Lullybeg Reserve Update

Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s reserve at Lullybeg is monitored using the transect system. This uses a fixed route to count butterflies on the reserve between April 1st and September 30th each year. The count includes all butterflies seen 2.5 metres to the left and right of the walker, 5 metres ahead of the walker and 5 metres above. The results of these counts are sent to the National Biodiversity Data Centre. In addition, counts are made on the reserve away from the transect.

Having systematic butterfly count data for the site since 2011 means trends in species and abundance can be tracked which means we can check the effects of changes in management, successional changes in the habitats, weather conditions and even climate on butterfly populations.

The Small Purple-barred moth flies in two generations at Lullybeg.

Here we give an indication of the reserve’s performance at the halfway stage in 2023.

The reserve has some species whose conservation is a concern nationally, and these are especially important monitoring subjects. The Small Heath, rated Near Threatened, has dramatically declined on the reserve. From a high of 231 individual Small Heaths in 2013, a slight drop to 229 in 2014, the trend has been of steady falls since. The years 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 saw 131, 62, 61, 63, 57, 44, 74 and 35 Small Heaths respectively.

This year the Small Heath count is 54, a healthy increase on 2022’s poor result but still much lower than its peak in 2013 and 2014. We are investigating the habitat conditions it likes on the reserve to inform decisions about how to manage these areas and how these conditions compatibly align with the ecological requirements of other important butterflies. This is quite a challenge in a relatively small reserve.

Dense grass tussocks are used by Small Heaths.

One conclusion is that the Small Heath dislikes heavy grazing. This is clear from the nearby reserve at Lullymore, where it has been eliminated by grazing designed to cater for the Marsh Fritillary, where donkeys were introduced to graze on Purple Moor-grass to prevent it from overwhelming the Marsh Fritillary foodplant. The Small Heath likes fescue grasses, and the growth form it especially likes is tall, shaggy, dense tussocks containing plenty of dead grass blades. Unfortunately, grazing livestock love this grass, and attack this before tackling the rougher species.

The Small Heath also likes smaller, sparser Red Fescue growing among sparsely vegetated ground, but semi-bare terrain is quite temporary on vegetated cutover peatlands. Thus, successional change is a threat, unless the fescues grow into dense tussocks needed, but this only happens if grazing does not occur or is very sporadic. The ground can be disturbed by cattle to create bare patches, but will Red Fescue colonise these quickly before more robust grasses assume control?

Small Heath, male, Lullybeg, County Kildare. J. Harding

The timing of grazing and topping of vegetation and the severity of topping are also important. Late autumn or early winter grazing and topping is probably best for the butterfly. These were used in 2022 and a population rebound was observed, but some of this recovery was in areas not grazed and not topped.

The Marsh Fritillary thrives at Lullybeg. It has shown a strong abundance over the last four years.

A priority butterfly that is doing well on the reserve is the Marsh Fritillary. A mere 15 were counted in 2011, followed by 19 in 2012, 41 in 2013, 92 in 2014, just 32 in 2015, 14 in 2016, 17 in 2017, 31 in 2018. After this numbers increased.

Totals of 287 and 207 in 2021 and 2022 respectively show this recovery. This spring and summer 246 Marsh Fritillaries were counted, great news that shows the management is working well for this threatened species. The control of scrub and light grazing is key to this success.

Another threatened butterfly, the Dark Green Fritillary is still on the wing, so the picture is unclear at this point. Only two males have been recorded so far. There are plenty of Common Dog-violet plants in parts of the reserve but the sward around the highest violet populations is probably too low for this species.

The Silver-washed Fritillary has shown lower numbers in recent years. In 2020, 2021 and 2022 the figures were 9, 6 and 8 respectively. Up to mid-July 2023, 16 Silver-washed Fritillaries have been seen and this number will increase, so that is very good news.

Ringlet numbers are showing huge increases on 2022’s figures.

So far in 2023, 1237 Ringlets have been counted (only 636 in 2022), and 168 Meadow Browns (204 in 2022). These two are still flying, so the totals will rise.

Twenty-two Dingy Skippers were found this year; its flight period is over for 2023. In the four years 2019-2022, the numbers seen were 10, 10, 47 and 31. The trend will be closely monitored next spring.

It is wonderful to see increases in the Small Heath, Marsh Fritillary, Silver-washed Fritillary and Ringlet, and an expected rise in Meadow Brown numbers. Without your help, none of this would happen.

These figures show what is possible elsewhere in our countryside if managed properly. Land managers and conservationists take note!

The Silver-washed Fritillary is showing a strong resurgence in 2023.

Photographs copyright J. Harding.



Where do we go from here?

Aesthetically pleasing, but this garden is little more than a plant collection, lacking the basic ingredient for animal life, that of native plants (except Foxglove).

At last month’s Bloom event in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, a question asked in the Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) tent about the installation of industrial infrastructure on bogs was answered by the IWT’s Patrick Fogarty. He described the bleak condition of Ireland’s bogs and made it clear that plantation forestry, wind farms, solar farms, dumps, and roads should not be located on the nation’s bogs, which should be restored to allow them to recover from decades of mining and drainage.

Responding, a lady from the audience stated that as a Dublin resident who does her best to be green, she felt very depressed about the detailed description of the extent of the degradation of our bogs and other peatlands and habitats generally.

Ballivor Bog, Co. Meath. This drying, carbon-emitting dead zone is typical of the state of our bogs.

She does her best. She has a compost heap, plants flowers for pollinators, recycles her recyclable waste and probably uses public transport whenever possible and may use an electric vehicle for destinations that are not served by public transport. She does not burn fossil fuels; she has solar panels and has retrofitted her walls and roof space with insulation. She might also have had double-glazing units fitted and wears extra layers of clothing to minimize the amount of electricity used during the colder months.

She might be buying clothing made from organic cotton and eschewing ‘fast fashion.’ If she is a mother, she might use cloth or biodegradable nappies.

Surely, she pleaded, she was doing enough. What else is she to do?

As a society, we don’t know how diminished our environment is.

Let us probe a bit deeper.

She has a compost heap. Why does she need a compost heap? According to the Environmental Protection Agency  Irish households threw away an estimated 241,000 tonnes of food (31% of the total) in 2020. Excessive purchase creates an impetus to over-produce and encourages the practices of intensive farming that removes habitats and poisons our atmosphere, water, and soils. Shoppers need to think more about food quantity. Do we need to buy so much food? Consumer behaviour feeds back into food production practices, so choose less, and pay more for sustainably produced food.

If you don’t overbuy food, you will not generate the same amount of packaging waste either.

She plants flowers for pollinators. That sounds great, but it often makes matters worse.

Native flowers like Foxglove are needed for pollinators.

Where did the plant come from, what species is it, how much fertilizer was used to produce it and what is the growing medium?

The plant is most likely an import from Europe. It was not grown from native seed or native cuttings. It travelled here by boat or aircraft and by delivery vehicle, adding to transport emissions.

Regarding species, it might be a plant native to another part of the world. Plants sourced from other ecosystems often cause ecological damage when placed in our habitats and are often of very limited value to Ireland’s wildlife. A gardener’s favourite is Buddleia davidii and cultivated varieties of this plant. This plant is often called the Butterfly Bush. It attracts butterflies but it does not attract many species and its leaves feed very few moth larvae and no butterfly larvae.

Bramble over Buddleia. Bramble is native, flowers for far longer, produce edible fruit and is visited by many more pollinators. Its leaves and fruit feed a range of animals, and butterflies hibernate within its dense, semi-evergreen cover. The butterfly feeding here is a female Silver-washed Fritillary.

Despite its blooms being festooned with glorious Peacock, Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies especially, it is very limited in its overall value to pollinators. A recent study  Conserving Diversity in Irish plant-pollinator Networks (2022) concerning plant-pollinator relationships compiles a top 33 plant list. Buddleia is not on it.

