The following article was written for Butterfly Conservation Ireland in 2016 by Adrian Hoskins, a professional photographer and author. It is reproduced here in full as a reminder of what is at stake, and of the changes we ask all who love nature to make.

Rainforest Obituary

Adrian Hoskins F.R.E.S. is a professional wildlife photographer and author of “Butterflies of the World” and “1000 Butterflies” (both published by Reed New Holland). He is also the creator of the website www.learnaboutbutterflies.com, was a former Conservation Officer of Butterfly Conservation Hampshire, and has organised and led over 50 butterfly photography tours to various parts of the tropics.

The incredibly beautiful and species-rich rainforests of the tropics are rapidly disappearing. Paradise is being replaced by palm oil plantations, soybean prairies and cattle ranches. The cloud forests are disappearing almost as quickly, replaced by coffee, tea, rubber and eucalyptus plantations.

Let’s look at Malaysia and its world famous national park Taman Negara. Here, myriads of male butterflies descend from the canopy where they spend most of their lives, attracted down to the ground to imbibe mineralised moisture. At these times it is common to see swarms comprised of hundreds of turquoise-banded Bluebottle butterflies Graphium sarpedon and dazzling Orange Gulls Appias nero imbibing mineralised moisture from river sandbanks. Numerous other beautiful species such as Cyrestis Mapwings, Spindasis Silverlines, Parthenos Clippers and Cirrochroa Yeoman butterflies can be also be found along the shores. On the opposite side of Malaysia, in the foothills of the Cameron Highlands, the huge and incredibly beautiful iridescent green and black Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing Trogonoptera brookiana can be found, often in groups of 30-40, visiting hot springs, from which the males obtain sulphur and other minerals that are essential for reproduction. Inside the forest, stunning long-tailed hairstreaks such as the orange and white Branded Imperial Eooxylides tharis can be seen.

Such places are paradise to the nature lover, but they are just tiny remnants of the vast rainforests that once covered Malaysia. Nowadays these miniscule islands of forest are surrounded by vast oil palm plantations that stretch to the horizon almost uninterrupted in every direction. It brings tears to my eyes to even think about it.

Why has this happened? The public and the politicians have been fooled. Many believe for example, that by becoming vegetarian, and using biofuel, they are helping to save animals and wildlife, but nothing could be further from the truth. As a consequence of vegetarianism, the rush towards biofuel, and the near-abandonment of animal products in cosmetics, manufacturing and other areas, millions of hectares of rainforest have been cut down or deliberately set on fire to clear them and make way for oil palm and other monocultures.

Can you imagine how much cloud forest has been destroyed purely to satisfy our desire to drink tea and coffee? Can you imagine how much rainforest has been destroyed to produce the biofuel you put in your car, the aluminium from which your car engine is constructed, or the soybean-based food products that you eat?

Worldwide it has been estimated that 50,000 square miles of rainforest is deforested each year. Every second a slice of rainforest the size of a football field is destroyed. Every day 86,400 football fields of rainforest are destroyed. Every year 31 million football fields of rainforest disappears from what we so selfishly call “our” planet.

Rainforests are home to over 50 percent of the world’s plant and animal life. They are home to somewhere in excess of 15,000 of the world’s 19,000 butterfly species.

What can we do to prevent or slow down this greatest of tragedies? Governments are gradually setting aside small areas as national nature reserves, and a few private conservationists are trying to protect intermediate wildlife corridors, mostly in the form of ecolodge properties. But these tiny areas are constantly eroded away by urban development, agriculture or plantation-forestry. In truth, the little patches that still exist will probably be little more than wildlife theme parks by the end of this century.

The problem is human population growth and affluence. There are more and more of us, and each year we become more and more greedy. Entire mountains are levelled in Papua to extract the copper we use in our electronic gadgets, the aluminium used to make our car engines and the gold that our countries horde in ridiculous quantities allegedly to safeguard our economies.

