Event Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burren in August. © J. Harding.

Painted Lady arrival now Countrywide

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

What happens next?

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

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

How do Painted Lady butterflies head south in autumn?

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

Expanding our understanding of the Painted Lady survival strategy

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

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

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

What can you do to help?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Rare butterfly discovered in County Kildare

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

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

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

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

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

Butterflies to watch in July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Brimstone overlaps with the new Generation

The Brimstone has the longest adult life of any Irish (or British) butterfly. The emergence of the adult butterfly begins in late June or more usually in early July and the butterflies may live up to 12 months. It is not active throughout this time, spending much of the time from September to March in an inactive state usually referred to as hibernation. Typically, the butterfly seeks out a safe over-wintering site from mid-September and remains there until around mid-March from when mating and egg-laying occur. By mid-June all or nearly all adult Brimstones are dead and we await the new adults.

However, occasionally, probably as a result of good weather, some survive long enough to see their own descendants fly. In 1934, the great English entomologist and zoological artist, Frederick Frohawk (1861-1946) recorded seeing old, very worn hibernated Brimstones on the wing in the second half of July, in company with numbers of freshly emerged specimens. For the first time in my experience, I observed this generational overlap in Lullybeg in County Kildare. A newly emerged male (male butterflies generally emerge before females) was seen flying energetically along a ride at Lullybeg on June 3rd. On June 7th an old, worn female, which is shown below, was sighted on the same track. She fluttered to feed low down on young bramble before fluttering away to look for buckthorn plants to lay whatever eggs she still holds.

While this overlap in the Brimstone may have occurred before, it is a rare event. There is no reason why a male Brimstone from last year’s hatch would not survive just as long. However, the parents will not mate with their offspring. Brimstone butterflies do not mate in the year they hatch but delay breeding until spring. By that time, only Brimstones that hatched the previous summer will be alive. Nevertheless, living a full year is a great achievement for the adult butterfly and if the climate develops to give us warmer summers Brimstone lifespans may increase.

This female Brimstone, frayed and worn, lived to see the first examples of the next Brimstone generation take flight. © J.Harding.

Predicted Painted Lady influx arrives

In late March and early April of this year, Butterfly Conservation Ireland member John Lovatt reporting from Cyprus saw hundreds of Painted Lady butterflies in every direction he looked. He went on to estimate that a million butterflies had arrived in the Gkreko Head district alone. The butterflies that arrived in Cyprus are believed to have come from the Middle East. You can see John’s article in the April archive.

In the past few weeks, a heatwave in Europe means that many Painted Lady caterpillar foodplants may have become desiccated, rendering them unsuitable for breeding. This may be an additional factor driving the Painted Lady to cooler areas to the west and north where foodplants remain nutritious. Massive population accumulations in an area may be an impetus behind population movements; some species form swarms when the population is very large and move together. This creates the dramatic spectacle of clouds of Painted Ladies on the move-I was lucky to see this in south-west Galway in late May 2009.

Since the end of June, large numbers of Painted Lady have been appearing along our coasts and soon penetrated inland.  It is notable that the butterflies are faded. It usually takes around two weeks of activity to lose wing scales to the extent being observed now. It is likely that the new arrivals are not recently emerged.

Egg-laying has been reported within sight of the sea at Howth on Ireland’s east coast. Perhaps the female/s  that laid eggs there had mated before reaching Ireland and laid soon after reaching the land. In Meath and Kildare, I observed males establishing territories along sunny tracks and at wood edges. Some butterflies are migrating within Ireland, or at least dispersing within a locality; on Tuesday, July 2nd I saw over 20 Painted Lady feeding on bramble at a wood edge. All were unsettled and easily disturbed. On the following day, in excellent weather, I saw just three there.

