The often mysterious behaviour of Ireland’s butterflies is explored in this book.
Why do some female Speckled Woods flaunt themselves at males, while other female Speckled Woods behave so evasively? Can Brimstone butterflies forecast the weather? How do male Small Coppers react to persistent attacks from larger males? Why do Small Tortoiseshells enter hibernation in mid-summer in areas as far apart as Dublin and Donegal, months before they hibernate in other places nearby?
How does the male Green-veined White react when he faces a highly competitive mating environment? Do social caterpillars cannibalise? Why do male Brown Hairstreaks ignore females after 11 am? Why do we never see Painted Ladies leave Ireland during autumn? Why do some male butterflies check caterpillar foodplants? Is the warming climate making life easier or harder for Ireland’s butterflies?
The culmination of over 25 years of study and thousands of records, THE IRISH BUTTERFLY BOOK documents the full life cycle of every Irish butterfly from egg to adult butterfly and includes over 400 original colour photographs. There are one or more photos for each life stage of every species making this book the first of its kind.
Among the contents of this book are:
· Butterfly ecology
· Gardening advice
· Butterfly life cycles and behaviour
· A site guide detailing the best places in Ireland to see butterflies
THE IRISH BUTTERFLY BOOK also has its own YouTube channel (linked to within the book) where you can enjoy film footage of Ireland’s butterflies.
Beautifully presented and designed, with a large font size and accessible text, this book is a great addition to the Irish wildlife bibliography.
“It’s a book full of knowledge, from Harding’s own painstaking observation and also new lepidopteral research. Most people are content just to have a name for a butterfly, but his essays on each species open up fresh worlds of interest, observation and mystery.” Michael Viney, Irish Times Review, January 2022.
Available directly from the author. ISBN 978-0-9560546-1-6. Softback. Full-colour printing, 328 pages. €35 inclusive of postage within Ireland.
The Dáil (the lower house of the Irish parliament, directly elected by the electorate) declared a biodiversity and climate crisis in May 2019. At the time, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan welcomed the development, but warned that “declaring an emergency means absolutely nothing unless there is action to back it up. That means the Government having to do things they don’t want to do”.
The declaration of the crisis was initiated by Fianna Fáil and supported by the government.
Fine Gael’s Hildegarde Naughton, welcomed the outcome as “an important statement” but added, “now we need action.”
She said Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton would speedily return to the Dáil with new proposals, and she looked forward to working “with all parties and none” to scrutinise them.
Some important measures have been taken. It could be argued that the most significant is the decision by Bord na Móna to cease peat extraction in 2020, having scaled back peat extraction in 2019. This decision was followed by a government decision on November 24th, 2020 to fund peatland restoration on state-owned bogs in the Bord na Móna landholding. This involves re-wetting bogs to attempt habitat restoration and climate change combatting, with re-wetting creating conditions to capture CO2 and NO2.
The cynics among us may say this positive decision was in fact forced upon us. In 2019 the High Court made a decision that effectively ended large-scale peat extraction. The Court held that a dual consenting system for large-scale peat extraction was required and that such sites could not be exempt under planning laws. For sites over 30 hectares, planning permission is needed including an environmental impact assessment. In addition, the development needs to be licensed by the Environmental Protection Agency and have an integrated pollution control licence.
Many sites, including some held by Bord na Móna, have had peat removed without any planning consent. This has led to Bord na Móna applying for retrospective planning consent, known as substitute consent.
There are other pressures that forced the Irish Government to end peat extraction, including pressure from the EU, the success of the Green Party in the last general election and the programme for government.
However, these measures have not ended the tragedy of peatland destruction. Central Statistics Office data obtained by Friends of the Irish Environment show that 1,419,624 tonnes of peat have been exported from the State between the beginning of 2020 and now, a multiple of what has been imported. Large-scale illegal peat extraction is taking place in plain sight throughout Ireland, which I have seen, photographed and reported to the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Bord na Móna. This activity is even taking place on Ireland’s special sites, designated as Special Areas of Conservation and National Heritage Areas.
Some politicians, in particular, Fine Gael Senator Regina Doherty and Fianna Fáil Senator Robbie Gallagher, want to exempt peat extraction from planning controls and have published The Horticultural Peat Bill 2021. (The Senate is the upper house in the parliamentary system in the Republic of Ireland, it is weaker than the Dáil and does not have veto powers ). This Bill proposes to overturn the 2019 High Court ruling to allow peat extraction up to 2030 at least.
Their pretext is that Ireland is importing peat from Latvia and Sri Lanka but the amount of peat we are exporting dwarfs the amount imported. Furthermore, we should not import or export peat if we are serious about addressing the biodiversity and climate crisis.
If appropriately restored and revitalised, our peatlands can more dynamically support Ireland’s climate and biodiversity ambitions while highlighting Ireland’s unique natural peatland habitats. As a first step, our view is that Bord na Móna should commit to rewet the landmass to arrest the further loss of greenhouse gasses from the exposed peatland and commence the process of carbon storage and sequestration. This will provide measurable results assisting Ireland’s interim targets of 7% year-on-year carbon reduction.