Even worse is the choice of another flowering shrub, Fuschia.

This plant has escaped into the wild and is wreaking havoc on natural habitats, displacing native, insect-rich shrubs. Again, it attracts bees but its leaves feed very few native insects. Our native shrubs do have central roles in our ecosystems, sheltering and feeding the immature and adult stages of our insects. But these are ignored by many gardeners who think that buying visually appealing non-indigenous plants marketed ‘Bee Friendly’ or with a Peacock butterfly pictured on the label means their choice is nature friendly.

This is slick marketing, not ecological truth.

Further strain on our world is evident in the plastic pot, the synthetic fertilizer and peat used in the growing medium the plant comes in. All these items require energy to produce, with oil also a component in the plastic pot and fertilizer. The production of these two materials adds to the atmospheric pollution driving climate change and habitat damage on a global scale. The peat was robbed from the environment. Robbed, not ‘harvested.’ This impoverished or completely removed the peatland habitat leading to the extinction of the Curlew from most of its Irish range with more extinctions to follow. Peat removal pollutes streams, rivers and lakes and atmosphere.

While I lack the data to prove this, there is a possibility that attracting butterflies by planting Buddleia damages the butterflies that benefit from the rich nectar provided.

Buddleias planted in sunny, sheltered situations will attract butterflies, sometimes in impressive abundance. It appears to be doing so much good. Day after day of Large Whites, Red Admirals, Peacocks, Small Tortoiseshell, Commas, and even Silver-washed Fritillaries. What’s not to like?

Native Guelder Rose in bloom. The berries are natural bird food, especially for Bullfinches. The flowers feed pollinators, the leaves support several insects.

Concentrating butterflies in a small area concentrates predators too. I frequently observe small birds such as Robins, Blue Tits and Wrens being drawn to Buddleias to attack butterflies. Both birds prefer to hunt in shrubs, so the presence of the butterflies on this bush makes them more vulnerable to avian attack. Furthermore, concentrating birds in a small area may make contagious diseases a greater threat. Buddleia is a bird table for butterflies, and insectivorous birds, but it may turn out that both groups end up sacrificed on the altar of our good intentions.

Common Hawthorn is a vital native plant, of great importance to birds and pollinators.

The answer is to grow our native herbs and native trees widely. Garden centres grow according to demand. Much better, harvest native seeds from wild places nearest to your home and create compatible habitats in gardens and green spaces. By ‘compatible’ I mean the natural habitats that are represented locally and that belong together. If you farm, farm with nature. Get advice from your farm advisor about the best ways to do this.

This unfertilized field in County Meath supports hundreds of Meadow Brown butterflies, along with Small Coppers, Common Blues, Green-veined Whites, and Orange-tips.
This field, located near the field above, was re-seeded with one grass species, is sprayed with slurry, and probably fertilized. It supports no grassland butterflies.

Electric vehicles are not a panacea for Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transport sector. We still generate power by burning fossil fuels so powering up electric vehicles contributes to emissions. Unless we get our power from clean energy sources that do not involve habitat destruction we are doing no real good. Even when clean, renewable energy is produced sustainably, the construction process for EVs is very severe on the environment with some dreadful consequences in many areas mined for the materials used for the EV batteries.

Insulating one’s home, and installing double-glazed windows and solar panels will help to reduce energy consumption and lower GHG emissions. Where you can, get rid of hard surfaces such as tarmac, brick drives and concrete. New builds should use as much natural material as possible. Natural slate (not always expensive, depending on the source), clay roof tiles, natural stone and clay brick should replace concrete, the production of which requires enormous energy and generates massive CO2 emissions.

More native woodland, like this one in Tullamore, County Offaly, is needed to support a stable climate and ecosystem.

But to take this article back to where it began, we must re-wet our bogs and other wetlands, re-plant native woods and allow existing native woods to expand, reduce the pressure on land by producing and consuming less, grow food with reduced or no chemical inputs and generally allow nature to return. The crisis must be tackled at every level, in one’s home, garden, neighbourhood, nationally, and globally.

The soaring temperatures across southern Europe and the United States and flooding and drought elsewhere are alarms we must not ignore. Those who rejected the EU Nature Restoration Law should consult their conscience and intelligence.

Removing nature removes us. Action now.

Photos copyright J. Harding







Climate Change and Butterflies

The signs of the warming climate are evident in a range of climate statistics. In this article, we look at the most recent data and explore the effects the changes are having on our butterflies, moths, and the places they need for survival.

A sunny day in early June 2023. There was no rainfall recorded in northwest Kildare between May 8th and June 10th, 2023. This was replicated across much of Ireland.

The world’s average temperature reached a new high on Monday 3 July, topping 17 degrees Celsius for the first time.

And according to Met Eireann, June 2023 was the hottest June on record in Ireland, breaking an 83-year-old temperature record. The increasing temperature is not a one-off, but a trend towards a warmer climate. Met Éireann climatologist Paul Moore states:

An average monthly temperature of greater than 16C has been seen in July and August but never before in June. June 2023 was well above normal due to persistent warm days and nights.

Further afield, Spain experienced extreme heat as early as April when temperatures exceeded 38 Celsius. According to the World Meteorological Organization, Europe is warming twice as fast as other continents and Ireland is feeling the effect.

According to Met Éireann’s TRANSLATE report, Ireland’s climate has shown changes in temperature and rainfall. Daily annual average precipitation has risen between the two baseline periods, 1961-2010 and 1991-2020. Ireland is wetter, with the western half of the country showing the biggest increases. Temperatures have risen throughout the country with the highest temperatures recorded in the centre of Ireland.

The report also deals with climate projections:

As the world warms it is clear that Ireland’s temperature and rainfall undergo more and more significant changes, for example on average Summer temperature could increase by more than 2°C, Summer rainfall could decrease by 9% while Winter rainfall could increase by 24%.

Butterflies can tell us a great deal about how climate is affecting our environment. Butterflies and moths respond quickly to changes in the environment because they are highly sensitive to temperature, precipitation and habitat change. Their rapid reproduction rate means that populations can rise very quickly when favourable conditions prevail but abundance crashes when conditions are less suitable.

Abundance is not the only response butterflies show to a warming climate. Distribution changes, earlier emergence, extended and shorter flight periods, changes to brood structure, and even appearance can occur in butterflies.

An extreme weather (EWE) is an event that is rare at a particular place and time of year.   Extreme weather events, such as extreme heat, extreme drought and extreme rainfall are expected to be more common, and these will have an impact. I will look at extreme weather events first.

Extreme Weather Events

Met Éireann’s TRANSLATE report states that as the climate warms, extremes become more widespread and pronounced. A study by McDermott Long et al. (2017) looked at the impact of extreme climate effects on all life stages and the over-wintering period of UK butterflies. This study showed that the pupae of several single-brooded species (univoltine) are vulnerable to prolonged precipitation. This study also found that extreme heat during the period starting on November 1st and ending on February 28th has a negative impact on the population of the over-wintering stage of single-brooded species (whether this is the egg, larva, pupa or adult).

However, extreme heat during the adult life stage outside winter causes positive population change for 21% of species and extreme heat during the pupal stage outside winter is also positive, while during over-wintering it is associated with negative population change in 45% of species. The study discovered that extreme cold during the adult life stage of single-brooded butterflies has a negative effect on 35% of species.

The study looked at the impact of extreme climate effects on butterflies that produce two or more broods (multivoltine) annually. It found that extreme heat during over-wintering and extreme precipitation during the first and second generation adult life stages are the biggest cause of population declines in multivoltine species (67%, 58% and 50% of all multivoltine species affected, respectively). Extreme heat during the adult life stage is associated with positive population change in 42% of species. Drought plays a much more important role in multivoltine species than in univoltine species. Drought negatively affects 50% of species during their second larval life stage but has a positive impact on 25% of the species during their first ovum life stage.