Whatever their movements within Ireland, it is likely that many butterflies will settle to breed. Indeed, today (July 4th 2019) I watched a female lay two eggs on separate Creeping Thistle plants in my meadow. We will, weather permitting, see the native-born generation take flight from late August. It appears that 2019 will be one of those years when Painted Lady outnumbers the Red Admiral, usually our most numerous migrant.

Keep us in touch with your Painted Lady and other butterfly sightings. Email them to us at conservation.butterfly@gmail.com and let us know the number seen, location name, grid ref and date of sighting. We will post your sighting on our 2019 sightings page.

A freshly emerged Painted Lady. © J. Harding.


Butterfly Return planned for Historic Wicklow Estate.

Butterfly Conservation Ireland and the owner of an ancient woodland on Coollattin Estate, located just beside the charming village of Shillelagh are collaborating to enhance the estate for butterflies and moths.

The owners have already carried out important work to reinstate native woodland on the estate. Large blocks of non-native species such as rhododendron, laurel, Douglas Fir and Sitka Spruce have been removed. In 2016 10,000 native oaks were planted to restore the ancient oak woods. Oak is vital for one of Ireland’s scarcest butterflies, the beautiful and elusive Purple Hairstreak. Elsewhere, open areas have been left unplanted to grow herbaceous vegetation attractive to butterflies, moths and a range of invertebrates.

The Purple Hairstreak butterfly is likely to be present on Coollattin’s oaks. © J. Harding.

However, a great deal of biodiversity loss was sustained during the long period that the estate was mainly under non-native trees and shrubs. Many areas lack low-level vegetation such as grasses, ferns, wildflowers, and other ground covers.  Following an assessment of the estate by Jesmond Harding of Butterfly Conservation Ireland in June 2019, a plan is now in place to restore those areas within the woods and to create wildflower habitats in the open areas.

Recommendations aimed at biodiversity enhancement will see the retention of vital native trees including willow, birch, hazel and holly which are rich in associated insects and other invertebrates. Native foodplants of caterpillars will be planted in suitable areas in the woods. One example is the Common Dog-violet for the caterpillar of the Silver-washed Fritillary, Ireland’s largest butterfly. Increasing the nectar resource on the estate for butterflies, moths, bees and other pollinators is also planned.

The overall aim of the project is undoing the damage caused by the commercially-driven forestry practices underpinned by vast planting of non-natives which eliminated native habitats along with the associated animals. Many of Ireland’s butterfly species are in decline. Without the right habitats, this decline will not be reversed. Brian Kingham of Coollattin Estate said: “The return of our native butterflies to Coollattin will be a colourful complement to our newly planted arboretum”.

An open area of Coollattin Estate showing mature birch. © J. Harding.

Jesmond Harding who carried out the assessment commented: “The vision shown by the owner of Coollattin is an outstanding example of generosity and care for biodiversity. At Butterfly Conservation Ireland we urge everyone who has land to embrace this change. Only by restoring natural habitats will a biodiversity recovery occur.

By Jesmond Harding

Edited by Richella Duggan

Cold June reduces Butterfly Count.

As I write this on the grey, rainy Sunday afternoon of June 23rd 2019, a pause to assess the state of the summer so far brings the impression that we are having a really thin time. My impressions are that there are far fewer butterflies out there than we had in June 2018. I have seen less than ten Meadow Browns in my travels, and I have searched sites in a range of habitats and locations-on the Dublin coast (where I drew a blank), in south Wicklow (another blank), Carlow (four), Meath (three) and Kildare (three). But perhaps that is not broadly reflective? To obtain a better impression of how populations are doing, I took four species, Cryptic Wood White, Marsh Fritillary, Meadow Brown and Small Heath, all of which fly during June, to see their abundance levels from June 1st-June 23rd 2019 compared with the same period in 2018.

Cryptic Wood White appears to be on the rise in Ireland. It appears to be everywhere that suitable habitat exists, tall, herb-rich grassy areas with scrub containing any of its larval foodplants. In June 2018, 88 butterflies were notified to the Butterfly Conservation Ireland Records Page. In June 2019 we have received 42 records of this dainty butterfly.  It is down by over 52%.