The “Smart Bogs” project under the EPA already gives us data on carbon flux and on which decisions on land use for carbon sequestration and storage can be made. The UN Climate Panel’s 6th Assessment Report published on 9 August 2021 confirms the value of peatlands for carbon storage, carbon sequestration and biodiversity. (The 6th Assessment Report https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/ Ch 5. States, “Peatlands are less extensive than forests, croplands and grazing lands, yet per unit area, they hold high carbon stocks (Griscom et al., 2017).)
Furthermore, the government’s commitment to designate 30% of land for biodiversity can be substantially achieved by reprofiling our peatlands for nature. The EU’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 calls for the strict protection of carbon-rich ecosystems such as peatlands.
We also insist on strict enforcement of planning controls and an end to exports and imports of peat. We have no desire to see Latvia’s or Sri Lanka’s ecosystems destroyed to provide peat for mushroom growing and garden centres. In a recent assessment, it was estimated that, globally, natural peatlands are being destroyed at a rate of 4,000 km2/year (Parish et al., 2007). People have commonly treated peatlands as wastelands, using them in many destructive ways, without taking the long-term environmental and related socio-economic impacts into account.
The destruction of large areas of European peatlands in the past is repeating itself in the 21st century in developed countries: in Southeast Asia up to 70% of the tropical peat swamp forests have been significantly degraded and natural peatlands in southern and eastern Africa are under severe threat of conversion and degradation (CC-GAP, 2005). Since peatlands constitute habitats of unique flora and fauna which contribute significantly to the gene pool, the loss of peatlands in Ireland equates to loss of biodiversity at regional, national and international levels.
To conclude, consider this fact from the Environmental Protection Agency on the role of peatlands in the climate crisis context:
In light of future climate change, the most important function of peatlands in the 21st century 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) (Dise, 2009). 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 the tropical rainforests (Parish et al., 2007)).
Do not buy peat for your fireplace, garden and do not buy plants or mushrooms grown in peat. Demand alternatives. Let our politicians know that you want a future that includes a biodiverse world and a stable climate. Speak up, they’ll have to listen.
Anyone who consumes any form of media cannot escape the word environment or the words climate change. International conferences, protest movements, media reports of extreme weather events, environmental damage, extinction threats, pollution, pandemic diseases sweep across the media in a deluge of fear and paranoia. The front page of the digital copy of today’s (Monday 8th November) Irish Times has five environmental stories, one on The Guardian, three on the International news page of The Times of Malta, five on the BBC news page, three on the Reuters Breaking International News page. You get the picture.
Corporations are lining up to tell us how committed they are to environmentally responsible behaviour. Car manufacturers promote the environmental credentials of their vehicles. Toyota tells us they are committed to sustainability:
Sustainability is fundamental to how we do business at Toyota as expressed in our 2011 Global Vision. We aim to deliver products and services that respect the planet and enrich the lives of people in the communities where we operate. In 2015, we announced the Toyota Environmental Challenge 2050 to move toward a society where people, cars, and nature can coexist in harmony (note the components of Toyota’s ecosystem). The six challenges are set to go beyond zero environmental impact, hoping to even achieve a net positive impact. (https://www.toyota.ie/world-of-toyota/feel/environmental-sustainability)
Cadbury tells us their cocoa is 100% sustainably sourced (https://www.cadbury.ie/cocoa-life), Lindt promise they will”source all cocoa products (beans, butter, powder) through sustainability programs by 2025″ (https://www.lindt.ca/en/our-commitment-to-sustainable-chocolate). Nestlé makes claims for their impact “guided by our three global ambitions: to support children, develop communities and preserve the planet for the future” (https://www.nestle.com/csv).
In short, many are ‘getting in on the act’. ‘Greenness’ is the new moral code. The main Christian churches in Ireland have formed Eco-Congregation Ireland which “encourages churches of all denominations to take an eco approach to worship, lifestyle, property and finance management, community outreach and contact with the developing world”. Eco-congregation Ireland “ask(s) Christians everywhere to reflect on the beauty of God’s world and to consider what practical steps can be taken to prevent further damage to the environment. Also, to pray for our wounded planet, for people in the developing world already affected by climate change and for future generations” (https://www.ecocongregationireland.com/about/).
There is little doubt that the focus on the environment reflects the situation we are in. Throughout the world, the ravages of our impact resonate in statistics on the state of our planet’s wildlife.
One of the big issues to be addressed is emissions from the transport sector. The British Government has announced a ban on the sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles will begin in 2030. The Irish Government offers grants to make electric vehicles, which are considerably pricier than equivalent petrol and diesel models, more affordable.
Electric vehicles (EVs) are the way to go? According to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, energy breakdown by fuel measured by ktoe (defined as the amount of energy released by burning one tonne (1000 Kilograms) of crude oil) shows that only 10% was derived from renewables (2018 figures). The rest was obtained by burning fossil fuels (https://www.seai.ie/data-and-insights/seai-statistics/energy data/gclid=Cj0KCQiAsqOMBhDFARIsAFBTN3cAC7WUCLI-v7qownEoQFVf3ZIziG18uUxqkeF84VLY2NfQLTSD1ysaAm3tEALw_wcB&gclsrc=aw.ds).
