Battling for Bogs

Today, on June 4th 2020, we are 117 days out from the date of the General Election 2020. With the public health emergency and upset caused by COVID 19 such a lapse of time has not had the focus one would expect. At the time of writing, negotiations between representatives of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party continue. There are so many biodiversity challenges that face our nation but the most pressing is the terrible destruction of our bogs.

A bog being destroyed for fuel. © J.Harding

It is a deeply lovely sunny day in early June. The sun shines warmly from a powder blue sky, a south-easterly breeze brings a counterpoint to the heat while the fragrances of spring and early summer provide a giddy optimism to any lover of the outdoors. A Cuckoo call echoes from a distant leafy place, skylark music celebrates the season, Meadow Pipits pipe their limited but evocatively wild note.

The bog is soft but dry because it hasn’t rained for a while. It isn’t in bloom yet but this does not worry the numerous Green Hairstreaks, their emerald tinsel gleam shimmering kaleidoscopic greens as the perched butterfly adjusts its position in the sunlight. A battle of the bog erupts between two males-a ferocious punch-up where neither quits. While the boys kick the guts out of each other for the right to perch on a slightly taller sprig of heather, a mated female quietly seeks a tender shoot of Cross-leaved Heath where she will lay a single egg. Single living is important because the caterpillar is reputed to eat its siblings.

Green Hairstreak close up. © J.Harding

Fluttering low over the frazzled ground a Large Heath pauses at a pink flower to sip nectar. He can’t stay long. Sharp-eyed Meadow Pipits and Stonechats are keen to feed their hungry broods. He bobs along, his flight powered by sharp flicks of his tawny wings, moving over flat ground that can look remarkably uniform to a human eye. Except it isn’t. The Common Heather is the forest canopy, the Cross-leaved heath the understorey, the Bog Rosemary with its pendulous delicate pink blooms and the golden Bog Asphodel the ground flora. Sphagnum moss forms raised hummocks and sunken lawns. Pools are patrolled by sinister-looking dragonflies skirmishing, their metallic hues gleaming like newly commissioned fighter aircraft.

Large Heath on the bog surface.© J.Harding

You are in another world when standing on a bog. The air feels different. Your views of the limitless horizon impart a sense of vastness,  freedom and understanding. The delicate, emotive and eternally hopeful theme of Craig Armstrong’s Green Light, with the hankering over lost beauty, plays in my head.

But there are other sounds here. A bulldozer’s bucket slices through the soft butter-like turf, the lifeblood water spilling from the bog which soon dries and cracks, its softness evaporating to craggy aridity. Monster machines spew clouds of peat dust rising from a brown desert, a ruined paradise, a paradise lost. Peat bricks lie scattered across this bare ruined ground, a scene from a bombed city. Soon there will be nothing left. No bog, no Large Heath, no Green Hairstreak, no Curlew, no Red Grouse. Thousands of years of habitat lost.

The aftermath of the blitz.© J.Harding
Desertification of our bogs © J.Harding

How are we as a society responding? The following promises are taken verbatim from the manifestos of the three parties negotiating a programme for government.

Fine Gael A Future to Look Forward to
We will prioritise the following actions in the Midlands, to ensure that we deliver a Just Transition for workers and the region:
• An €80 million Enhanced Peatland Restoration and Rehabilitation scheme to run over four years, which will restore thousands of hectares of Bord na Móna bogs to a high standard, so that they can store carbon, foster biodiversity and provide 200 jobs. This will be funded through the existing but repurposed electricity PSO levy, which will be subject to approval from the European Commission.
• An €11 million Just Transition Fund in 2020 targeted at the Midlands to fund retraining and reskilling workers and to assist local communities and businesses in the midlands in adjusting to the low carbon-transition
• A €5 million fund in 2020 for the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) to restore 1,800 hectares of non-Bord na Móna bogs in seven counties, creating 70 jobs in year one, rising to 100 as the programme develops
Our vision is that the Midlands should become a leader in other areas of the green economy, such as retro-fitting. Also, bog rehabilitation and tourism will ensure that our bogs continue to be a source of employment. To this end, we will progress the idea of a new national peatlands park and centre in the Midlands, in order to exhibit the environmental and social impact of bogs on Ireland’s natural and built heritage and to showcase the story of our bogs to the world.
Restoration of our bogs A major restoration effort has been underway on our raised bogs since 2011. We will continue to invest in peatlands restoration, rewetting and restoring native peatlands. This will include funding to community groups to develop projects that promote our peatlands. For further details, please see the ‘Protecting our environment’ chapter.

