A nature-lover’s ramble

One of the benefits of technology for the nature lover is the digital camera. Back in time, developing photographs was time-consuming and expensive and the results often extremely exasperating. You handed in the film to be developed, often into a pharmacy. Then you waited for your photos to be “in”… Do you remember that?

If you do, chances are you appreciate the freedom that inexpensive digital photography provides. Point your camera, shoot and check your image. It’s so simple.

High-quality macro modes are standard on digital cameras, and the quality is often striking, even allowing butterfly eggs to show up well when the image is viewed later on your laptop. This assists identification in some tricky species. The Field Grasshopper, for example, can be separated from the Common Green Grasshopper by the presence of hair on its underside-a digital camera with a good macro mode shows this feature.

There are surprises too. At times a photo is taken but only when seen on a laptop screen do you realise that more was going on than you thought. The butterfly that appeared to be resting on a leaf was laying eggs. A spider had its fangs embedded in the Orange-tip’s thorax; it merely looked to be a docile, camera-friendly butterfly posing obligingly for your shot.

Another pleasure of photography is the anticipation it offers when your walk is over. The walk is over but there is more to look forward to as you contemplate looking at your photographs on your laptop, especially if you think you have the perfect pic that has eluded you forever.

The photo albums are a great record of your walk, your day, your summer, your year. Looking over your photos at the year’s end triggers happy memories of sunshine and healthy habitats and the promise of more to come in the year ahead.

Some butterfly lovers are waiting for the much loved Clouded Yellow butterfly.  The years when this gorgeous mustard-coloured migrant arrives en masse are infrequent but memorable. While it is here, we have a taste of the Mediterranean. We have not had a good Clouded Yellow Year since 2006, or a great year since 2000. Who knows, when we get another great year we might see the Pale Clouded Yellow, a serious rarity here, too.

On a more serious note, photography allows us to keep a record of what we saw, where we saw it and when. This can be valuable information, enabling us to track the health of habitats and species. These photos serve as a reminder of what is being lost and can excite action to address these losses. One day around 2004, I was shown a photograph of a Marsh Fritillary taken in Waterford. “It’s gone now,” the photographer said. This spurred on conversations about the terrible impacts we were seeing on our habitats and culminated in the establishment of Butterfly Conservation Ireland in 2008. Since then, we have brought habitat issues to the attention of the state, planners, private companies and the general public, feeding into the good work being done by the environmental movement.

That photograph was a spur to action.

That is what photographs can do. They inspire, excite, inform, educate, delight. Photography does not have to be a one-dimensional relationship with nature when a photographer ‘collects’ species in photographic form. It can be so much more…

Here, then, are the photos taken during a couple of recent rambles. Please enjoy them. Better still, share yours with us by sending them to our Facebook page.

Small Heath butterfly. This rarely sits still for long enough for a photograph to be obtained but a newly emerged female like this one will perch during an overcast interval.
This is a day-flying moth, the Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet, feeding on Field Scabious, a flower that grows in dry, semi-natural grassland. The moth breeds on Meadow Vetchling typically growing on damp soil.
A lovely Pyramidal Orchid, an inhabitant of dry, semi-natural grasslands such as coastal dunes, eskers and well-drained road verges.
Latticed Heath, an active day flyer that can be found on grassy heaths, limestone grasslands and other grasslands containing clovers and vetches.
A Fragrant Orchid growing on a cutaway bog. The fragrance is powerful and sweet. The flower looks exceptionally attractive when fed on by a fresh male Brimstone or Silver-washed Fritillary.
The caterpillar of the Oak Eggar moth can often be found at this time of the year basking on bare ground. This one measured over 6 cm.
A male Keeled Skimmer dragonfly at the edge of a raised bog. You are not very likely to get near him unless it is cloudy.
A Pale Brindled Beauty larva on Alder Buckthorn. The adult male flies early in spring, the female is wingless.
A Field Grasshopper. A grassland alive with the sound of the males is a grassland teeming with biodiversity for a range of species.
The Forester moth, uncommon sight today. This day flyer breeds in species-rich grassland containing flowers and Sheep’s Sorrel.
This Small Tortoiseshell is laying her eggs on the underside of a nettle leaf. Her offspring will be flying in your garden in late August and September and hibernating in your house if you let it.
A Small White, once very numerous, now less common but still widespread.
The Small Skipper, a mid-summer butterfly is flying now.

All photos J.Harding


How important are gardens for Butterfly Conservation?