Nearly 80% was derived from oil and natural gas. Electricity generated from these sources is used to power electric vehicles. This is hardly the way to lower CO2 emissions.
Added to that smokescreen are the environmental damage and negative socio-economic consequences that arise from mining lithium and cobalt used for EV batteries and one wonders whether electric vehicles really are the answer to emissions produced by the transport sector and the broader challenges faced by the environment.
At present, almost every ounce of battery-grade lithium used in Europe and Ireland is imported. More than half (55%) of global lithium production last year originated in Australia. Other principal suppliers, such as Chile (23%), China (10%), and Argentina (8%), are equally far-flung. The energy source used to get it to Europe has an environmental cost. But there are many others.
San Pedro de Atacama, in Chile, near the Andean salt flats, lies on the westernmost point of a mining area that spreads north across the Atacama Desert to Bolivia and east into Argentina. Fifty times drier than California’s Death Valley, the area’s parched surface conceals an underworld rich in minerals. Historically, mining companies have exploited its lucrative deposits of copper and, to a lesser extent, iodine and nitrates. By some estimates, it also contains as much as half the world’s lithium reserves.
Here the lithium is dissolved in subterranean saltwater. Above this layer of saltwater is clean water. The mining involves pumping out the brine and letting it evaporate on the surface. This interference with the aquifer, scientists believe, is increasing desertification. They point to crop failures, declining flora and fauna, and diminishing pastures as evidence of the environmental damage wrought by lithium mining. There is also a fear of contamination of the clean water above the brine layer.
The behaviour of mining companies in poorer countries leaves much to be desired. Mining interests helped to destroy the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), stoking up tribal rivalries (the DCR has over 200 tribes) and fuelling civil war following the country’s independence from Belgium in 1960. The Anglo-Belgian firm, Union Miniere Haut Katanga was heavily involved in fomenting the collapse of the new state. In 2011, an allegation was made that the mining interests were involved in killing UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold whose plane was allegedly shot down or deliberately sabotaged in the Congo (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/aug/17/dag-hammarskjold-crash-goran-bjorkdahl).
The DRC has Africa’s largest rainforest but it is being destroyed by mining, among other causes. The behaviour of Chinese state-owned companies in the DRC, where a deal was signed in 2008 to mine copper and cobalt in return for infrastructure investment has been roundly criticised, especially a 2017 agreement to speed up payments to the Chinese and slow down infrastructure reimbursement (https://www.reuters.com/business/congos-6-bln-china-mining-deal-unconscionable-says-draft-report-2021-10-08/).
There are many easily found examples of corrupt activities by mining companies. Some of the more responsible ones engage the services of social scientists to research, in advance of operations, the impact of mining operations on local people. Laudable, you may think, but is it? Corporate social responsibility can be valuable only when genuinely respectful of local people and their environment.
However, according to the OECD, 1 in 5 foreign bribery cases involves the extractive industry. The International Monetary Fund singles out mining as a priority sector for transparency efforts. These are needed. According to a study published in 2002,
By and large, encounters between indigenous peoples and the mining industry result in loss of sovereignty for traditional landholders and multidimensional creation of new forms of poverty imposed upon already poor people. This new poverty is created by a failure to avoid or mitigate impoverishment risks that accompany mining development. Indigenous peoples are suffering a loss of land, short and long-term health risks, loss of access to common resources, homelessness, loss of income, social disarticulation, food insecurity, loss of civil and human rights, and spiritual uncertainty. (https://pubs.iied.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/migrate/G00548.pdf)
We need to be cautious about accepting the panaceas offered to tackle global climate change. It may be the case that the poorer south suffers a disproportionate share of the burden of climate change and the efforts to address it.
The days immediately before October 30th saw heavy rain but the appointed day was bright, sunny, dry, and even warm.
Our enthusiasm brightened by the conditions, we tacked willow re-growth and birch saplings on the southern side of BCI’s reserve at Lullybeg. This herb-rich area contains Common Dog-violet, Common Milkwort, Common Valerian, Devil’s-bit Scabious, Cuckoo-flower, Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Tormentil, vetches, and a range of grasses, all important features for moths and butterflies.
This area is used for breeding by two rare moths, Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet and Small Purple-barred, and a threatened butterfly, the Dark Green Fritillary. The main challenges to the habitat on Lullybeg Reserve are the growth of willow and birch which, if left untackled, will change the habitat from species-rich wet grassland to scrub and eventually woodland. While these habitats are important for other species, these habitats are very well represented on the site and in the general area.
Thanks to the wet peat soils and their shallow roots, the birch saplings were easy to uproot. The willow needed to be cut back and uprooted applying more force and all the plants were placed in piles and later moved into an area of dense scrub to leave the grassland clear.
We took a break for lunch and basked in the late autumn sun, which beamed warmly on us and our conversations. We managed to see a few late insects, including a late Small Tortoiseshell, a few micro-moths, including Acleris notana, a species that breeds on birch and hibernates as an adult moth. Three dragonflies, Black and Common Darter and Migrant Hawker were spotted, their gauzy wings gleaming in the sharp, shallow autumn light.