Fianna Fáil An Ireland for All
A single reference to “peatland restoration” on page 105 of the manifesto.

Green Party Towards 2020 A Decade of Change
There is no single answer to preventing flooding. Rather we propose a combination of solutions: using local knowledge of past flooding and water movements, restoring floodplains, using existing bogs as soakage areas as well as replanting some of them, planting native woodland in appropriate areas, and water management.
End denudation of our upland and blanket bogs and introduce a nationwide scheme to rewet and restore all of our raised and blanket bogs. This will help in flood prevention and biodiversity restoration and is also one of our most effective climate mitigation measures.

Butterfly Conservation Ireland has written to the negotiating teams of the three parties calling on them to conserve our bogs. The three manifestos differ in detail but all agree on peatland restoration.

Butterfly Conservation Ireland wants all peatlands to be protected from all damage. We want all peatlands that have been damaged to be restored. The government can find money when it wants to. It can find the money for our bogs. The benefits of bog restoration for biodiversity, education, recreation, tourism, air quality, carbon emission reduction, flood control, insurance costs and pollution reduction are enormous. Peat cutting is anti-social. It is time to stop.

The Green Hairstreak-his future is in our hands.© J.Harding

End of May moths

A wonderful spell of warm, settled weather is upon us again and moths have responded by emerging in good numbers. Not only are the moths numerous, many nocturnal moths are appearing during daylight, probably roused by the heat during the warmest parts of the day and also flying in the evening, usually within the shaded areas.  Below is a small selection of moths that are out now.

Look at how each differs in size, shape as well as in colour.  The variety is amazing. We have cream, yellow, grey, white, mustard, canary yellow, peach, pink and browns in a range of patterns and wing shapes. Every species has its habitat niche, its preferred flight time, its story. All of these are attracted to light, all are found in ‘good’ gardens, gardens that cater to their needs by growing plenty of native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants.

The Blue tit nesting in the eaves above front bedroom window, the Starlings in my chimney and attic, the Blackbird in my bramble and wherever my Blackcaps have made their nest are shovelling up beakfuls of caterpillars and adult moths. Look after moths and you look after the birds. The birds sing to me all day long so I am looked after too!  We are all in it together!

One tip: water your flowering plants in dry weather.  Do this in the evening when the heat of the day has passed. This allows for nectar release for thirsty moths and butterflies.

Small Magpie. © J.Harding
Elephant Hawkmoth © J.Harding
Ghost Swift female © J.Harding
Brimstone moth © J.Harding
Buff Ermine © J.Harding
Lunar Thorn © J.Harding
Miller © J.Harding

Events Cancellation

The restrictions on travel and the social distancing requirements established by the government to control Covid-19 means that the events we planned to hold from May 30th onwards are cancelled or postponed.  When the advice provided by the government permits us to hold events safely we will resume the balance of our events programme. Butterfly Conservation Ireland regrets any disappointment caused.

We urge all of our members and friends to continue to enjoy the butterflies in our home ranges, including the butterflies that visit our gardens. The year 2020 is developing into a special year for butterflies. We hope you make the most of this wonderful weather to enjoy our butterflies and nature generally

Butterfly Conservation Ireland

Green Hairstreak

Spring Butterflies

May is the final month of spring and perhaps the fulfilment of the season. May has 22 butterflies in flight so there is so much to see. Admittedly, some, such as the Brimstone, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell are on the wane but others, such as the Common Blue, Dingy Skipper, Marsh Fritillary, Small Copper and Green Hairstreak are in their palmy days. These are shown below. Which do you think is the most beautiful?