The great jungles that once covered Malaysia will be almost entirely gone within the next 2 decades, replaced by oil palm plantations. The rainforests and cloud forests of South America, Central Africa, Indonesia, Papua and Australia are all under similar or even greater threat of annihilation.

I was asked to produce this article to suggest ways in which members of Butterfly Conservation Ireland can help with the conservation of rainforests. The plain truth is that nothing short of a total change in the way we all live will save them. We are all extremely wasteful, consuming vast amounts of goods that we don’t really need, and throwing them away as soon as they become outdated. We buy teak and mahogany furniture without considering the birds, mammals and butterflies whose homes we are destroying. They can live nowhere else. Once the forests go, the wildlife goes and will be lost forever. Extinct, never to return. Just memories in the pages of an old and dusty book.

If we really, truly, want to protect rainforests and the glorious butterflies that live within them, donating money to conservation groups helps a little, but in reality, is nothing more than a way of making us feel slightly less guilty about the destruction wreaked by our way of life. We need to live simpler lives, buying only things that we genuinely need, rather than trying to have the latest car, TV, camera or other manufactured product. We need to return to growing our own food in our gardens rather than consuming fast food. We need to return to traditional farming and forestry practices. We need to drive far less, or use public transport, which is far more fuel efficient.

Above all we need to realise that human beings do not have the right to rape our planet and destroy other life forms. Humans have been on Earth for not much more than a million years. Butterflies were here almost 300 million years before we evolved from the apes. It would be nice to think that they would still be here long after the human race has wiped itself out, but we need to totally change the way we live if rainforest butterflies are to stand any chance of surviving into the next century.




Prophets of Doom

In the early years of the twentieth century, Romanian diplomat Take Ionescu warned German Foreign Minister Alfred von Kiderlen Wächter that German armament building would produce disaster: “You are rushing directly into war with England”. In 1914, the UK declared war on Germany.

In March 1919, even before the Versailles Treaty was signed, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George wrote (in his Fontainebleau Memorandum) that creating small states containing German-speaking people on Germany’s borders would produce trouble.  Hitler later invoked the principle of national self-determination enunciated at Versailles to claim Austria and Czech and Polish territory on the grounds that ethnic Germans resided there.

On the night the Titanic sank in April 1912, Jack Philips, the Titanic’s radio operator signalled other ships to stop sending ice-berg warnings.   Philips replied to a warning from Cyril Evans, wireless operator on The Californian: “Shut up. Shut up. I am busy”.

We have a history of ignoring warnings. History teaches us to heed warnings, but we continue to pretend that everything will work out, or will not happen, or will not happen to us.

On December 3rd 2018, some chilling warnings were given at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Poland. One warning was provided by the World Meteorological Organisation. The 20 warmest years on record have been in the last 22 years and the warmest four years have been the last four years. It was also announced that Carbon Dioxide (heavily linked with the rise in global temperatures) emissions are rising again. But the most frightening warning came from Sir David Attenborough:

“The collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon”.

We are looking at a rapid deterioration of our planet. We are consuming far too much. If we continue to pollute and exploit as we do now we will have done so much damage that life on earth will become impossible or very difficult within 100-150 years.  If every family on the planet consumed as much as the average Irish family, we would need the resources of three and a half planets to support these consumption levels (Revd Professor Michael Mullaney, Maynooth University).

The mass destruction, the rampant greed for more than we can ever need is a violating life on earth. What can mend that?

Conservation repairs our relationship with the natural world. Conservation of our natural heritage resources is the responsibility of everyone, not just professional conservationists.  Conservation can involve very elementary steps. Every time you see a new butterfly that developed in your garden take flight, you are part of the solution. Garden for nature by planting native plants and allowing them to grow as they do in the wild. Read good literature about how to manage wild spaces. Do not use chemicals in your garden.  Garden organically. Join a conservation organisation and get involved in its work.