Drought particularly affects vegetation on thin, free-drained soils, like those in the Burren uplands.

In summary, butterfly population changes are primarily driven by temperature extremes. Extreme heat is harmful during over-wintering periods and beneficial during adult periods (outside winter) and extreme cold had opposite impacts on both life stages. Harmful effects were identified for extreme precipitation during the pupal life stage for univoltine species.

Distribution Changes

One species that has undergone a range change is the Comma butterfly. In fact, it had not been recorded in Ireland before 1998.

In The Irish Butterfly Book (2021), I explored the role of climate change in its colonisation of Ireland since 2000, a process that has accelerated since 2014:

Asher et al. (2001) and Thomas and Lewington (2014) state that climatic factors appear to be relevant, particularly climate warming. The factors driving the recent expansion of range into Ireland are likely to be a warming climate and closeness to an expanding British population. Unlike the gregarious larvae of the Small Tortoiseshell and the Peacock, which bask communally to heat up, solitary Comma larvae are not able to raise their own body temperature above that of their surroundings. This dependence upon external temperature might explain the absence of the Comma from Ireland in the past when the climate was cooler.

The Comma usually breeds on Stinging Nettles, on mainly unshaded plants, especially using plants growing in damp soils near trees and shrubs, where the Comma benefits from warmth, shelter and succulent foodplants. In May 2023 I confirmed its use of elm in Ireland, probably Wych Elm Ulmus glabra, as a foodplant for the caterpillar. The Wych Elm and Stinging Nettle are the optimal foodplant choices for successful larval development (Braschler and Hill 2007).

Comma caterpillars on Elm, Prosperous, County Kildare. The larva on the right is in the fourth instar (stadium) and the larva on the left is in the fifth (and final) instar.

We have gained other species, and species already here that had a limited range here are extending their Irish range. Moths such as Blair’s Shoulder-knot (first recorded in 2002) and the White Satin moth are colonists extending their range, while moths like the Yellow-tail and Marbled White-spot, formerly quite restricted in Ireland are in expansion mode. The Bedstraw Hawkmoth might be colonising Ireland, with adults and larvae being recorded in various places across the country.  Lime Hawkmoth is another recent arrival, appearing now to be well-established in parts of Dublin, breeding on lime trees on tree-lined roads.

Earlier Emergence

One way of tracking the response of living things to climate events is the study of phenology. Phenology is the study of periodic events in biological life cycles and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate, as well as habitat factors.

In Ireland, the Orange-tip, largely a spring butterfly, usually starts to fly shortly after the end of the first week in April until the end of June. Sometimes an early July sighting is made. The peak flight time is in the first half of May. It has one brood in Ireland and throughout its vast European range. It is likely that some of the pupae over-winter twice, a strategy to cope with prolonged inclement conditions during their flight period.

The trend in Britain, where records of butterfly phenology are more extensive than in Ireland, is toward earlier emergence. Here I look at just one example of earlier emergence trends. Throughout most of the twentieth century, the first British Orange-tip of the season was recorded, with very few exceptions, in April.

The Orange-tip is now emerging earlier in response to warmer springs. Before 1989 it was rarely seen in March in Britain. Now the first sightings in Britain are usually in March, with only one first sighting in April during the period 2011-2021 (05/04/2018). The earliest record in Britain is the 27th of February, 2013.

But since 1989, most of the earliest emergences have been in March (Oates 2015). The average first sighting date 2011-2021 for the Orange-tip in Britain, compiled by Butterfly Conservation UK, is March 17th. This indicates the impact of warmer springs. The average first sighting date 2013-2017 for the Orange-tip in Ireland, compiled by Butterfly Conservation Ireland, is later, on April 10th, reflecting the cooler temperatures here. However, the mild spring of 2019 saw an Orange-tip recorded on March 29th, in County Donegal, while in 2021 the first Orange-tip was recorded, again in Donegal, on April 3rd.

The Orange-tip, like several other butterfly species, passes the winter in the pupa, so it is well placed to emerge earlier when spring has sustained warmth.

Earlier adult emergence dates are being recorded for several species such as the Marsh Fritillary, Large Heath, Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth and others.

These Marsh Fritillary caterpillars in Lullybeg, County Kildare have hatched a month earlier than expected.

But earlier life cycle events are not limited to adult emergence dates. The hatching dates of larvae might also be taking place earlier than was recorded in the past. On June 29th 2023, I found two Marsh Fritillary nests containing newly hatched caterpillars in Lullybeg, in County Kildare. Judging from the leaves they consumed, hatching occurred a few days before June 29th. This hatching date is up to one month earlier than recorded in this area in the past.

Extended and shorter flight periods and abundance

The effect of increased warmth is already being expressed in the lives of our moths and butterflies.

The Red Admiral, a migrant, typically arrives in Ireland in March and departs during autumn. In some places, like Howth, County Dublin, it is remaining during winter, taking advantage of the warmer winters to breed on nettles that now survive because winter frosts rarely occur there now.

Sustained summer warmth and dryness do not suit all species. The Small Blue breeds on just one foodplant that grows on thin soils, such as sandy soils. The plant, Kidney Vetch, can shrivel during drought, which means the larvae will starve or be under-sized. Droughts have already stricken the species, such as when the prolonged drought in 2018 was followed by a population crash on the sand dunes at Portrane, County Dublin, in 2019, and presumably elsewhere.

Changes to Brood Structure

Brood structure refers to how many generations an animal can produce per year. In Ireland, most butterfly species produce one generation a year.  Some can produce two or even three generations, while some species, such as the Red Admiral, are continuously brooded.

The Small Copper, typically a bivoltine butterfly in Ireland, appears to benefit from sustained warm weather. This butterfly can fly in three generations in Ireland in years with warm summers, and in two broods when the summer is cooler. We have seen third broods in recent years, such as in 2021 when the recorded flight period was May 7th to October 9th. It appears that only two generations flew in 2020 when summer was cooler and the recorded flight period was May 8th to September 6th.

A species that might be vulnerable to increasing warmth and decreasing summer rainfall is the Small Tortoiseshell.

The Small Tortoiseshell is not benefitting from climate change despite being a nettle feeder, like the Comma, which is expanding its range thanks to the warming climate. The Small Tortoiseshell’s larvae are gregarious, unlike the Comma; this might make Small Tortoiseshells easier targets for parasites. The warming climate is creating opportunities for new parasites to colonise Britain and Ireland. One new arrival in Britain, a fly named Sturmia bella, is already taking a large toll on British tortoiseshells, and it may colonise Ireland. The social habit of the larvae, which require greater food might also make it more vulnerable to drought.

The Small Tortoiseshell can fly in two or even three generations, but the second might be a partial generation while any third brood will be very small. Adult Small Tortoiseshells can usually be found flying from March-May (over-wintered adults), June-July (first brood) and late August-early October (second brood, small third brood).  All final brood Small Tortoiseshell butterflies enter hibernation, often in houses.

An interesting phenomenon has been recorded in a Small Tortoiseshell hibernaculum in St Albans, Hertfordshire, where the butterfly went into early hibernation in some years (Hull, 2019). In 2017 and 2018, all the Small Tortoiseshells that hibernated in Malcolm Hull’s unheated shed were hibernating by July 7th and August 5th, respectively. In 2016, the last five did not enter hibernation until mid-October. In 2017 and 2018, the butterfly had effectively abandoned the second generation and entered reproductive diapause. The weather during June and July 2018 was hot and dry and the Stinging Nettles needed for breeding may have become unsuitable.

Frank Smyth, a very experienced observer has noted the absence of Small Tortoiseshells at Howth, County Dublin during August and September in some years but their reappearance the following spring. The butterfly may be skipping its second generation at Howth too, and this may occur in other dry east coast locations during dry summers. A skipped second generation might also occur during cold summers. This ability to modify its brood strategy suggests a level of adaptability, much needed by a widely distributed species in an era of climate change.