Few would opt for the Dingy Skipper but I like it! While very muted, the pattern is subtle and intricate, like embroidery. The butterfly also has a teddy bear appearance, a cuddly, friendly-looking butterfly.  It is not at all common in Ireland, found mainly in scattered locations in a band across central Ireland stretching mainly in a line from north Clare to south Mayo and across the country towards but not including Dublin (it was found in Dublin in the past).  It favours limestone areas with plenty of bare soil, rocky areas and cutaway bogs with dry areas with bare, sparsely vegetated peat. It is a low-flying and fast-flying butterfly. The males react to the appearance of any small butterfly by darting out to investigate it. Males fight each other and other butterflies, such as Common Blues and Small Coppers while mated females keep a low profile, dropping into vegetation when pursued by a male. After he gives up she flutters low over the sparse turf seeking out Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil to lay her eggs.

The Common Blue is an obviously attractive and very active conspicuous inhabitant of unfertilised grassland, with males dashing across the turf, chasing other males and females. A point of interest is the sexual dimorphism in the butterfly with the females very variable in the amount of blue scaling on its upper surfaces. Some females are almost fully brown on the upper surfaces of their wings while at the other extreme some females are fully blue aside with the outer edges which contain orange chevron markings which vary in how well defined these are.

Now we move on to the Marsh Fritillary. This species is widely distributed but endangered. Its colonies are usually small, with sites quite small in area but there are usually a group of colonies in a landscape that is connected by individuals flying between the breeding sites in some years, especially in 2018 when prolonged good weather encouraged dispersal.  The Marsh Fritillary has a large European range and is very variable in appearance. I know of no more attractive form than the one we have in Ireland where many individuals have a stronger contrast between the dark and bright colours on the wings than the butterflies found in Europe where a more uniform orange ground colour dominates the upper surfaces.  Appreciate this lovely butterfly if you are in a position to see it-it is highly localised and badly neglected by the state which is supposed to protect it. For example, Ireland has designated 16 Natura 2000 sites (a network of nature protection areas in the European Union) for the Marsh Fritillary. Of these areas,  it is absent or only sporadic in its occurrence in at least five of the sites. In two of these sites, Ballynafagh Lake and Killarney National Park the butterfly has been extinct for over 20 and 30 years respectively. In addition, some large sites with large populations of the butterfly have no legal protection, such as Yellow Bog, west of Loughrea.

The Small Copper is, happily, a common and widespread but rarely abundant butterfly. Although much of the literature states that it is usually found in small numbers, it can be abundant with some good sorrel-rich sites showing 50 or more butterflies in a single count-always exciting to see this shining copper in numbers. It is very vulnerable to fertiliser application-even if sorrels survive the butterfly disappears. In unfertilised fields, even on grasslands that are heavily grazed, it appears year after year while it disappears even from adjoining fertilised areas containing the same habitat.

A very elusive spring butterfly which is rarely seen by most is the Green Hairstreak. This butterfly always settles with closed wings but its upper surfaces are chocolate brown. When in flight it looks brown so observers should look for a brown butterfly tumbling and spinning at a great pace in the sunshine. Tap gorse or willow at the drier areas of a bog and step back-it usually flies out immediately but often returns to its original perch point. It is a dynamic, aggressive butterfly and is often abundant in discrete areas of its boggy habitats. It can also be found on open bog but usually occurs on bogs containing scrub. The worry for this still widespread butterfly is drainage and destruction of peat bogs-these must be protected to preserve this gorgeous species.

Common Blue male.© J.Harding.
Common Blue female. © J.Harding.
Marsh Fritillary male. Sexes look similar, female larger. © J.Harding.
Green Hairstreak on gorse. Sexes look alike. © J.Harding.
Dingy Skipper female. Sexes look alike. © J.Harding.
Small Copper male.  Sexes look alike. © J.Harding.

Butterflies in time of War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Take a closer look

A Bird, came down the Walk – Emily Dickinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Copper. Photo J.Harding






Variety and Genetic Diversity

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

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

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

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

Lá Barr Buí

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unseen, Unknown, Gone Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unseen, Unknown, Gone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what we don’t see is not happening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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