We can be conservationists in our consumer choices. Buy what you need. Avoid excessive consumption. Steer clear of palm oil.  Rainforests and their inhabitants, people, plants and animals are destroyed to grow this crop. Make your purchases a moral choice. Governments must act too and will if enough pressure is applied. On your holidays, visit areas rich in wildlife. This encourages the preservation of such areas.

Unless we change our behaviour, we will all pay the price in the end. And so will our world.

The beautiful Garden Tiger moth is believed to be a victim of a warming climate. Its decline is being linked to milder winters, especially mild January weather. © J.Harding.
Desiccation of Common Hazel in the Burren following drought, July 1st 2018. © J.Harding.



Think Local, Act Local

December 1st is officially the first day of winter. The day began misty and mild clearing to a drier grey which later dissolved into a light rain as heavier cloud darkened the afternoon before petered out into twilight disconcertingly early. At least our winter moths liked the conditions which were accommodatingly mild allowing furry, thick-set December Moths and lightly built Winter Moths to gather on walls close to outdoor lights. While these moths are thin fare for butterfly and moth lovers, we are at least reminded that we still have signs of life, little pick-me-ups for the rather bleak weeks and months to come.

December Moth, which flies from November to January.

But this is not the time for lethargy. Winter is time for actions of a different kind. Now is the period for preparing sites for the coming season. Targets need to be met. These targets may include clearing dense bramble and thorn scrub invading a flowery track the runs through woodland, opening a glade in dense woodland to allow flowers to bloom or to reveal a gorgeous female Common Holly glowing green and red in dimming December light, removing non-native trees or shrubs which threaten to overwhelm native woodland or thinning dense growth to let light in to make the violet plants suitable for breeding by Silver-washed Fritillary butterflies.

Some of these actions are needed on the banks of the Royal Canal near Mullingar. Butterfly Conservation Ireland members along with the Westmeath Branch of BridWatch Ireland joined the effort to restore habitats with the Baltrasna Boreen Biodiversity Group, led by Lesley Whiteside. The high bank has a range of habitats, including native ash woodland, scrub consisting of willow, Common Holly, Guelder Rose, Common Hawthorn, Common Blackthorn and calcareous grassland containing Kidney Vetch, Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil and Autumn Gentian.

The steep site has four parallel paths, each quite different, offering different experiences; an encounter with badgers on one, Common Blues dancing around yellow blooms on another, water birds on a third and a brisk walk on the gravelled towpath on the fourth path. The site was grazed until the early 1990s but since it has developed woodland out of which paths and clearings are being carved to develop new habitats and increase biodiversity.

An early male Silver-washed Fritillary on June 28th at Baltrasna, County Westmeath.

To this end, overhanging branches were tackled along with dense scrub and a sinister invasion by cotoneaster, a non-native which causes great damage by carpeting good limestone grassland. Extensive clearing of dense scrub was achieved. By allowing in light the flowers will be able to blossom and the bees and butterfly species will be able to avail of their nourishment. It was a demanding job but much ‘heavy lifting’ is now done, making it easier to deal with younger scrub. We are looking forward to our outing there next spring/summer to see how the flora and butterflies respond.

Finally, there must be many opportunities for biodiversity-conscious local groups to get involved in such projects. With permission from landowners, some planning and research much can be achieved, for people and nature. A special thanks to the Baltrasna Boreen Biodiversity Group for looking after their butterflies so well in this intriguing spot in Westmeath.

The flower-filled track at Baltrasna, June 2018.

Photographs ©J.Harding.


Event Report

Lullybeg management day went ahead on Saturday 10th November. It was a wet start, with light rain for a time which eventually petered out. Later the sun broke through and we had quite pleasant conditions for our work.

We weeded a track on part of the butterfly transect where numerous birch seedling had moved in. These were pulled up by hand. A mattock was used to uproot three invasive willows, leaving the area open and ready to continue to receive full sun, flowers and butterflies in 2019.

Later we cut and piled scrub on the Lullymore to Lullybeg corridor. We created some scalloped edges to create additional warmth and shelter, providing the perfect warm-up zones for butterflies, moths and dragonflies.