Three new housing estates being built near my home contain mainly three and four-bedroomed homes. There are solar panels and the Building Energy Rating is ‘A’ for all homes. The facades are low-maintenance. So far, so good.

Then there are the gardens. In two of the estates, the houses have no front garden. There is a driveway for the car/s. In the other estate, the front garden for some houses is a courtesy green patch, tucked in at the corner. There are back gardens in all three estates. The public green spaces are the chief green areas, mainly grassed with specimen trees. Some of these are native.

In estates built in the area before the year 2000, there are back and rear gardens. However, in many cases, these front gardens are being replaced with a hard surface to accommodate vehicles and for ease of maintenance.

However, there is still a significant area given over to gardens. While there appears to be no statistics on the amount of land in Ireland given over to gardens, there are statistics for the UK, which has a similar outlook towards housing. In both states, the idea of living in a three or four-bedroomed house with a front and rear garden remains the common model.

These statistics are quite striking. Multiplying garden numbers by average area gives a total UK garden cover of 432,964 ha, which, using the standard area measure, is one fifth the size of Wales. Putting this in protected landscape terms, it is the area of the Norfolk Broads, and the Exmoor, Dartmoor and Lake District National Parks added together. One-quarter of the area of a typical city (and half its green space) is private gardens, so the potential national significance of gardens as a resource for wildlife is clear.

The study, Gardens as a resource for wildlife by Ken Thompson and Steve Head makes the case that habitats in gardens are a very important resource for some wildlife.

Take the issue of garden ponds. According to the 2001-2002 Survey of English Housing, 10% of households had a pond, which works out at around 2½ million garden ponds in the country. The garden surveys suggested a higher proportion of 16%, giving a total of just over 3½ million garden ponds in UK gardens. Ponds averaged about 1m2 in area, so if the higher total is correct, that is a total of 349 hectares of standing water. Windemere, the largest natural lake in England is only about four times this area. A 2010 report estimated that there were 478,000 countryside ponds in Britain (and this is only a third the number in 1880), so gardens hold 86% of Britain’s ponds, but only a small proportion of the total area, since most garden ponds are much smaller than those in the countryside.

Despite this, that small surface area is distributed over a large area, so nowhere in our towns and cities is far from the nearest pond. Most pond animals are also excellent colonists, so almost all ponds are used by aquatic organisms; they are a haven for amphibians, aquatic invertebrates and plants in residential areas, including some of specific conservation concern (e.g. the Great Crested Newt, Common Frog and Common Toad). Garden ponds also provide drinking and bathing water for birds, as well as supporting a variety of invertebrates that are an important food resource for other animals.

The Common Frog has benefitted hugely from garden ponds. It readily breeds in gardens and controls slug populations. © J.Harding

This certainly tallies with my experience. My garden ponds hold a range of species that could not breed without the pond habitat; Common Frog, Smooth Newt, a number of Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) including Brown Hawker, moths with aquatic larvae (the china mark moths, such as Beautiful China-mark Nymphula nitidulata),  hoverflies and a number of species that spend their lives in water. Elephant Hawkmoth, Green-veined White and Orange-tip butterflies have bred on plants growing in my ponds or in the wetland fringing the open water. Plenty of bird activity is also part of my pond scene. In brief, ponds are an excellent addition to a wildlife garden as long as they are not stocked with fish.

While no figures are provided for compost heaps, these are remarkable for nature. I remember checking a compost heap in Gloucestershire to see it used as a breeding site for Slow Worms and Grass Snake. It was also used by a Bank Vole, Common Toad and a mass of invertebrates, especially woodlice, ants and earthworms. Many gardens, even small ones, have a compost heap. Let’s keep this facility in place in our gardens.

And so to garden trees. According to the UK study, 54% of gardens contained one or more trees taller than 3 m. The average number of trees per garden was 2.4, giving us a national estimate of 28,730,986 trees within domestic gardens. One study looked specifically at tree cover in gardens, reporting that 11% of garden area was tree-covered, which translates to a national tree coverage of 47,402 ha. The area of the New Forest National Park is 56,600 hectares, but 10,000 hectares of this is heathland and mires, and there are large areas of farmland as well. In fact, the total area of the New Forest ancient beech and oak woods is only 3,692 hectares. (Sadly, a large part of the forested area in the New Forest consists of non-native plantation species which has dramatically reduced butterfly abundance there.)