By the time we finished our work, a large amount of open grassland was achieved. We found some Common Dog-violet plants with mature leaves showing feeding damage, probably from Dark Green Fritillary caterpillars earlier in the year. Thanks to our work, the plants remain unshaded and available for the next generation which we hope to see flying next June.
A very special thanks to all who worked so hard to keep the habitat in the best condition for our reserve’s butterflies.
The UK is one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries – in the bottom 10% globally and last among the G7 group of nations, new data shows. It has an average of about half its biodiversity left (53%), far below the global average of 75%, a study has found. A figure of 90% is considered the “safe limit” to prevent the world from tipping into an “ecological meltdown”, according to researchers. The assessment was released ahead of a key UN biodiversity conference. (https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-58859105)
Here I will take the UK’s butterflies to see how depleted her species list has become. The British race of the Large Copper butterfly was lost forever in the 1860s, a victim of habitat loss when its wetlands were drained. By the start of the twentieth century, Britain held 62 butterflies which comprised resident breeding species and the regular migrants, which also breed in Britain. Some areas were so rich in butterflies as to be meccas for Victorian and Edwardian collectors. The New Forest, in Hampshire, was a butterfly paradise. For over a century, gentlemen, usually from the upper and professional classes, flocked to the forest’s boarding houses and inns for a collecting holiday. Treasured specimens and livestock were traded, and an unusual specimen could pay for the entire holiday.
Local people were gainfully employed in late spring and in July especially, selling insects, acting as guides, providing accommodation, food, drink and transport (pony hire). In some years butterflies were remarkably abundant. Sydney Castle Russell describes a visit during the hot summer of 1892:
As I walked slowly along, butterflies alarmed by my approach arose in immense numbers to take refuge in the trees above. They were so thick that I could hardly see ahead and indeed they resembled a fall of brown leaves.
The summer of 1893 was even better. One recorder reported mass abundance:
...the said bed of the stream for more than a mile was literally crowded with butterflies, the bulk of them being adippe (High Brown Fritillary, now extinct there), paphia (Silver-washed Fritillary) and sibylla (White Admiral).
The great figure of British butterflies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, FW Frowhawk (1861-1946) first visited the forest in July 1888. He was stunned by the abundance he witnessed:
I shall never forget the impression it made…Butterflies were in profusion. A. paphia (Silver-washed Fritillary) were in hordes, the variety valezina was met every few yards, as were A. adippe (High Brown Fritillary). L. camilla (White Admiral) were sailing about everywhere…N. polychloros (Large Tortoiseshell) was of frequent occurrence.
Butterfly paradises also existed on the rolling chalk grasslands of southern England, where collectors sought unusual varieties of the Chalkhill Blue or the rarer prize, the Large Blue. The time of plenty and carefree innocence was not to last. World War I killed many butterfly collectors, whose activities had little or no effect on butterfly abundance. The decisive blows were inflicted by modern silviculture, which removed native broadleaved trees for non-native, fast-growing conifers. Coppicing virtually ended in remaining native woods, darkening the woodland floor, shading out foodplants. Chalk grassland was ploughed up for intensive agriculture, with grasslands comprising Rye-grass and White Clover and crops replacing precious species-rich butterfly habitats.
Changes in the ways remaining chalk and wet grassland were managed also took their toll.
The Mazarine Blue, still widespread and common in Europe, went extinct in 1903. The Black-veined White followed in 1922. The Large Tortoiseshell, still found in Northern France and most of Europe, vanished in the late 1940s, the Chequered Skipper became extinct in England in 1976, the Large Blue followed soon after, in 1979. The Heath Fritillary almost vanished in the 1980s and is now confined to ground comprising c.1km square. The High Brown Fritillary is in very serious trouble, despite some efforts to conserve it, and this large fritillary may well be lost. The Pearl-bordered Fritillary might yet be lost.
Consider the views of Professor Jeremy Thomas on the likely fate of the High Brown Fritillary and Duke of Burgundy:
The most notable casualties (of the deteriorating habitats in woodland) are the Duke of Burgundy, and the High Brown and Pearl-bordered Fritillaries. Despite some local conservation successes, it is a moot point whether the High Brown Fritillary or the Duke of Burgundy is the next most probable butterfly to become extinct in the British Isles (Thomas and Lewington, 2014).
Most of the attempts to restore extinct species have failed. One species, the Large Blue, has been reintroduced but from Swedish stock. The British race is extinct. An attempt is currently underway to return the Chequered Skipper to a single woodland site in England but the butterflies being used are from Belgium.
Many other species, while not endangered, have retreated. Data from the UK that covers the period 1976-2014* shows a worrying picture. A range of species including the Dingy Skipper, Grizzled Skipper, Wall Brown, and Small Heath have declined. The local extinction of Wall Brown colonies across a huge tract of southern Britain is reflected in a 77% decrease in occurrence (distribution) and an 87% decrease in abundance (population size) 1976-2015. Only six other butterfly species show a greater long-term decrease in occurrence and only three have more severe population declines in the UK.