The Marsh Fritillary enjoyed extraordinary abundance in 2018 and used the prolonged heat well by expanding its distribution by occupying new areas.  We received records of 698 individuals in 2018 but only 245 this year. This is a drop of 64.8%.

The Meadow Brown is probably Ireland’s most abundant species. From June 1st to June 23rd 2018 72 were reported. This June only 14 were notified. This species is down by over 80%.

Small Heath, a small member of the ‘brown’ family of butterflies appears to have been abundant in 2018 with 260 seen. This year 180 were reported, a fall of 30.7%.

While most of the summer of 2019 lies in the future, the start has not been good for butterflies. On many days temperatures have been too low for activity so that adult butterflies remain hidden. Cool temperatures may mean that larval and pupal stages are prolonged. This prolongation may result in higher losses from predators and diseases. Bad weather, especially rain, kills pupae and may harm other life stages.  Good quality habitats buffer species against these challenges. Sub-optimal habitats may be less effective in protecting species from adverse weather, resulting in population decline or loss from such areas, especially of specialists like the Marsh Fritillary.

There are likely to be other factors reducing the numbers being seen. Drought during 2018’s long hot summer damaged larval foodplants especially on open, dry, well-drained habitats like coastal dunes and grassland, dry grassland inland and on limestone and eskers. Butterflies that breed on these habitats are likely to sustain losses resulting in lower abundance in the following years.  This was observed at Portrane, County Dublin, in the case of the Small Blue. Significant damage was in evidence at Portrane in June 2018 with much of the Small Blue’s sole foodplant, Kidney Vetch, destroyed by the drought and extreme heat. In June 2018 I saw two females Small Blues at Portrane lay on the same inflorescence at the same time, behaviour I have never seen before. This butterfly takes great care to avoid laying on a flower that holds an egg for the larva is cannibalistic. On that day, I counted over 400 adults. Last week I counted just four. While shifting sand at Portrane may have contributed to the butterfly’s reduction there, it is inevitable that massive foodplant loss played its part.

There is some very positive news for the Small Blue along the Meath coastline. The Small Blue was introduced there in 2014. The individuals that were introduced were taken from Portrane. Now it is thriving in Meath where it has occupied the entire four km of dunes. There the dunes are more stable and better vegetated, less vulnerable to drought. The foodplant was not destroyed on these dunes. More than fifty were counted last week. If the colony at Portrane ever fails, the Meath colony can return the favour!

A Small Blue at Portrane. In 2019 it is struggling at Portrane but thriving along the Meath coastline. © J. Harding.

New moth record for Louth

The fascinating and surely one of the greatest mimics in the moth world, the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth has been found in the Cooley Mountains by Enda Flynn and his son Ciaran, both keen observers of butterfly and moth populations in their area. The moth was observed feeding on lousewort, probably Common Lousewort Pedicularis sylvatica. This moth is rare in the east of Ireland, currently unknown in Meath, Dublin, Wicklow, Wexford, Carlow, Kilkenny, Laois and until now, Louth. The number of observers in Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford is high so it is unlikely to have been missed, as it is a large, bumblebee-sized day-flying moth.

The benefits of close observation have paid off in the case of County Louth. If you see this lovely moth, which flies in April, May and June we’d love to hear from you. Let us know where and when you saw it by contacting us at conservation.butterfly@gmail.com.

Here are some photos of the moth.

Narrow-bordered Bee Hawk-moth on the larval foodplant, Devil’s-bit Scabious.© J. Harding. 
Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth.© J. Harding.
This Narrow-bordered Bee Hawk-moth larva is off to seek a pupation site. It will fly next year, most likely during May 2020. There is another form of the larva that has purple markings on its subdorsal and lateral surfaces. © J. Harding.