There are about 123 million live trees outside woodland in Britain so domestic gardens contain just under a quarter of the total number of trees outside woodland for the whole country. Trees in residential areas contribute to ecosystem services such as climate regulation and air filtration, and they also provide important habitats for wildlife. The Sheffield BUGS project, and other work, all confirm that the total volume of vegetation (to which trees make a large contribution) is a major determinant of the diversity and abundance of many taxonomic groups. Many urban trees are of course non-native, but such trees are far from useless for native wildlife.

In an Irish context, we can easily see the value of garden trees given the tiny amount of native trees that exist in our landscape. In the EU, only Malta has a lower percentage of its land given over to trees than the Republic of Ireland.  According to the Central Statistics Office, forestry accounted for 10.9% of Ireland’s total land area in 2015. In contrast, 35.5% of the total land area in the EU in 2015 was under forest cover.

The vast majority of plantation woodland here is non-native, usually coniferous species. These species are of less value to native biodiversity than native trees. Furthermore, the dense planting method used means that the ground beneath is dark, useless for native flora. By contrast, many gardens have non-native trees like Common Beech and lime which do offer value for some wildlife. On a more positive note, many gardens have Silver or Downy Birch, Common Holly while some large gardens have native oak. These are crucial for native invertebrates; for example, the Purple Hairstreak butterfly breeds only on oaks.

Purple Hairstreak female © J.Harding.

While I have not seen a Purple Hairstreak on an oak tree growing in an Irish garden, I have seen one in an English garden. I see no reason why this lovely butterfly would not occur on a good-sized garden oak here if it is near oak woodland.

A well-planted garden, by which I mean a garden stocked with native herbaceous plants, native shrubs/hedging and trees which features a pond, mini-wood and grassland will produce ideal habitat for a great many of our widespread species. If chemical use is avoided, the vast insect resource will mean there will be little if any need to feed birds.

A large area of ‘clean’ land can be developed which will be a help to nature beleaguered by modern agriculture and land drainage. Let’s take some CSO figures.

In 1990 18.3% of our land was wetland. This declined to 16% in 2014.

Our beautiful wild wetlands are in decline. This stunning wetland is in Kildare, close to County Offaly  © J.Harding

In 2014 60.7% of the land was grassland but much of this is a monoculture and much of our grasslands are fertilised using synthetic fertiliser; in 2015 331,000 tonnes of Nitrogen fertiliser was sold and presumably used; only 1.2% of agricultural land was used for organic farming in 2013, the second-lowest in the EU. Ireland had the 7th highest consumption of fertilisers of the EU Member States where data were available in 2013, at 94.7 tonnes per 1,000 hectares of agricultural land. The highest consumption in the EU was the Netherlands at 136.7 tonnes per 1,000 hectares of agricultural land.

The use of chemical fertiliser destroys many plants and invertebrates, including the Small Heath and Small Copper butterflies. Both species are in decline according to the data from the National Biodiversity Data Centre, and a recent study implicates chemical fertilisers poisoning the larvae.

Small Heath female, Pollardstown Fen, County Kildare. © J.Harding.

However, there are many species of butterfly and moth that cannot exist in a garden. Our rarer and more specialist species such as the Large Heath, Green Hairstreak and Dark Green Fritillary need high-quality semi-natural habitats for their survival.

Much can be achieved in gardens and it is notable that many gardens, where these exist as a connected network, hold more species than so-called ‘green’ farmland. Farmland that is intensively managed is typically very poor for butterflies and biodiversity generally.

However, there are other features that impact negatively on the value of gardens in enhancing biodiversity. Many gardens change hands when the house is sold and new owners frequently change the garden. Native plants may be removed to grow whatever is in fashion. Parents with young children may fill in the pond. While animals like butterflies can move next door, plants cannot. More seriously, the popularity of garden make-over programmes like Ground Force encouraged a great trend for extensive areas of paving and decking, convenient for parties, but next to useless for wildlife.  Decking is quite a challenge to maintain, though, and can become dangerously slippy. When gardeners realise these drawbacks they may reverse the trend.

Furthermore, garden areas are being lost to development especially around towns where a large back garden is lost to build a new house or where an old house with a large garden is demolished to build several homes. Sheds, greenhouses and house extensions swallow up more garden space and often the remainder is paved. While people need homes, people in urban areas need greenery too, for fresh air, visual amenity and happiness. Wildlife is part of our experience of happiness too, as well as being important for its right to be here.