The cattle continue to feed on the reserve and these have settled well. They are certainly disturbing the denser areas dominated by Purple Moor-grass, great for maintaining the flora on the site.

We took a break for lunch and watched the cattle which appeared very much in tune with their new surroundings. It gave a restful feeling to see them at ease, and a great feeling of optimism for the coming season’s butterfly populations.

Thanks to all who helped out, and we look forward to seeing you again in February 2019.

The Dark Green Fritillary thrived on Lullybeg Reserve in 2018. Disturbance of the soil by cattle will encourage its larval food plant, the Common Dog-violet, to produce new seedlings. Photo ©J.Harding

Conservation Grazing for Lullybeg Reserve

The summer of 2018 was warm, dry and created excellent conditions for vegetation growth, especially as the peat soil retained some moisture.

Now it is time to remove the heavy grassland vegetation,  reduce the density of the tuft-forming Purple Mor-grass, create soil disturbance to create warm, bare patches for germination of new flowers and provide good basking spots for adult butterflies and warm breeding sites for caterpillars and check the re-growth on coppiced willow. In short, it is time to introduce cattle to enhance the habitats on Lullybeg’s Crabtree Reserve.

The work on preparing the site for grazing took place, happily, in dry sunny conditions on Thursday 1st November. Ten hungry cattle were introduced and these explored the reserve before settling down to a good meal. Cattle are selective feeders, ideal for creating an uneven patchwork of sward heights which is perfect for all of Lullybeg’s grassland moths and butterflies.  Removal of dense vegetation keeps soil fertility levels low, allowing the flora, such as the range of orchids present here, to thrive. Without the intervention of livestock or regular disturbance by heavy machinery, dense vegetation dominated by ranker grasses develops, choking less robust plants and cooling the soil and herb layer, making breeding conditions less suitable or even impossible.  Just to show how dense grassland vegetation affects one butterfly, let us consider the habitat required by the Dingy Skipper.

This intricately patterned little butterfly (see photo below), rated as near threatened in Ireland lays its eggs on Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, a low-growing straggling perennial that dies back in autumn and re-sprouts in April. It must be unshaded for the Dingy Skipper to breed on it. The plant must grow in a warm area, usually with some shelter which means it needs to grow among dry dead vegetation or grow close to bare soil or rock that heats up in direct sunlight in order to be suitable for the butterfly. Plants shaded by tall grass or scrub are not used. Cattle grazing will pare back dense grasses and poaching will disturb the soil around the plants making germination of new foodplants possible and ensuring the conditions needed remain suitable. Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil is also used as a nectar source by the Dingy Skipper and by a number of other butterflies but butterflies rarely take nectar from plants in shadow. By grazing the vegetation, the cattle help to create open conditions to assist this lovely flower to thrive, ensuring that butterflies that use the plant for breeding and nectar, including the Common Blue and Cryptic Wood White, and day-flying moths such as the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth, Burnet Companion and Mother Shipton, will continue to prosper.

We know from post-management monitoring in previous years that the Dingy Skipper breeds in areas containing the foodplant that were cleared of encroaching vegetation the previous winter. The Dingy Skipper, along with many butterflies, are quick to exploit new opportunities. We look forward to next spring to see the fruits of our work!

Our thanks and appreciation go to our supporters and to Philip Doyle and his staff.

Conservation grazing on the Crabtree Reserve, Lullybeg. Photo J.Harding.
Dingy Skipper © J. Harding.
Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, the foodplant for a range of butterfly and moth species. ©  J.Harding.

Event Postponement

The weather forecast for Saturday, November 3rd 2018 is for high winds and heavy rain. We will defer the conservation management event planned to take place on November 3rd until the following weekend. The site management day will go ahead on Saturday, November 10th provided the weather is suitable.

We apologise for any inconvenience and look forward to seeing you soon.

Fragrant Orchid, Lullybeg Reserve, County Kildare.
Photo © J.Harding.

