examination is needed to see the beauty in sombre attire. That is today’s challenge. Every day’s challenge is to grow and preserve the wild plants, especially native trees like Grey Willow, Common Hawthorn, oaks and Silver Birch these moth need.

Photos J.Harding

Powdered Quaker
Twin-spotted Quaker.
Common Quaker.
Small Quaker
Hebrew Character


Vladimir Nabokov and Butterflies

Many famous people have loved butterflies but this devotion has often been overlooked. Winston Churchill is one such person.  Churchill was in some ways a very unlikely Lepidopterist. Churchill was a soldier who fought on four continents. He was one of the only British prime ministers to have killed a man in battle ( Johnson 2015). He spent time as a prisoner of war in South Africa, was a journalist, politician, writer and war leader. Yet he found time for butterflies.

He planned to release large numbers of Black-veined Whites in the grounds of his home, Chartwell, Kent to try to reintroduce the species-it disappeared from England in 1922 for a reason or reasons that are unclear but that may be related to habitat change and poor weather.  Churchill’s plan ended in farce when his gardener removed the muslin bags containing the caterpillars from the hawthorn hedges and burned them instead of opening them. Now, thanks to a warming climate, Butterfly Conservation UK are planning to reintroduce the species from Northern France.

Churchill’s interest dated from childhood. When he was six, he wrote to his mother, Lady Jennie Churchill: “I am never at a loss to do anything while I am in the country for I shall be occupied with ‘butterflying’ all day (as I was last year).” This was just as well; his father was very distant (he also died young, at 45) and his mother was busy.

Some people ‘find’ butterflies at a time of great tension in their lives. The Liverpool writer of Irish descent,  Michael McCarthy, writes very movingly in his intriguing 2015 memoir, “The Moth Snowstorm” of how he came to discover butterflies in August 1954, just as Churchill was in his final, and rather decrepit state as prime minister.  Aged just 7, his family was in crisis. His mother, Norah, 40, was committed to an asylum and his father, a seaman, was frequently absent. His aunt Mary sold their Birkenhead house (!) and took the Michael and his very distressed brother, John, then aged 8, to live in Bebington,  a much greener location than their Birkenhead terrace. A nearby Buddleia was covered in butterflies. In the midst of the terrible suffering of his extremely distressed brother and confined mother, Michael gazed each day in wonder at the living jewels whose colours caressed his eyes and heart. Those Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells, whose glorious reds, blacks, maroon, purple, blues, salmon pink, white and orange on the purple Buddleia blooms had the young Michael enthralled. So began a life in love with nature.

In Europe (and later in America) the Russian writer, Vladimir Nabakov 1899-1977 combined his literary work with his study of butterflies. While justly famous for his literary work, especially for the disturbing novel Lolita, Nabakov pursued his scientific work with great diligence. His ideas on butterfly migration have recently been taken more seriously. In 2011 it was confirmed that his 1945 theory that Polyommatus blues (a genus of blue butterflies including Polyommatus icarus, the Common Blue, found in Ireland) had colonised the Americas from Asia in a series of waves across Beringia (the Bering Strait and adjacent parts of Siberia and Alaska) was proved correct.

Dr Naomi Pierce, a co-author of the report (Phylogeny and palaeoecology of Polyommatus blue butterflies show Beringia was a climate-regulated gateway to the New World), organized four separate trips to the Andes to collect the blues, and then she and her colleagues at Harvard sequenced the genes of the butterflies, as well as comparing the number of mutations each species had acquired. Their research resulted in the revelation that five waves of butterflies came from Asia to America, as Nabokov had originally hypothesized.  The report can be found here: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rspb.2010.2213

Nabokov based his original idea of the origins of the Polyomattus blues in the Americas on morphology, especially on male genitalia. His views, in the words of the report, “were uncannily correct in delineating not only species relationships but also the historical ordering of these five key (colonisation) events in the evolution of New World blues.”

Nabokov also worked as a taxonomist, placing species in genus and families and even describing new species.  Many Lepidopterists regarded Nabokov with some disdain seeing him as a reasonable describer of butterflies but lacking important scientific insights.

In 1944, for example, Nabokov published the first description of the Karner Blue, a rare butterfly that lives in the northeastern United States. Judging from its colour and choice of foodplants, Nabokov came to believe that it was a distinct species. But when scientists began to analyze its genes, they decided it was just part of an existing species, the Melissa Blue Lycaeides melissa.

However, a study published in 2010 (https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsbl.2010.1077) revealed that Nabokov was right.  The study found that gene flow between the Karner Blue and Melissa Blue is low, and comparable to the gene flow between L. melissa and another species, L. idas. Considering this population-genetic evidence, the study concluded that the Karner Blue is a unique evolutionary lineage that should be recognized as Lycaeides samuelis. This matters greatly because not only does it clarify the taxonomic status of the Karner Blue, it also adds urgency to the need to protect the species. This butterfly has suffered because the butterfly’s only known larval foodplant, Lupinus perennis, (a beautiful member of Fabaceae, the pea family)  which occurs in habitats such as pine barrens and oak savanna are being impacted by fire suppression work.

Perhaps more of Nabokov’s impressive work will now be reassessed and confirmed using next-generation genetic sequencing. The work by the scientists in the two studies mentioned here shows that examination of the wing characters, colouring and genitalia undertaken by Nabokov can be a valid way to assess butterfly origins and taxonomic status.

Nabokov’s devotion to butterflies continued to his last days. As he lay dying in July 1977, he remarked to his son Dimitri that a certain butterfly would soon be on the wing. Vladimir, it seemed,  knew that he would not live to see it. But he left a rich legacy of scientific discovery and knowledge as well as his literary work, a life enjoyed and well-lived.

Polyommatus icarus, the Common Blue. Photo J.Harding.



Warmer weather to tempt butterflies to emerge

Warmer weather forecast for the coming week should see spring butterflies-Speckled Woods, Orange-tips, Green-veined Whites and Holly Blues to take to the warmer, bluer skies.

All of these butterflies will fly along sunny, hedges with native trees and flowers, so a stroll abroad along sunlit hedges bordered by native flora and grasses should be taken. We want to know what you see, where you see it and the weather conditions. So, I will check a lovely sheltered lane within a kilometre of my home tomorrow or when we get the first sunny day. If I see a butterfly, it will be recorded like this and posted on the Records page 2020:

Jesmond Harding (06/04/2020)

Orange-tip 2, Speckled Wood 1 at N 91526 42532, Mulhussey, Co. Meath. Sunny, 14C.

I get my grid reference readings from https://irish.gridreferencefinder.com/.

Send your record to us at conservation.butterfly@gmail.com

I gave a talk to a very keen gardening group about enhancing their gardens for butterflies. When I showed a photograph of a male Orange-tip, their enthusiasm soared. All of the gardeners said that they had never seen one. But the countryside on their doorstep was awash with suitable habitat. It will amaze you-but you need to go out and look for him. Once you see one Orange-tip, you will always remember what he looks like.

This gorgeous butterfly rarely sits still but I guarantee that you will be impressed!

Please do observe physical distancing when outside. Take care.

Orange-tip on the Dandelion, a favourite nectar plant.©J.Harding.
The Orange-tip underside, on Dandelion. ©J.Harding.