Butterfly Conservation Ireland wants you to enjoy nature. Our free leaflet is available here BCI-Garden-leaflet

We also encourage you to monitor the butterflies that visit your garden. Our survey form is simple to complete and we send all participants a report early the following year. The form is here National-Garden-Butterfly-Survey

If you need help to identify any butterfly you see, check our gallery at https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/gallery/ or send a snap of your butterfly to conservation.butterfly@gmail.com

Garden for nature. The rewards are real.

You’ll live a better life for it.

This Small Tortoiseshell is feeding on wildflowers in a garden managed for nature. © J.Harding





Living with Nature

Occasionally I idle away my time on the property websites, gazing dreamily at some of the elegant houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially homes built in the Georgian style. There is something reassuring and lovely in the ordered, symmetrical arrangement of the front facades of Georgian buildings. Order and stability had great appeal to people living in times of great political upheaval of the French Revolution and the great technological, social and economic changes arising from the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions.

Builders recognised this need to cater to their clients’ need for security.  Many advertisements for homes promote the idea that their home is a haven from the perils and pressures of the tumultuous world outside. Houses built in historic styles are especially attractive; stone and brick finishes hark back to bygone times (despite the accommodation for most of the population in previous centuries bearing little resemblance to these homes). It worked and still works. The evidence is that we build what we want.

A related feature is the locality around our houses. In the inter-war period, four million houses were built in Britain, with the bulk being built in London and the south-east of England. The vast majority were built in the countryside. Brochures for these homes which were constructed in historic styles showed drawings of cows grazing in fields, leafy lanes or ducks swimming in ponds.

A guidebook published by the Metropolitan Railway extolled the virtues of country life; Chorleywood has “beautiful woods, a gloriously open common, and a salubrious atmosphere…” Another advertisement promoted health and financial benefits: “Perfect rural surroundings, lovely views, extraordinarily healthy. Properties on this estate cannot depreciate in value”. The gardens were attractive too; all houses had a small front garden and a much larger garden behind.

Not everyone welcomed the expansion of the city into the countryside. E.M. Forster wrote that in the suburbs “nothing had to be striven for, and success was indistinguishable from failure”. Ian Nairns stated that we were “wrecking the environment so that man can see everywhere the projection and image of his own humdrum suburban life – mild lusts, mild fears, mild everything”.  However, some saw the move to the suburbs in a more positive light – the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions drove people into towns and now people were returning to their rural roots.

Another model that was tried was the “town country”.  Applying attractive historic architecture, homes were built along a spider’s web of streets radiating from a central square. All the necessary facilities, including factories, were built along with the houses to create an instant, self-contained community.

The brainchild of Ebenezer Howard, Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire was his response to the pollution of London and the departure of farmworkers from the countryside. His larger vision was of cities like Letchworth connected to each other by canals, rail and road with the protected countryside in between. Welwyn Garden City followed from 1920. Again, greenery was incorporated into the settlement with generous gardens and green spaces to promote health and happiness. A happy workforce, Howard and others including Thomas Bata believed, would be an efficient workforce.

There appears little doubt that we are profoundly influenced by our physical surroundings. Why, for example, do people love birds, butterflies and flowers so deeply? There is an argument for extending this thinking by making the case that people in close contact with nature are happier, healthier and more motivated.  Offering close contact with nature has become an explicit selling point for some housing developers.

A current brochure for one residential development built by Cairns in Maynooth, County Kildare states, ” we believe design can transform the way we live and create a real sense of belonging, one that extends beyond four walls. We go to great lengths to make spaces where communities can flourish; from the green areas and parks to cycle-paths, sports facilities and playgrounds. For us, it’s all about creating great places where people will love to live.”

Close contact with nature is strongly emphasised: ” We have selected a broad palette of planting to ensure points of interest during every season and for biodiversity benefit. Over 600 metres of native hedgerow and over 300 trees will be planted before the first house is complete.”

Supporting visuals include photos of a Blue Tit, Honey Bee and wildflowers, followed by the biodiversity clincher: “We promote a holistic approach to landscaping and preservation in all our developments. Biodiverse planting, insect hotels, native trees and ground cover create the perfect environment for indigenous Irish birds and fauna.”

In the development, signage is used to identify various native tree and shrub species, leaving one with a positive outlook.  More people are conscious of the need to promote biodiversity in their immediate environment, a mindset that is very encouraging.

Yet we are often highly selective. Poppies, Cornflowers and Ox-eye Daisies are great, Stinging Nettles, Garlic Mustard and tall wild grasses are ugly.