Changes in appearance

Butterflies, moths and other insects, such as dragonflies, show morphological responses to climate and weather conditions. Thus, some butterflies produce smaller offspring during or following drought. Common Blue butterflies that emerge in summer following drought are often greatly reduced in size. This is the result of a reduction in the quality and or the amount of edible foodplant. In years with good rainfall and warmth, adults are larger.

The Dark Green Fritillary (to take one example) present in Ireland, Scotland and other cool climates are darker than their counterparts in sunnier, warmer climates, an adaptation to overcast, cool conditions. As our climate becomes sunnier and warmer, it is likely that our darker Dark Green Fritillaries will become paler.

A Climate Warming Success

One butterfly that has successfully tracked climate change is the Comma. This butterfly is a fascinating example of a butterfly whose development and brood structure are adapted to daylight length. Increasing hours of daylight see eggs laid in late April and early May producing direct breeding adults that breed soon after they emerge from their pupae in June and July. These are paler, well designed for bright sunshine. Eggs laid later in spring produce mainly dark adults which postpone reproduction until the following spring. Even more intriguing is the ability of the caterpillar to switch to producing the adult form best adapted to the conditions. Swedish research found this is influenced by two main factors: the length of daylight experienced by developing caterpillars and whether days become shorter or longer as they grow (Nylin, 1989).

The light form of the Comma butterfly. This form breeds directly after hatching in summer. This photograph was taken on July 03 2023 and shows a female basking on bramble. She will soon lay eggs and will die long before winter.
This is the dark (normal) form of the Comma butterfly. She will not breed until spring. She passes the winter by taking shelter in wooded areas. She is darker overall on her uppersides, but her undersides are very much darker than those of the light form. The dark undersides are appropriate for an over-wintering butterfly. A photo of the underside of the dark form and light form is shown below.
The underside of a dark form Comma. The underside of the light form can be seen below.
The underside of a light form Comma.

I suspect the Comma’s development might also be accelerated by increasing night warmth. It is known that caterpillars can develop into the direct breeding form even when day-length is declining if the temperature is warm, and they are feeding on very nutritious food (Thomas and Lewington, 2014). In captive breeding indoors during spring, I observed Comma larvae feeding at night, in darkness, likely benefiting from indoor warmth. Despite darker conditions indoors, all the larvae I reared in spring produced pale, direct-breeding adults. The adults hatched shortly before and around 18 June 2014. Warming night temperatures may increase the percentage of direct-breeding Commas hatching in June and July, even when day length is declining after the summer solstice (June 21st).

Furthermore, warmer daytime spring weather arising from climate change will likely result in more direct-breeding adults for two reasons: earlier adult emergence and faster development of eggs and larvae. Over-wintering adults emerge earlier if spring weather is warm and sunny, and breeding may occur earlier, followed by earlier egg-laying on earlier developing nettles, earlier hatching and faster development of larvae under warmer conditions, meaning that more larvae will be developing when daylight is still increasing.

The direct-breeding adult Commas (light form) that hatch from pupae in June and July reproduce and die weeks before August ends. Their offspring develop mainly during July, August and September, when day length is declining, and nettles are less lush than they were in spring. The resulting adults are dark and these delay breeding until spring after hibernation. However, Nylin (1989) states that some exceptions occur with some dark male adults breeding in summer (under laboratory conditions) and some pale adults over-wintering (Eeles, 2019). (Nylin also found that only dark (normal form) adults are produced in the wild in Sweden.)

The Future

Braschler and Hill (2007) investigated the Comma’s expansion and point out that polyphagy (the ability to use several foodplant species) may enhance the ability of species to track climate change although the females sometimes chose suboptimal foodplants (Gamberale-Stille et al. 2014). There are species (such as the Small Blue, Small Tortoiseshell and Marsh Fritillary) that use just one foodplant, leaving them vulnerable to changes that negatively affect their food. Prolonged summer drought will affect many moisture-dependent species, such as the Ringlet and Green-veined White. No longer will these be the abundant, widespread species we know today.

Nobody told me there’d be days like these. Extreme warmth and dryness can cause grassland butterflies to emerge crippled from their pupae, like this unfortunate Ringlet butterfly.

There is evidence that climate change is challenging efforts to protect rare and endangered butterflies. Climate change and nitrogen deposition, or a combination of the two, are considered likely candidates for driving habitat change leading to longer growing seasons and increased grassiness on the Morecambe Bay limestones in northwest England, leading to 50% less food (violets) and a cooler micro-climate for the warmth-loving larva of the High Brown Fritillary (Ellis et al. 2019). This effect may be occurring in the Burren, impacting our very rare Pearl-bordered Fritillary butterfly.

Lying Bracken trash among violets creates a warm, dry micro-climate for Pearl-bordered Fritillary caterpillars. Climate warming and atmospheric nitrogen deposition leads to increased grassiness, lowering temperatures just above the soil, making the larval micro-site less suitable or unsuitable for the caterpillars.

The future picture of our environment under the range of potential climate change scenarios is not clear. Predictions at the level needed to anticipate the ecological impacts on butterflies and moths may not be possible. The most immediate answer is to protect the habitats we have and restore what can be restored. Large-scale habitats with the best conservation management and the fullest range of conditions that apply to habitats are the best safeguards against our changing climate.

Landscapes must be protected for nature, not small nature reserves which by virtue of size and the range of species they can protect are of little value against biodiversity loss and climate change.

Much of the information in this article is from The Irish Butterfly Book by Jesmond Harding. For more information about the way climate and related factors are hitting our butterflies, read The Irish Butterfly Book. Contact the author by email:

All photos © J. Harding


BBC, 2023. Climate change: World’s hottest day since records began. Available at accessed 05 July 2023

Braschler, B. & Hill, J.K. 2007, “Role of larval host plants in the climate-driven range expansion of the butterfly Polygonia c-album”. The Journal of animal ecology, vol. 76, no. 3, pp. 415-423.

Butterfly Conservation UK , 2023. First Sightings 2021 and previous. Online at accessed 03 July 2023.

Eeles, P. (2019) Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies. Pisces Publications, Berkshire.

Ellis, S., Wainwright, D., Dennis, E.B., Bourn, N.A.D., Bulman, C.R., Hobson, R., Jones, R., Middlebrook, I., Plackett, J., Smith, R.G., Wain, M. & Warren, M.S. 2019, “Are habitat changes driving the decline of the UK’s most threatened butterfly: the High Brown Fritillary Argynnis adippe (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae)?”, Journal of insect conservation, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 351-367.

Gamberale-Stille, G., Söderlind, L., Janz, N. & Nylin, S. 2014, “Host plant choice in the comma butterfly-larval choosiness may ameliorate effects of indiscriminate oviposition: Host plant choice in the comma butterfly”, Insect science, vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 499-506.

Harding, J. (2021) The Irish Butterfly Book. Privately Published, Maynooth.

Hull, M (2019). Where have all the Small Tortoiseshell gone? (online) (Accessed 04 April 2020).

Met Éireann, 2023. TRANSLATE One Climate Resource for Ireland. Online at accessed 02 July 2023.

McDermott Long, O. An investigation into the vulnerability of UK butterflies to extreme climatic events associated with increasing climate change. Doctoral thesis, University of East Anglia, 2017.

Nylin, S. (1989). “Effects of changing photoperiods in the life cycle regulation of the comma butterfly, Polygonia c-album (Nymphalidae)”. Ecological Entomology, 14(2), 209–218. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2311.1989.tb00771.x

Oates, M. (2015) In Pursuit of Butterflies. Bloomsbury, New York.

RTE, 2023. Climate change to bring more extreme weather to Ireland, says Met Éireann. Online at accessed 02 July 2023

Thomas, J.A. & Lewington, R. 2014, The butterflies of Britain and Ireland, Revised edition, British Wildlife Publishing, Oxford.