Regarding the Small Heath, the new fine-scale assessment of distribution data (this species appears to be holding its own if one only considers its presence in 10 km squares) shows that the Small Heath has decreased by 57% since 1976, while its abundance on monitored sites has also more than halved over the same period. To put this into context, the Small Heath has fared worse than the Grizzled Skipper, Small Blue, Northern Brown Argus or White Admiral, despite being much more widespread than any of them (Small Heath is the 11th most widespread UK species based on occupied 10km squares in the 2010-2014 BNM survey).
Overall, the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (which monitors population abundance annually on sites) results show that 57% of individual species had decreased in abundance since 1976, although not all these trends are statistically significant. Among the 33 species with statistically significant long-term trends, 61% decreased over the period.
Analysis of the Butterflies for the New Millennium recording scheme data reveals that 70% of species decreased in occurrence over the period 1976-2014.
The destruction and deterioration of habitats because of land-use change (e.g., intensification of agriculture, changing woodland management) are still considered the prime causes of long-term decline among habitat specialist butterflies (species restricted to specific habitat types) in the UK. However, the factors responsible for the decreases of wider countryside species are not well understood.
The figures for the UK include Northern Ireland, where the Brimstone became extinct in the 1980s, where the Wall Brown may be extinct, with just a single individual recorded during the years 2015-2021. The Dingy Skipper and Small Blue are highly restricted in their distribution in Northern Ireland.
How healthy are butterfly populations in the Republic of Ireland? We probably lost one species, the Small Mountain Ringlet, late in the nineteenth or early in the twentieth century. We have not lost a butterfly species in the Republic of Ireland since the loss of the Small Mountain Ringlet if that species really did exist in our western mountains. Considerable doubt exists concerning this species past occurrence in Ireland.
There is much less data available for the Republic of Ireland’s butterfly populations, underlining the poorly funded state of voluntary conservation bodies and official disinterest. There are currently 35 species present in the Republic of Ireland, including three regular migrants. However, the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (this involves butterfly transects, which monitors annual population abundance on sites) run by the National Biodiversity Centre and the casual recording schemes (records from various parts of the island, not from transect counts) administered by the National Biodiversity Data Centre, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the Northern Ireland branch of Butterfly Conservation UK and Butterfly Conservation Ireland are accumulating this data, to be published in The Atlas of Ireland’s Butterflies 2017-2021.
Indications of the status of some species are available. Preliminary findings published in 2020** indicate a change during 2008-2019 in the Small Heath of -51%. The small number of monitored sites for the other species we really need data about means we simply do not know the status of our scarcer species as regards abundance, which is the data captured by the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme.
While individual observations cannot be applied to make a confident assessment of the conservation status of our butterflies, observations in the form of casual records submitted to the databases of Butterfly Conservation Ireland and the National Biodiversity Centre suggest that some species are in strong decline. The Wall Brown is certainly in trouble, declining in occurrence and very likely in abundance. The Gatekeeper/Hedge Brown appears to have a shrinking distribution, and this appears to be the case for the Grayling which seems missing from some areas of the coast it was known from in the past. The Large Heath is quietly sliding into oblivion, alongside the Curlew, as its bogs are destroyed. Another species that relies strongly on bogs, the Green Hairstreak, is also being impacted by the mass destruction of bogs, wet heaths and other wet places.
However, while it must be admitted that while we simply lack comprehensive, scientifically robust, confirmatory data of butterfly abundance decline for most of our scarcer species, we can see the habitats used by butterflies being damaged and destroyed. Across vast areas of our landscapes, our semi-natural grasslands, to take just one example of habitat, are so modified by drainage, chemical inputs, ploughing and re-seeding as to squeeze butterflies and many species else to the few edges and corners that remain, if any suitable habitat remains, leaving sink populations that eventually disappear.
Where agricultural intensification occurs without chemical inputs, such as clearing the land of rock or rock outcrops, importing topsoil or increasing stocking rates of cattle and sheep, the vegetation also changes, making the habitats less or even unsuitable for butterflies. In many areas where habitat is not destroyed, it is neglected and changes so it loses much of its biodiversity. Neglect takes many forms, including allowing invasive, non-native plants to encroach, land abandonment, which sees traditional biodiversity-friendly management practices cease, which changes the character of the vegetation resulting in a decline in the number of species over time. The negative impacts of these changes can be experienced on adjoining land, even where the adjacent habitats have not been directly altered.
Less visible forces are likely to be exerted pressure on our butterflies. Pollution such as atmospheric nitrogen deposition and rising Carbon Dioxide levels are changing soils, vegetation, and grassland temperatures. The impact of these influences on our butterfly and moth populations will, one hopes, become clear over time. If the findings of European research pertaining to these factors apply here, we will need to consider pollution as an influence on the fate of our butterflies.
Of course, butterflies don’t exist independently of their habitats or other species. Sites poor for butterflies and moths are generally low in biodiversity. In that sense, butterflies are a great indicator of the biological health of our country. Cherish butterflies, and you cherish biodiversity. Areas healthy for butterflies are healthy for other wildlife, and for human life.