October Moths and late Butterflies

October 2018 continues mild, gentle and pleasant, easing the transition from the scorching summer to whatever winter holds. Whatever this winter throws at us, October is producing really impressive moth numbers. Among the selection being trapped are the following autumn species. These are subtly coloured, reflecting the earthy tone of the season. Late butterflies continue to be seen, especially Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell and Speckled Wood but there might be a surprise species flying, so keep looking.

Feathered Thorn. This moth flies from mid-September to early December. The moth lays its eggs on a range of deciduous trees, including Pedunculate Oak (this tree has stalked acorns and short-stalked leaves; the Sessile Oak has these characters in reverse), Common Hawthorn, Common Blackthorn, Common Hazel and Downy and Silver Birch, as well as willows. This moth is sometimes seen in car headlights.
Yellow-line Quaker. This also flies from September to December, uses many of the same plants for breeding as the Feathered Thorn and also comes to light traps. This species enjoys ivy nectar, so do not cut flowering ivy!
Figure of Eight.  This moth, named for the 8 marks in the central area of the forewing flies from late September to mid-November and uses blackthorn, hawthorn, wild roses and cultivated prunus species (plum, Bullace, pear) for breeding. Despite the ready availability of the larval host plants, this moth is seldom numerous in Ireland. It usually appears in my trap in single figures but in one year I had it in high numbers, but that is not usual.
Grey Pine Carpet. This species has two generations of adults which fly from May-July and from September-November but in my area, I have seen only one generation, the autumn brood. It uses a range of native and non-native coniferous trees as the larval foodplant. It appears to have increased due to the planting of conifers on a large scale.
November Moth. This autumn moth flies early October-November and can be numerous. It will be found on walls beneath outdoor lights and at windows. It feeds on the trees listed for Feathered Thorn. It is easily confused with the Pale November Moth, Autumnal Moth and Small Autumnal Moth, and examination of male genitalia is used to separate these moths.
Merveille du Jour. This unmistakeable and beautifully coloured and patterned creature is a highlight of the moth enthusiast’s autumn. Seldom present in great numbers, it is a treat to obtain a very fresh example as the green colour fades rapidly. It is on the wing in October and September and favours broad-leaved woodland containing Pedunculate Oak, the larval hostplant. The moth likes ivy nectar and the juices of overripe berries.
And now for a surprise!  Occasionally Wall Browns are seen in October after a small number of second generation larvae develop quickly to pupate in September rather than passing the winter in the larval state. It is not known whether eggs laid in October result in larvae that reach the required weight to survive the winter. However, seeing Wall Browns in October is a refreshing experience and a keen reminder of summer.



Comma Reaches Lullymore

A beautiful sunny day on Sunday 14th October encouraged butterflies to enjoy the heat. A calm day allowed heat to build, enticing over-wintering butterflies to venture out. A male Brimstone, some Small Tortoiseshells and a Peacock brightened this mid-autumn day. These were joined by two female Small Coppers, a Red Admiral and a brace of Speckled Woods. Ruddy Darters dragonflies were everywhere, grasshoppers chirruped and it felt like August!

Leaving to go home was hard but a bright orange neon glow on glossy ivy leaves high up on a hedge at Lullymore stopped the car. A lovely Comma! Will it breed in the area? There is an abundance of breeding habitat and overwintering sites in the area. It was still there today (Monday, October 15th) and seems to be making itself comfortable sipping ivy nectar.  Welcome to west Kildare!

The Comma butterfly was first sighted in Ireland in the late 1990s but it was not until about the second decade of this century that regular sightings were being reported. Breeding was first confirmed in a wood in Carlow in May 2014. Since then the butterfly has been reported, usually as single individuals, in many areas in the south-east. Its spread is expected to continue, and it joins the 23 other butterfly species recorded in Lullymore/Lullybeg in 2018.

Comma at Lullymore. Photo by Pat Wyse.