July Butterflies

Based on four key climatic indicators, temperature, sunshine, rainfall and wind speed, the favourability index for butterflies is highest in June, July and August. More species fly in July than any other month. Thirty-one species are in flight in July, with some species having their abundance peak in July. The Comma first generation, the Silver-washed and Dark Green Fritillaries, Essex and Small Skipper hit their numerical heights in July.

Here we profile a selection of July flyers.

Silver-washed Fritillary

A large, colourful and magnificent butterfly, its flight is powerful and elegant. Whether in level or climbing flight, the Silver-washed Fritillary scores highly on pace and agility. The courtship flight is utterly unforgettable, a picture of synchronised romance, a complex ritual that has captivated generations of butterfly lovers. The female flies in a level flight, as if totally oblivious to the male, who loops repeatedly under her, then up in front of her. Woodland rides and clearing are the venues for this dance, while pairing follows in a tree, shrub, on Bracken, and occasionally on the ground.

Where to find the Silver-washed Fritillary

Open woodland, with violets plentiful in clearings and in the interior of the wood. Knocksink Wood, Enniskerry, County Wicklow, the woods around Lough Leane in Killarney, County Kerry, the oak woods at Crom in Fermanagh, Ravenwood in Wexford, the Furry Glen in the Phoenix Park, Dublin and woods with native trees and sunlit woodland floors containing violets, its larval food, throughout the country.


A striking butterfly, known by its underside hindwing comma marking, is perhaps the most interesting mid-summer species. Why?

It hatches in two forms, a dark form, which has an upperside ground colour of orange-red, and a light form, a golden coloured Comma named the hutchinsoni form (the hutchinsoni form, shown above, also has an underside that is lighter in colour) after Emma Hutchinson who bred the species in Herefordshire, one of its last British strongholds in the late nineteenth century. Unbelievably given its abundance in Britain today, and its increasing presence in many areas in eastern Ireland south of Louth and into the Irish midlands and beyond, it was believed to be on the brink of extinction in Britain in the 1880s, for reasons unknown. It was unknown in Ireland until 1998.

Emma Hutchinson bred vast numbers of Commas and sent them to areas of England it disappeared from. One such county is Surrey but despite a large release, the Comma did not repopulate the county.

A feature Emma Hutchinson noted is the butterfly’s ability to adapt to weather conditions by producing two forms; the golden form is produced following springs and early summers with warm weather and the darker form arises when conditions are cloudy, dull, and cool. The dark-form Commas don’t breed in the year of their birth, but feed briefly and hibernate. The golden Commas breed on emergence, taking advantage of fine summer weather. All offspring of the golden Commas are dark, fly in autumn and pass the winter as adult butterflies. Good spring and summer weather produces more golden Commas and two generations. Cold summers lead to fewer golden Commas, more dark Commas, and a small second generation. This account of the adaptable breeding strategy is more complex than stated here but this general outline holds good for most of our Commas.

The Comma breeds on Stinging Nettles and larvae have recently (May 2023) been recorded on elm.

 Where to find the Comma

Still scarce or absent from most of Ireland, the Comma is still expanding its Irish range following its establishment in the southeast early this century. It is common in woods in Counties Carlow, Wicklow, Wexford, Kildare and Dublin, where it is found in wooded areas such as open woodland, hedged lanes, tree-lines along rivers and other waterways, mature wooded gardens throughout these counties. Elsewhere, it is becoming more numerous although it is still not abundant. In the last few years, it has reached Counties Limerick, Clare and Down and this westwards and northwards march is expected to continue. It is most evident in March-May, July and September and October.

Dark Green Fritillary

If this butterfly was a Premier League footballer, it would be a tricky, pacy winger, dashing towards goal, showing dramatic and unexpected changes of direction while at other times being more direct but always dynamic. A large, hyperactive and dazzlingly fast butterfly, it is a stunning sight when freshly emerged. The males will battle strong winds on cliffs and hills, eye-catchers who swoop and dive, passing in and out of view. The male is a deep, shining orange marked with black ticks, dots and chevrons. The female is more sedentary, darker, and highly variable. Typically, she is a duller orange with enlarged dark markings. Underside hindwings are green with spangled with reflective silver.

Where to find the Dark Green Fritillary

This butterfly likes flower-rich locations. The Burren, in Counties Clare and Galway, Sheskinmore in County Donegal, and Ballyteigue Burrow on the south County Wexford coast are among its key locations in Ireland. Coastal areas, especially vegetated sand dunes are also good places to look for it. This butterfly is highly vulnerable to agricultural intensification. Flower-filled grasslands lose their value for this butterfly when fertiliser or slurry is applied. It needs unspoiled grasslands rich in violets, its breeding plant, for its survival.

 Wood White

This butterfly usually has two generations a year. Found in the areas of contiguous exposed carboniferous limestone from south of the Burren northwards close to the southern border of County Mayo, this small unspotted white is notable for its low, floppy flight, a soporific sight on a hot, sticky day in late July. Breeding on vetches growing among scrub on hot dry limestone habitats, it is one of our rarer butterflies and should be monitored. The first flight is usually in May and the second flight is in mid/late July to mid-August.

Just one interesting feature is that the female appears to have poor botanical skills. She frequently tests the wrong plants before eventually finding the correct larval foodplant on which to lay an egg.  She searches in the right places but often alights on plants that are not even related to vetches. She’s not alone in her confusion. Her relative, the single-brooded Cryptic Wood White (which usually flies from May-early July), which looks identical, does the same!

The main foodplants observed being used in Ireland are Meadow Vetchling, Tufted Vetch, and Bitter Vetch.

Where do find the Wood White

The Burren area where open scrub on limestone pavement contains vetches and other flowers is its stronghold in Ireland but it has been confirmed on western limestones elsewhere such as around Ennis further south in County Clare and in limestone habitats around Lough Corrib, such as west of Lough Corrib at M 19532 40634, in the Carrowmoreknock area. It might also occur at Lough Carra, County Mayo.

Purple Hairstreak

Purple Hairstreak male above and female below.

Unless a dedicated search of oak woodland, usually with binoculars, is made, you are very unlikely to see this small but beautiful creature. Both sexes have silver undersides but the darker undersides are tinted violet in the male and purple in his mate. Here we show both sexes to illustrate the differences. The butterfly is known for occupying positions often very high up on oaks and for being very active during the evenings. They are also known to be nocturnal, although I don’t know the extent of their activity after dark.  I have seen it fly in almost complete darkness and it is attracted to light traps set for moths.

The oak woods in Phoenix Park, Dublin, Tomies Wood, Killarney, County Kerry, and oak woods in Wicklow such as Glendalough and Glen of the Downs are good places to look for them. Scan the canopy for the butterfly during sunny weather, especially after 5 pm. It’s about the size of the Common Blue butterfly.

Enjoy watching butterflies this summer, and be sure to let us know about your butterfly records. You can find out how to send us your observations under the Records tab on this website.

All photographs © J. Harding



National Peatlands Park

To the Waters and the Wild

By Jesmond Harding

Conservation Officer, Butterfly Conservation Ireland

Lullybeg lake.

There are very few places that you can visit nowadays and feel refreshed and relaxed by the natural abundance on offer. Patrick Kavanagh, perhaps our only truly spiritual poet, wrote about life’s simple experiences in such terms in Advent:

O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning-
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.

Denial brings fresh appreciation. Forget the phone, forget your agenda, plans, work schedule, worries and deadlines.

Bring the technology you were born with. Let your vision, hearing, touch and nose apprehend the experience of a day on the bog in northwest Kildare. You will not hear the drone of jet aircraft, or the din of road traffic, no traffic jams, or crowds. No human infrastructure; no roads, telegraph poles, pylons, masts, or buildings. Just a vast, gentle landscape as far as you can see, leafy, grassy, flower-filled, fragrance-filled, birdsong and butterfly and dragonfly-filled, happily and softly moist underfoot.