A place without butterflies is a bad place. A place without nectar, bees, grasshoppers, orchids, birds, clean soil, clean water, clean air. If a place lacks butterflies, it lacks so much more. Turning our backs on butterflies is turning our backs on ourselves.
Perhaps we should think about that?
*Fox, R., Brereton, T.M., Asher, J., August, T.A., Botham, M.S., Bourn, N.A.D., Cruickshanks, K.L., Bulman, C.R., Ellis, S., Harrower, C.A., Middlebrook, I., Noble, D.G., Powney, G.D., Randle, Z., Warren, M.S. & Roy, D.B. (2015). The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2015. Butterfly Conservation and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wareham, Dorset.
** Judge, M and Lysaght, L. (2021) ‘Butterfly populations still declining’, The Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme Newsletter, Issue 13.
October is the second month of autumn and can be a gentle month weatherwise, as it is this year.
Butterfly numbers fall off the cliff in October, leaving us bereft. It is a disquieting and bemusing experience especially when the weather is suitable for butterfly activity and nectar remains available.
While this experience of butterfly scarcity is general across Ireland, it is not universal here. In some southerly locations, butterflies remain active. Red Admiral and Painted Lady butterflies often gather in force in mild southerly coastal areas, feeding on remaining wild and garden flowers before migrating south or, in the case of a few Red Admirals, attempting to breed. Speckled Woods persist longer in south Cork, continuing to station themselves along hedges and grassy hedged lanes, feeding on late bramble, Common Ivy, and ripe fruit. The occasional Small and Large White will be laying eggs on wild and domestic brassicas and the Small Copper will be showing up in warm, sheltered nooks as a few third brood individuals make an attempt at late breeding. There might be a surprise Common Blue and Holly Blue, for the observer in the right place.
A not irregular sight along the south coast during October is the Clouded Yellow butterfly, a strong migrant from warmer regions in southern Europe. Why this butterfly turns up here so late in the butterfly year is unknown, especially as its foodplants have, by now, recovered from the drought experienced in southern Europe in most years. The butterfly can look misplaced in October, its deep mustard yellow an optimistic foil in a land of fading colours and dimming light. Ecologically, it is hard to understand why it migrates here so late because its larval foodplants are in sharp decline and temperatures are falling, factors that militate against successful breeding. This enigma does not obscure the thrill this sight gives the discoverer-the Clouded Yellow is one of our loveliest and most powerful butterflies.
Although butterfly numbers crash in October, moth abundance holds up impressively. There are fewer species in flight, but abundance is still quite high because some species that produce high numbers are autumn flyers. Examples include Beaded Chestnut, Setaceous Hebrew Character and Blair’s Shoulder-knot. These are busy mating and laying eggs and are a vital resource for pre-hibernation bats.
Most autumnal moths are suitably cryptic, matching the more muted hues of the season. While the pretty Pink-barred Sallow pictured next appears conspicuous, it blends nicely with the foliage of trees at this time of year, melting into the crimson and gold mottling found on the leaves of willow and other trees.
The following moths, the Beaded Chestnut, Yellow-line Quaker and Red-line Quaker are beautifully adapted to autumnal colouring. Like butterflies, moths often settle on similar-coloured surfaces to avoid detection by birds and mammals. Anyone who has trapped moths using a light trap knows how eagerly moths are sought by birds, particularly by Robins, Wrens and Magpies. These birds quickly realise that moths are present in and around light traps and will pick off moths that settle around the trap. Indeed, Wrens will enter traps to take the moths but thankfully this is uncommon.
After the moths are identified and counted, moth trappers place the moths in deep vegetation to limit losses. It is interesting that many moths trapped in autumn will fly into trees and scrub when released, which helps to explain why Blue Tits in particular forage among sylvan foliage with such focus.
Blair’s Shoulder-knot flies during autumn and is well adapted to rest on stone walls, tree trunks and fence posts during the day. This moth has colonised Ireland probably as a result of planting Monterey, Lawson’s and Leyland Cypress.
A well-named moth flying now is the Figure of Eight, a species with a scattered distribution and rarely seen in high numbers. Even in areas known for it, this moth does not appear every year, despite systematic monitoring. It is ranked Near Threatened on the Moth Red List published in 2016. Its scarcity does not appear to be linked to foodplant specialisation, because it uses a range of common trees.
Another common autumn-flying moth is the Black Rustic. With its black cloak-like wings, it is the perfect Halloween moth!
An attractively patterned moth that breeds on Common Hawthorn, Common Blackthorn, Crab Apple, Rowan and other trees is the Green-brindled Crescent. This moth mixes a dusting of metallic green, tawny brown and off-white, blending to perfection on lichen-covered boughs.
A moth that flies in one generation from August to October and has the muted colouring that befits the season is the Large Wainscot. This moth breeds on Common Reed (which explains why the species occurs in my garden). The caterpillar feeds inside the plant’s roots and the stem bases.