Autumn Glory

For many lovers of nature, especially for those of us who enjoy butterflies, autumn is unwelcome.  We see the signs of decline everywhere and we fear the season to follow.  This is not a recent feeling.  Sonnet 73, written by William Shakespeare sometime between 1592 and 1598, opens with this quatrain:

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Shakespeare wrote about late autumn, which he associates with decay and imminent death. The trees with few or no leaves are now without birdsong. He may be referring to the by then ruined monastic settlements, the closure of which was ordered by Henry VIII following his decision to cut ties with the pope and confiscate church property (1536-1540). Seen in the light of this interpretation, the ruined choirs are the roofless remains of monasteries, the sweet birds the choirs of singing monks. Whichever interpretation is accepted, and both are valid, it is inescapable that the bard was referencing the inevitable march towards decay symbolised by autumn. The cold winds will soon rip whichever leaves cling to claw-like twigs and the landscape settles into a sullen palate, empty of vibrancy.

Yet poets do not always portray autumn negatively. Writing on September 19th 1819 William Wordsworth eulogised the season in Ode to Autumn.  Wordsworth, a great nature lover, saw autumn as a time of plenty. The sun will continue to

set budding more, /And still more,  later flowers for the bees/Until they think warm days will never cease/For summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells.

This wonderful feeling of neverending abundance and the idea of nature’s opulence has far greater appeal than Shakespeare’s bleak vision of loss and decay. Indeed,  following one of the greatest summers in our lifetime, surely some optimism is justified.  We continue to see Comma butterflies in Carlow and Kilkenny, Small Coppers in Meath and Large Whites, Red Admirals, Peacocks, Small Tortoiseshells and Speckled Woods in Donegal. These sightings, albeit of just a few individuals, allow us to cling on to summer, just!

By contrast, good numbers of moths continue to appear in light traps, some even in spectacular numbers. On October 3rd I counted 177 moths of which 138 were Beaded Chestnuts. This count on a single night exceeds the totals I had for the species throughout its flight period for each of the three years 2015-2017.  A count of over 3,000 moths in my garden for the 2018 recording season easily exceeds these previous years’ totals, strongly suggesting that the moths, like our butterflies, greatly benefited from the heat of the summer.

Prolonged heat allows butterflies and moths to move around the landscape to find food, mates and breeding sites. It also allows some species that have already laid their eggs but which can mature a second or even a third batch of eggs to do so. Warmth also helps the eggs, larvae and pupae to develop faster, lessening the time available for predators to eat them. Prolonged warmth will allow time for species that are capable of producing more than one set of adults in a flight season to produce more generations to fly within the same year.  This may result in a succession of generations which may even overlap so that the species in on the wing for much longer than it will be in a cooler year.  This overlapping of broods was observed in 2018 in the Small Copper. In addition to the heat during May, June and July, the low rainfall levels from May to September inclusive also helped, as wet conditions have been shown to cause damage to the early stages, including, expectedly, the pupal stage.

In many ways 2018 was exceptional. We had an unusually long winter, a bitterly cold, snowy March, a dull, very wet April (remember the fodder crisis?) followed by prolonged hot, dry weather over the following three months giving us the joint warmest summer on record. The dry conditions have persisted into October.  Butterflies certainly flourished, and, as recent research indicates, (see https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/2017/12/08/winter-cold-a-benefit-for-butterflies/ ) cold winters do not harm most butterfly species.

When the cold weather takes its grip, remember the glory of the summer of 2018 and bask in your memory of its splendour. As Wordsworth wrote in Tintern Abbey, these happy memories provide spiritual, emotional and psychological sustenance for the lean times ahead!

All photographs © copyright J. Harding 2018.

Late Small Copper feeding on autumn blackberry.
This late emerging Small Tortoiseshell must feed up quickly before winter closes in.
Good weather has allowed this Wall Brown to pupate before winter. The adult butterfly will emerge later in October as part of a small third brood.
The Beaded Chestnut moth is enjoying a bumper season in my locality in 2018.


Butterfly Season continues in Larval Form

Shadows are lengthening,  temperatures falling and storms Ali and Bronagh dishevelled and drenched the landscape. Butterflies continue to fly but numbers are inevitably falling.