Brimstone butterflies, rare or absent in most of Ireland, flourish at Ballydermot.

You don’t have to try to be happy here. Anyone I had the privilege of showing the area to were smitten. People of all ages love this land of plenty. People kneel to get eye-to-eye with a Marsh Fritillary butterfly, resting on a leaf, waiting for the sun. He perches, wings closed, brick-red with cream markings, letting you admire him. He is unhurried and unworried. What will be will be. He doesn’t know that he is represented in Ireland as a genetically distinct subspecies, that he is red-listed, or that his habitats are being destroyed throughout Ireland, Britain and Europe.

The Marsh Fritillary thrives in Ballydermot where it occupies many areas across the landscape.

He is safe here, with his exacting bucket of ecological needs met on a grand scale in this biodiverse landscape. But how long will that last?

When the sun shines, the landscape listens. It wakes up. Silence is filled with bird and insect songs. That perched Marsh Fritillary opens his wings, a glistening stained glass window shines, glittering with colour, a spiritual moment of brightening, glowing colour. This intricate lattice is worthy of Harry Clarke’s genius. The kneeling observer gasps with delight. Photographs are taken.

He is in the best of company. Twenty-four other butterfly species make up the cast of characters, including other red-listers: Dark Green Fritillary, Wall Brown and Large Heath.

When there is this level of butterfly biodiversity in any place, it’s indicative of so much more. Hundreds of moth species call this home. Included are rarities like Waved Carpet, Small Chocolate-tip, Hedge Rustic, threatened moths like Forester Moth, Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet, a black red-spotted day-flyer, flourish here.

Hairy Dragonflies love boglands.

The hum of insects from March to October is an experience in itself. Immersion in this landscape will make the findings of Queen’s University that nearly half the world’s animals are declining hard to believe. For these bogs are a world in themselves, constituting a vast landscape of around 6000 hectares of bog, forests, lakes, rivers, pools, marsh, grassland and intimate mosaics of these habitats, acting as a landscape of scale for the burgeoning biodiversity that makes the bogs of northwest Kildare and east Offaly (collectively known as the Ballydermot Bog Group) home.

The bogs are refugia for species driven from industrialised farmland. The relative importance of the bogs has increased biological desertification strips the surrounding farmed countryside of biodiversity.

Whatever you love in nature, there’s much on offer here: birds include Curlew, Skylark, Whooper Swan, Great-spotted Woodpecker, Woodcock, Goshawk and Lapwing, to name just a few. Indeed, the area holds 18% of Ireland’s red-listed birds (birds of high conservation concern) and 19% of our amber-listed birds (birds of medium conservation concern).

Mammals are well-represented: Fox, Badger, Stoat, Red Squirrel, Bank Vole and Pine Marten all occur.

Badgers are secure at Ballydermot, free from persecution. Photo Pat Wyse.

A great well-being boost flows knowing that you are in a place where nature thrives, but the attractions and benefits extend far beyond an empathetic experience. The sheer vastness of sky, water and greenery casts off confinement. Imagination and freedom await the wanderer. You can ramble for hours unobstructed, happy and fulfilled. You are one hour from Dublin but when here you are far from the world of work, small talk and the drone of lawnmowers. You can be yourself here.

Eyed Hawkmoths thrive on the native trees at Ballydermot.

The deepening crisis of biodiversity collapse and the sundering of nature’s protective balm, all our fault, makes this place more important and its care more urgent. A plan exists to fragment the bog with 60 km of infrastructure to serve a proposed 47 wind turbines with a tip height of 200-220 metres. Drainage and habitat fragmentation threaten this magnificent landscape, instead of peat re-wetting and preservation.

This would be a disaster for the wilderness atmosphere and biodiversity and peatland restoration.

All these values are critically needed. According to the EPA Boglands Report 2011, the most important function of peatlands regarding future climate change is that of a carbon store and sink. Covering only about 3% of the Earth’s land area, they hold the equivalent of half of the carbon that is in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2). It is estimated that the carbon stored in peatlands represents some 25% of the world soil carbon pool (i.e., 3–3.5 times the amount of carbon stored in tropical rainforests.

By protecting and restoring the peatlands in Ireland and elsewhere, a major contribution to dealing with our global ecological crises will be made. It is craziness to destroy a carbon-sequestering, biodiverse peatland to create ‘clean energy’ as if this compensates for CO2 and Methane (CH4) emissions and biodiversity destruction.

A solution is now available. This state-owned land, which belongs to the nation, should be made available to the nation as a new national park. This proposal is backed by the environmental NGOs and described to the minister responsible for our natural heritage, Malcolm Noonan. Following our three-year campaign, Kildare County Council has now included the Peatlands Park in the County Development Plan 2023-2029, critically designating 70% of Kildare’s cut-away bog for biodiversity and carbon sequestration (Kildare County Development Plan p. 300) This is a major first step in biodiversity and habitat recovery for the county and will also contribute to meeting EU legal targets and objectives under the new EU Nature Restoration Regulation.

The Silver-washed Fritillary occurs in the new native woods developing at Ballydermot.

What can I do to help?

You can show your support. Please sign the petition by No Planet B, a youth club engaged in environmental issues, which met Minister Noonan and Kildare County Council to ask for a national park. Sign their petition at

Visit the area. A great portal is the Irish Peatland Conservation Council’s Bog of Allen Nature Centre in Lullymore, and the Lullymore Heritage and Discovery Park. Check the Events calendar on Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s website ( for a chance to visit the area to see its butterflies. The National Peatlands Park website has more information: You can let Ministers Ryan and Noonan know that you support our proposal by contacting them:

The National Peatlands Strategy 2015 promoted the concept of a National Peatland Park. The Review of the Strategy, considering different policies, programmes, and plans that came into existence since the Strategy was published, includes the prioritised action to “conduct a feasibility study on the creation of a national peatlands/wetlands park” in 2023. In addition, the  EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 will require the protection of more land.

It is time for this concept to be a reality. We don’t have a national park based on raised bog habitat.

It is time we did.

Crabtree River, Ballydermot.

All photos copyright J. Harding except where otherwise stated.






Event Report: Moth Morning 17th June 2023

The prolonged period of dry mainly sunny weather ended with a tremendous downpour on the night and morning of our moth event on Saturday 17th of June. It didn’t stop the moths from thronging at the Heath and Robinsons Light traps on Kilberry Bog in south Kildare. The richness of the habitats, especially flower-rich wet grassland and native woodland, the warmth (15 Celsius at 4:30 am on Saturday), and the lure of the light traps brought great abundance and variety.

Poplar Grey. This moth breeds on Poplars (Populus).Photo Philip Strickland.

We had an outdoor shelter in which to examine the contents of the traps which were opened from 7:15 am. The range of colour, body and wing shape of these largely unfamiliar nocturnal ‘butterflies’ (moths and butterflies are members of the same invertebrate order, all are lepidopterans) are wonders in themselves.

Poplar Hawkmoth, female. This large moth is widespread in Ireland and Britain. It particularly favours using willows for breeding. Photo J. Harding.

The rain poured unrelentingly as if to mock the dry, sunny weather we have enjoyed since the 8th of May. This was the first time this year that I have seen several species in abundance. It highlights just how crucial our peatlands are for biodiversity.

We found about 160 species in the traps. The large, dramatic moths drew the most attention initially; the robust weirdly shaped Poplar Hawkmoths, the subtly spectacular Elephant Hawkmoths (named for their larvae’s elephantine appearance), the startling eye-flashing pose struck by alarmed Eyed Hawkmoths, and the bizarrely accurate cigarette butt/broken birch twig imitation intimated by the Buff-tip.

Eyed Hawkmoth, male. Photo J. Harding.