A real autumn beauty, widespread and common, but not very abundant, is the Merveille du Jour. This moth is a deeper green overall when freshly emerged than the example shown here, and is a real delight for moth lovers.
If you do not have a light trap, check the outdoor light during mild nights. You will not see the same number or range of species that appear in light traps, but you will see some of our moths. If you would like us to identify them, send a photo to us at email@example.com.
Now it’s late September and the heat of summer has passed. We enjoyed a gentle transition from summer into autumn and our adult butterflies and moths are making the most of the opportunity, feeding for hibernation (Small Tortoiseshell, Herald Moth, Comma butterfly), migration (Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Silver Y moth), or breeding (Speckled Wood, Large, Small and Green-veined Whites).
Caterpillars are still present, some very busy feeding before cold weather sets in. In my garden, Oak/Northern Eggar moth larvae are feeding on Common Blackthorn leaves but feeding is brief, with most of the time spent basking and resting. You can see a photograph of this below. While most of my meadow is cut and added to the compost, I left some uncut areas, including the area where my Oak/Northern Eggar caterpillar lives. These uncut areas are refugia for over-wintering invertebrates, such as ladybirds and shield bugs.
A highlight of my garden this September is a lovely female Comma, who stayed for four days taking advantage of my Devil’s-bit Scabious, which she shared with bees and hoverflies. She was easy to photograph, being so focussed, and my hope of having this amazing butterfly stay in my garden is now satisfied. I wonder if she is over-wintering in my mini-woodland? I will not look for her to avoid disturbance, but this is possible. I hope to see the species breed on my nettles, but I am now being greedy!
The Green-veined White, Speckled Wood, and Red Admiral have visited in the past two days, so chances are these are still around in your garden, but soon very few species will be seen. The autumn moths are active on milder nights, and a common species that is flying now is the Beaded Chestnut, an autumn-coloured species! Looking at the photograph below, you will see why it is suited to being on the wing in September and October.
Beyond the garden, there is still insect activity, especially in high-quality grassland habitats. At Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s reserve at Lullybeg, we care for all the species that inhabit the site, and these are all part of the community that forms the connections with the butterfly and moth populations. Common and Black Darter dragonflies remain active, and the largest and most impressive species there at this stage is the Migrant Hawker, a very active predator. Plenty of bumblebees are present, mainly on the Devil’s-bit Scabious, especially Common Carder Bees, some looking very fresh. This species is happy in gardens too, and will even nest in gardens left to grow a little wild. The Forest Cuckoo Bumblebee, shown below, remains active. This species invades the nests of the Early Bumblebee and Heath Bumblebee; both of these will appear in flower-rich gardens. A female Forest Cuckoo Bumblebee is shown below.
There are other late wildflowers to enjoy, besides Devil’s-bit Scabious. Rough Hawkbit is plentiful in its haunts, a cheery flower and much loved by insects. Late-flowering honeysuckle displays its played trumpet blooms on hedges, and sow-thistle waves its yellow heads along waysides and road edges-another hit with nectar seekers.
In short, don’t give up looking because summer is over. There is more to see yet!
Recent developments concerning damage and alien species encroachment at Gortnandarragh Limestone Pavement Special Area of Conservation can be read here https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/2021/08/28/the-continuing-story-of-irelands-biodiversity-crisis/
In 2020 and 2021 Butterfly Conservation Ireland received reports of the Comma from Carlow, Cork, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Louth, Limerick, Meath, Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford, and Wicklow. Over 120 records, some of more than one individual Comma, have been received during 2020-2021, more records than for some long-term natives such as Cryptic Wood White, Brown, Purple and Green Hairstreak and Wall Brown.
The Comma is now an established resident. Confirmation of breeding is known from Carlow, Wexford and Wicklow where eggs and larvae have been reported and it is almost certain that they are breeding in the other counties listed here. It has also been reported in County Fermanagh this year. The butterfly can be found right into late October so there is plenty of time left to see it.
Check flowering Common Dandelion, Ice Plant, buddleia, Devil’s-bit Scabious, and Common Ivy and ripe fruit such as blackberry, apple, and pear. Gardens, parks, hedges, orchards, and bright areas of woodland such as clearings, tracks, and wood edges are all favoured by late, pre-hibernation Comma butterflies.
I had the charming experience of the Comma in my County Meath garden this August and September, where it has been feeding on Common Knapweed and Devil’s-bit Scabious. Watching it at close quarters teaches a lot about its habits. It is generally found as a single specimen in autumn, unlike its close relative, the Small Tortoiseshell. It likes to feed in direct sunlight. When cloud obscures direct sunlight, it will bask on a leaf low down, or on the bare ground but unlike the Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock it is less likely to remain long in such places if there is prolonged cloud cover.
When it remains cloudy, it usually flies high into a tree or near the top of a hedge, settling in a sheltered but open location. It will bask there when the direct sunlight returns and often remain there for some time before resuming feeding. It is easily the most arboreal of all the vanessids, aside from the Silver-washed Fritillary. The vanessids are the colourful species in the family Nymphalidae, such as the fritillaries and Peacock.