Summer and autumn flowers are fading fast with many species now in seed to feed Goldfinches and other seed-eaters. There is still floral nourishment available with  Common Ivy flowers sticky with nectar and thronging with wasps, flies and some butterflies.  Late bramble and Common Knapweed flowers offer food, while some repeat flowering by Common Dandelion is a cheering sight for late butterflies.

Butterfly sightings continue to be made but records are diminishing. There is a tendency to think that butterflies have vanished until next spring because the free-flying adults are harder and eventually almost impossible to find.

Butterflies continue, mainly in immature forms. Many butterfly larvae are extremely difficult to find in the wild, and a number of species have not been found or recorded in Ireland as wild caterpillars or pupae. I know of just two people who have found wild Purple Hairstreak larvae, and no record of anyone finding Hedge Brown larvae or Wood White larvae, to mention just three species.  This is not surprising. I have taken 20 minutes to locate a Wood White larvae I knew to be present on cut food plant in captivity. Its camouflage is superb. Not only is the larva the same green shade as the leaves and stems of the plant, but it also aligns itself to resemble a leaflet or part of a stem. It is assisted in its concealment by its highly sedentary manner.  The Wood White caterpillar, which leads a solitary life, is feeding now and will pupate late in September or early October. The butterfly will emerge, typically, in May but if there is a cold spring a June/July emergence can occur.

One butterfly that will emerge as an adult this year from the immature forms now present is the handsome Red Admiral. There are many final stage caterpillars and pupae, tented in nettle leaves, out there now. Some adults are emerging now, a process that will continue well into October. The larvae are interesting in that they occur in a range of colour forms, even in the same nettle bed. The colour matters little, as larvae are hidden. This is one of the easiest solitary larvae to find, with droppings often found accumulated in a large leaf below the tented enclosure. Opening the tent will reveal a larva curled in the shape of the number 6. The pupa is a light brown with golden metallic markings. The adult is stunning, especially when seen on a bunch of juicy blackberries or feeding on ivy among the glossy foliage. The adult will hang about for a few days before breeding, or more likely at this time of the year, before heading south to the continent to breed.

The Wall Brown larva is feeding now but finding it is a serious challenge. Features that may help is that it feeds in daylight and basks on bare soil near adjoining grass. The older larva is green with a bluish tint. It loves Red Fescue grass growing in sparse clumps on well-drained soil. Differential growth rates of same-age larvae is a feature of second-generation Wall larvae, with remarkable size variations evident. The fastest growers will sometimes pupate and produce butterflies in October while siblings will take to the air next April or May.  Whether October adults breed successfully in Ireland is not known. It is suspected that resultant larvae may be too small to survive the winter.

The Small Heath’s tiny larva is feeding on the tips of finer grass blades. It feeds during sunshine. It is polymorphic, with green, yellow and reddish-brown forms. This larva is very slow-growing until late spring when growth suddenly accelerates. The first butterflies can appear at the beginning of May given a warm, sunny spring. Generally, adults appear later in May and fly throughout June and much of July. Occasionally late butterflies will be seen in late August and September.

While the larva might be seen as the unglamorous stage in the life-cycle, it is extremely interesting. It is the animal’s growth phase and is sensitive to changes in daylight length, temperature, moisture, the nutrient content of the food-plant, the character of its habitat, changes in the habitat and a range of other factors, depending on the species.  The interaction between the larva and elements in the environment, such as the relationship between some Lycaenid larvae and ants makes the study of caterpillars especially intriguing.  It is the requirements of the larva that often influences whether the species is widespread or highly localised. Finally, in the cooler months of autumn when adults are scarce, larvae offer the butterfly lover a challenge and interest.

Photographs © J.Harding 2018.

Red Admiral larva, pale form.
Wall Brown caterpillar.
Wood White larva on Tufted Vetch.
The Small Heath larva grows slowly. This larva measures 10 mm and is c.90 days old.