The names of our moths, often by Victorian Anglican clergy are often nicely descriptive and occasionally comparative. The White Ermine makes sense; the moth is snow white or pale cream with black spots or ovals, closely resembling black-spotted white fur worn by royalty. The Buff Ermine moth, similar-sized, and similarly shaped, is buff in colour, sometimes deeper yellow, but lacks the extent of spotting found in its white relative.

The Lilac Beauty lives up to its name. The crimpled forewing adds interest and variety to its outline. Photo J. Harding

Bright-line Brown-eye and Brown-line Bright-eye (the latter not seen but good tongue-twisters) are species whose appearance matches their names. Some have names that don’t complement their looks. Mottled and Willow Beauty moths are not beautiful but rather dowdy. Squinting at the lower crossline on the forewing upperside is needed to separate them. However, both possess nicely scalloped wing outlines and blend well on bark and rock.

Clouded Border is another aptly named moth. The spotting on this specimen is not often seen but was noted on several examples in Kilberry. The larvae feed on sallow (Salix) and poplars (Populus), especially aspen (Populus tremula). Photo J. Harding

Cinnabars were found in all the traps, and we even found larvae on ragwort near a trap; this smartly dressed species, named for its red markings which refer to mercury sulfide, remains a widespread moth. Eye-catching, especially in flight, it is rarely accosted by birds because they dislike the taste. It is attacked occasionally but birds that do learn not to repeat their assault.

Celypha cespitana is a very local micro-moth found on limestone and sand dunes. There is enough calcareous substrate in the Kilberry Bog area to support its foodplants. Photo Philip Strickland.

More eye-catching species are the emeralds, named for being emerald! The Large Emerald, Common Emerald, Light Emerald Grass Emerald, and Little Emerald were all marked present. The presence of their breeding plants accounts for this; abundant birch, Alder, gorse, and heather exist in the Kilberry area.

Waved Carpet, a scarce moth in Ireland and Britain. It flies in June and July, and the larvae feed on the young leaves of several trees, including Common Alder (Alnus glutinosa), birch (Betula), and sallow (Salix). Photo Philip Strickland.

One of the rare moths we found is Waved Carpet. It is strangely rare because it breeds on birch, a very common tree on bogs. We counted four Waved Carpets, the highest number I have ever known in a trapping session in Ireland.  Many moths we found are not necessarily rare but are localized, confined to certain habitats. Pebble Hook-tip, which again looks like its name, is one such. It occurs in wooded areas with birch scrub. Another notable moth we found is Bordered Sallow, better known in the Burren and limestone areas than in bogs.

Bordered Sallow. Photo Philip Strickland.
Pebble Hook-tip. It looks better adapted when settled on a birch trunk. J. Harding

The excitement of seeing so many moths and so many species is one of the greatest experiences for any nature lover. It is often bewildering because there are so many. But it offers the prospect of a journey of discovery, of stepping into another dimension, the realm of the night.

Be brave, step into the darkness. Great discoveries await…

A special thanks to our host, Mary Broughall, who made us more than welcome and served delicious refreshments after our time outside. Thanks also to Philip Strickland who led the event and Chris McKenna who set up the traps. Thanks to all who attended-this was not a morning for those with an aversion to rain!

Early Thorn, second generation. The first brood flies from March to May. Its larvae feed on various trees. Photo J. Harding




June Butterflies and Moths

The Transparent Burnet moth occurs in the Burren in County Clare and Galway and on limestone habitats in Mayo and Limerick. The caterpillars feed on thyme in spring. The Transparent Burnet in the west of Ireland is subspecies sabulosa. This form has deeper red than is found on subspecies found in Britain. It flies in June and July, and large numbers can be seen feeding together on mats of flowering thyme. A good place to see it is Coolorta, County Clare, at R 34240 96588.
Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet moths are found in flower-rich, often damp grasslands where they can be abundant. It has been recorded more widely in recent years but is rated vulnerable on the moth red list. Like the Transparent Burnet, it overwinters as a caterpillar and pupates in May and June. The adult flies in June and July. The moth occurs here as subspecies insularis. It breeds on Meadow Vetchling, A good site for it is Pollardstown Fen, at N 76388 15994.
The Six-spot Burnet is similar in appearance to the previous species but has six spots, not five, is far more abundant and widespread, and is especially abundant along the coasts. It has a much longer flight period, flying throughout the summer months. It often occurs in stunning abundance on sand dunes around Ireland’s coastline where dozens can be seen on a single Common Ragwort. It breeds mainly on Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil. One good area for it is the Dingle peninsula, such as at Stradbally, at Q 58707 13406.
The Cinnabar is a striking moth, and unlike the previous three species, it is mainly nocturnal. It flies in May and June. Although it is striking when seen in flight in bright sunshine, it is probably better known for the larvae which feed socially on Common Ragwort and related plants, their black and yellow hoops making them unmistakable. This is the best distributed of the black and red moths, occurring along the coasts, on dry ground wherever the foodplants occur.
The Brown Silver-lines can be seen during bright sunshine where Bracken exists. Large abundance exists where beds of Bracken occur. It is nocturnal, but like the Cinnabar, it is often disturbed in daylight. This moth is well distributed in Ireland.
The Small Heath is a grassland butterfly that was once very common. Distribution maps from the Millenium Atlas show it to be mainly coastal but with many inland sites but these are scattered, but it may have been under-recorded at the time. There is a strong possibility that it has declined since, with greater intensification in farming eliminating it by changing the grassland habitat it needs. It is very vulnerable to fertilizer use, re-seeding of grassland, and over-grazing. It appears to like ungrazed grasslands but it will disappear from such areas when scrub becomes established and the grass is shaded. This butterfly is still well represented on coastal grasslands. A good place to see it is Mornington, County Meath at O 15737 75513. It flies in May, June, July and August, in one generation.
The Meadow Brown occurs throughout Ireland in semi-natural grassland where it even manages to survive fertilizer use, but it exists on such sites in lower numbers. It flies from June to August and occasionally later especially in the west of Ireland. It is exceptionally abundant in some grasslands even on farms.
The Cryptic Wood White is well established throughout Ireland excepting areas of hot, dry, exposed carboniferous limestone where it is replaced by the Wood White. The Cryptic Wood White flies mainly in May and June and breeds on Meadow Vetchling and Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil and presumably related plants. ‘Unkempt’ scrubby grasslands, well-vegetated field margins, wood edges, lanes, wilder gardens in rural areas, and cutover bogs vegetated with grassland vegetation are places to look for this dainty, extremely interesting little butterfly.
A Small Tortoiseshell on Rough Hawk-bit, Lullymore, Co. Kildare. This is flying now, especially around nettles where it is busy breeding to lay down a second generation that flies mainly in late August and throughout September when it visits gardens to feed on flowers before overwintering as an adult, often in your house. This attractive, swift-flying butterfly occurs throughout Ireland.


Event Report: Outing to Portrane Burrow June 10th 2023: A case of the Blues

The prolonged period of dry weather which has extended over five weeks, appeared to be about to end just as our Portrane outing was due. Fortunately, the weather at Portrane was dry and mild, with bright conditions and some hazy sunshine.

We assembled and made our way to the dunes at the northern extremity of Portrane Burrow. At this point, some explanation is needed. Over the past 15 years, the dunes in the area were eroded by the sea until only the dunes at the northern end, immediately south of the estuary, remain. Last winter, these were inundated, but not removed.

The vegetation remains mainly in place but the condition of the habitat appears less favourable. Re-growth of the recently uprooted Sea Buckthorn was noted. Non-native plants like Cordyline (New Zealand) and Red Valerian (Mediterranean region) have appeared too. Some areas appear to have lost some habitat for the Small Blue and Small Heath.

Small Blue laying her egg on Kidney Vetch in Portrane. Photo J. Harding

Drought is beginning to affect the condition of the Small Blue breeding plant, Kidney Vetch.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has identified five direct drivers of biodiversity loss. These are changing use of the sea and land, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and invasive non-native species. The two indirect drivers are people’s disconnect with nature and the resulting lack of value placed on the importance of nature.