Because it feeds alone, it appears to be less vulnerable to bird attacks than species that congregate in abundance at feeding areas. Like its relatives, it will remain in a garden with high nectar content for some days before moving to a new feeding area or entering quiescence for the winter. Unlike the Small Tortoiseshell and occasionally the Peacock, it makes no attempt to over-winter in a house or outbuilding. It needs woodland, probably an area of dense cover, in which to pass the winter.
One of the problems with the vanessids is separating the sexes, which appear alike in most of the species. I am going to look at the Comma in a little detail to try to describe how this can be done.
Firstly, I will look at the size. The female has a slightly larger wingspan than the male. The wingspan range in the species is 50-64mm, with females at the upper end of the range.
Next, I will consider the colour. There are two colour forms in the Comma. The over-wintering cohort (which consists of two generations) is darker than the generation of Commas that breed in mid-summer. The form that over-winters and breeds the following spring is known as the dark form. This form has an orange-red ground colour on the upper surfaces of the wings. Males are slightly deeper or darker in colour.
The short-lived, direct-breeding summer generation is golden coloured on its uppersides; this flies mainly during July and the first half of August. This is known as the light or golden form. Again, males are smaller and slightly darker.
The best way to separate the male and female of the over-wintering dark generations based on appearance is by looking at the underside of the forewing. In the male, there is a much darker band present in the forewing margin, in the scalloped area of the forewing. This is shown in the following two photographs, which show the dark form of the Comma (the form that over-winters as an adult butterfly and breeds the following spring).
Separating the sexes of the golden form (light form) that breeds in mid-summer based on the insect’s appearance is trickier. The sexes look very similar but, as is the case with the dark form, the indented area on the forewing leading edge (costa) is deeper and the tails on the hindwing are narrower and appear slightly longer in the male.
Looking at the underside of the golden form, the male’s underside is generally darker. Look closely at the two photographs underneath this text.
Separation of the sexes can be achieved by observing the behaviour of the butterfly but this applies only to breeding individuals in April and May and July and August when the males are territorial. They perch using an upright, alert posture on a leaf at the edge of a ride or clearing, ready to fling themselves at any nearby male to offer fierce resistance, often resulting in a two or three-way fight, flying vertically with impressive power. Males will also patrol a clearing especially given sustained warmth and sunshine, usually returning to the perch post it flew from unless he meets a receptive female. Females do not pursue each other or males. They spend more time basking, feeding and around nettle patches, where eggs are laid, singly, on the upper surface of the leaf of its foodplant, very close to the edge. On hatching, the newborn caterpillar moves to the underside to feed.
Differences in the appearance of the sexes can be very hard to see in the wild, and harder when one only is seen. For me, it is easier to use behaviour as the distinguisher. However, the sexes are easier to identify than the Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Red Admiral and Painted Lady which look identical apart from subtle differences in the shape of the abdomen. As for the butterfly itself, it identifies the sex of other Commas easily, as can be seen when observing breeding individuals, especially when rival males encounter each other!
Why, you might ask, are there two colour forms in this butterfly? The answer is complicated but essentially it is connected with the breeding and overall survival strategy. The Comma with the darker pigmented wings lives much longer than the light form that breeds shortly after emerging, then quickly dies. Long-life requires the nitrogen sourced from foodplants to be concentrated in the thorax to strengthen it and in the wings, which are darkened to provide effective concealment among fallen leaves and woodland debris. The dark colour makes it harder for birds and mice to find. The golden form Comma breeds immediately so it does not need to have a long life. In this form, the nitrogen is concentrated in the abdomen so that the eggs and sperm are ready for early reproduction.
The factors that influence the development of light and dark form adult Commas have been identified as photoperiod (hours of daylight, especially direct sunlight), temperature, the nutritional quality of the foodplant and the species of foodplant used by the larva. In essence, larvae that receive the best nutrition in the warmest temperatures with the highest daylight hours are more likely to produce the golden form. This means the Comma will fit in two full generations in years with sunny, warm springs as long as they are feeding on foodplants growing on fertile, moist soil. The foodplant mainly (or solely ?) used in Ireland is Stinging Nettle, although it also uses Hops and Wych Elm in Britain.
It is likely that these are the years when the Comma disperses further and has higher survival rates over the winter. We have, thanks to our recording scheme and your records, established that the Comma is producing two full broods in Ireland, the golden form as the first generation followed by their dark offspring. We have also learned that in some areas and or under certain conditions the Comma is also producing just one generation that will enter hibernation in summer, and will therefore need to survive three extra months before breeding the following spring. This may be happening when there is an overcast, cool spring or when an old female lays her last eggs in June which means the resulting caterpillars hatch or develop when daylight starts to decline and the skies are generally cloudier than they are during spring.
This complex breeding strategy provides survival safeguards for this intriguing butterfly, and the more that is learned about the species, the more insights are provided into the complexities of its relationship with the biotic and non-biotic elements of its environment, and in the deeper interconnectedness of the ecosystems.
Meanwhile, we are delighted to see this very lovely butterfly expanding from the southeast northwards and westwards, so keep sending us your records to help us to track its progress.
If you have a question about this butterfly, feel free to ask. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org