Looking at the direct influences on biodiversity loss, the latter three, climate change (coastal erosion removing the dunes), pollution (burning, dumping waste,) and invasive non-native species (a range of species, especially Sea Buckthorn) are at play in Portrane which also holds breeding populations of birds of conservation concern: Little Tern, Ringed Plover, Eurasian Skylark, and Meadow Pipit. As for human disconnect and disinterest…

During our outing, we counted 24 Small Blues (ranked endangered), 8 Common Blues, and 12 Small Heaths (ranked near threatened).

To put this in context, on 7th June 2018 John Lovatt, (who led this event) counted 439 Small Blues, 204 Common Blues, and 33 Small Heaths.

Of course, populations are not the same every year, so let’s look at the 2nd of June  2020. That day, John recorded 232 Small Blues, 82 Common Blues, and 23 Small Heaths.

On the 7th of June 2022, John recorded 85 Small Blues and 34 Common Blues. These declines mirror the loss of habitat and the reduction in the quality of the area remaining.

While the precise causes of Portrane’s decline in habitat size and quality are not universally applicable, the signs are ominous for Ireland’s butterflies and habitats. Portrane is on the front line and tells us to change our attitude before we are left with nothing.

Dune habitat with invasive, non-native Sea Buckthorn encroaching on Kidney Vetch. Photo J. Harding

Thanks to John Lovatt for leading the event.

Event Report: Biodiversity Week Walk on Lullybeg Reserve

Saturday 27th May 2023 was a beautiful sunny morning and although cloud built later conditions remained bright and pleasant with good breaks in the cloud and warm spring sunshine. This weather allows for comfortable walking and great close views of butterflies and day-flying moths which can be unapproachable in hot weather and impossible to find when it is cold. In short, conditions were perfect for Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s walk on Lullybeg Reserve.

White butterflies, like this Small White, brighten our days with their glowing brightness.

We began our walk along the track leading to the Irish Peatland Conservation Council’s reserve at Lullymore, and walked through various habitats, such as wet grassland, poor fen, scrub, woodland, wet heath, and onto Lullybeg Reserve which continues the habitat diversity, especially wet grassland, elements of dry meadow, poor fen, marsh, wet and dry heath. This habitat richness means that a biodiverse fauna is expected, and we observed plenty of examples of this richness.

This Common Blue beautified the start of our walk.

Drier areas showed good displays of Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, a magnet for Burnet Companion moths, Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoths, Common Blues, and Dingy Skippers. This plant produces a ‘trefoil lawn’ at the base of the track opposite the reserve at Lullymore and near the silt pond on Lullybeg Reserve, and we stopped and spent plenty of time at both locations, seeing abundance and diversity. An especially lovely ‘blue’ female Common Blue loitered at the first patch of trefoil in Lullymore and we managed some great photographs of her; she posed nicely during the bright spells before becoming more active during direct sunshine. Many female Common Blues are chiefly brown on their upper surfaces, so seeing a blue individual is a treat. This blue suffusion usually features more prominently the further west you look, with more easterly areas having smaller, browner females.

The male is bright, shining blue wherever one looks for him, and these looked dazzling in the sunshine.

This Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth was ambushed by Misumena vatia, a crab spider that lurks on same-coloured flowers.

We checked the buckthorn bushes in the track connecting Lullymore and Lullybeg, seeing Brimstone eggs and half-grown larvae. Brimstones are good at breeding over an extended period, laying eggs from March into June. This results in adults emerging over at least two months giving the impression that it is on the wing most of the summer.

This is somewhat illusory. Individual newly hatched Brimstones spend little time on the wing during the summer; they hatch in summer, feed for a short time on flower nectar and disappear until the following March. Hatching over many weeks means it appears to be flying for several weeks, but no butterfly that needs to survive the winter as an adult can afford to take the risk that prolonged activity brings. That explains the seeming anomaly of seeing more in late March after winter than were counted the previous summer.  This brief summer fling also accounts for the excellent condition of the over-wintered Brimstone in March, when it is already around eight months old! After checking the Brimstone caterpillars, Emperor Moth caterpillars were found on Meadowsweet, one of several plant species it uses in the area.

A half-grown Brimstone caterpillar on Alder Buckthorn. Like many edible larvae, it has the same colour as the foodplant, showing adaptation to its host plant. This adaptation to leaf colour is continued in the pupa and adult butterfly. Despite this camouflage, it is likely that the larva is heavily predated by birds and wasps.

Lullybeg Reserve was awash with Marsh Fritillary butterflies, most looking perfectly fresh. Confusion reigned along the stream bank, with Burnet Companions jostling with Marsh Fritillaries for space and attention, with occasional skirmishes between Dingy Skippers and Burnet Companions. Altogether I counted 99 Marsh Fritillaries. I am sure number 100 was seen by one of us!

A perfect specimen, this male Marsh Fritillary probably emerged on the morning of our event.
Showing the sealed abdomen of a female Marsh Fritillary. The male seals her to prevent a second mating. Genetic succession is a step closer!

We reached the silt pond which has an adjoining luxuriance of Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, a fuel station for passing traffic and resident butterflies and moths alike. Nuzzling its furry way among the fragrant yellow blooms was a rather bumbling Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth. An astonishing bee mimic, it is rarely bothered by avian predators but even if pursued, it is formidably elusive in full flight.

The increasingly scarce Small Heath butterfly joined in; it shouldn’t be in trouble, but like so much of our butterfly fauna, it is dwindling in distribution. The abundance of butterflies, moths, dragonflies (high numbers of Hairy Dragonflies and Four-spotted Chasers), and other groups at Lullybeg give a glimpse of what the wider countryside looked like, 30 or more years ago. There’s plenty wrong, but Biodiversity Week gives us the opportunity to admire what we still have and inspires us to nurture and advocate for nature. And so does the support we receive from people with a shared passion for nature, like those whose company we had the pleasure to enjoy on Saturday. Some members travelled from Cork and Tipperary for the event, so it was wonderful that the reserve’s bounty was on show, thanks to the great weather.

Thanks to everyone who attended, to everyone who worked on the reserve over the winter, and to Kildare’s Heritage Officer Bridget Loughlin who organised the county’s biodiversity week events.

Nature needs a hand to survive, not neglect or the contempt implicit in the drive for profit. The Marsh Fritillary does well in species-rich grassland managed without chemicals and with gentle cattle grazing.

Photos J. Harding


Ones to watch in May

Here are five lovely butterflies to look for in May. See if you can find them and let us know about your record. See Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s Records Page for the details we need to report your sighting on Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s 2023 Record Page. The photographs below were taken in May 2023.

Marsh Fritillary underside. The upperside is shown below. This occurs on wild grasslands, often in wet or damp areas containing its breeding plant Devil’s-bit Scabious. This is the only legally protected insect that occurs in Ireland.

Dingy Skipper. This little butterfly is usually seen fluttering low over Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil. Areas of unfertilized grassland with some bare ground are the places it frequents.
The male Orange-tip is unmistakable. He is often encountered patrolling the sunlit side of a hedge. In the female, the orange band is replaced with white but both sexes show the lovely moss-coloured hindwing underside.
The Small Heath is just starting to emerge. Found on wild grassland in a number of habitats, from coastal grasslands to upland heaths, this formerly common butterfly is in retreat throughout much of Ireland’s farmed land.
This delicate little white butterfly is unspotted which separates it from all other white butterflies found in Ireland. The wood white exists in Ireland as two identical-looking species: the Wood White found on grassland among open scrub growing on exposed carboniferous limestone in Clare, Galway, and Mayo and the Cryptic Wood White which breeds on more open grassy sites with scattered scrub outside the areas occupied by its sister species.

All photos J. Harding