There is rarely a more discouraging sight than a gloved, masked gardener spraying ‘weeds’ along roadsides, path edges, garden walls, hedgerow edges. This is dreadfully destructive behaviour, lethal to bees, hoverflies, moths, butterflies and so much else.  I wonder if there is some disjunct thinking here; after all, who would tear wings off a butterfly? One gardener told me she loves seeing the butterflies that visit her garden but that she hates the caterpillars.

A commitment to biodiversity means conservation of all native biodiversity.  In our gardens, where we are in control, we must make room for all the native plants that occur naturally in our local environment if we are to look after nature and ourselves.  In essence, planting for nature means growing native plants. If your mainstay plants are native, you will encourage far more biodiversity than you would by using cultivated varieties and non-indigenous species.

No native nettles, no Peacock butterfly.

No native Garlic Mustard, no Orange-tip butterfly.

No caterpillars, no butterflies.

No nettles
No caterpillars
No Peacock butterfly

Photographs © J.Harding

Separating the Burnets and Cinnabar

Walkers along tracks in sand dunes will often flush bright red moths which flutter prettily in the sunlight before collapsing into the vegetation, often failing to settle long enough to allow a close inspection. Sometimes masses of red and black moths are seen feeding, on other times just the odd one is seen feeding on clover tor thyme.

These moths can look quite similar especially when seen briefly so identification can be tricky. Here we provide photographs and identification pointers of these moths.

Perhaps the most abundant of this group of moths is the Six-spot Burnet moth. The moth is very abundant on some coastal sites; great sites for it include dunes at The Raven, County Wexford, Fanore, County Clare, Stradbally, County Kerry and Portrane, County Dublin.  On these sites, it can be seen in hundreds, even thousands. The moth is day-flying, has six red spots on the upper surfaces of the mainly iridescent black forewings and back-bordered red hindwings. The antennae are strongly hooked.  The larvae feed on Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil and the yellow cocoons are found on plant stems from May to August.

Six-spot Burnet moth © J.Harding.
Six-spot Burnet larva and pupa © J.Harding

The species it most closely resembles is the Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet moth. This moth is much rarer than the Six-spot Burnet and is usually found on flower-rich damp sites where its main larval foodplant, Meadow Vetchling, occurs in ungrazed or lightly grazed grasslands. This moth is rated vulnerable on the Ireland Red List No. 9 Macro-moths (Lepidoptera) published in 2016. Both the adult moth and larva looks very similar to the Six-spot Burnet but it has five, not six spots on the foregoing. Its antennae are not as prominently hooked as the Six-spot Burnet’s. It is rarely as numerous on its sites as its common relative and appears to have a shorter flight time, appearing mainly during June. Good sites include Balydoyle Race Course near Portmarnock, County Dublin and Pollardstown Fen, County Kildare. It is more common in northern areas of Ireland.

Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet © J.Harding
Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet larva © J.Harding

Another burnet, the Transparent Burnet, is smaller than the spotted burnets. The Transparent Burnet has two connected red bars on the forewings which are a charcoal colour but are somewhat see-through. This moth occurs mainly in the Burren where it is often very abundant. It is a day-flyer and feeds avidly on thyme flowers. The larva looks quite different from the larvae of the spotted burnets-mainly dark olive in colour. It eats thyme and can be seen in April and May. Good sites include Clooncoose, County Clare and the Black Head walk, County Clare.

Transparent Burnet © J.Harding
Transparent Burnet larva feeding on thyme © J.Harding

The Cinnabar moth has red hindwings like all the burnets but it has both spots and a bar on its forewing upper surface. The Cinnabar moth is a more widespread species occurs on brownfield sites, coastal sites, farmland,  gardens and grassland heavily grazed by rabbits. It has a very distinctive larva-hopped in black and yellow. Despite its black and red colouring, it is not in the same family to the burnets, being related to the tiger moths. The Cinnabar is skittish, flying uneasily in sunshine but it is really a nocturnal species. However, it is commonly seen during the day and has a long flight season, flying from May to August. The moth is toxic because the larva feeds mainly on Common Ragwort, a plant containing a cyanide compound. Birds quickly learn to avoid the adult moth and larva! Good sites include Mornington, County Meath and disused sand pits throughout west Wicklow, such as near Blessington.

Cinnabar moth © J.Harding
Cinnabar larva feeding on Common Ragwort © J.Harding

We would encourage you to let us know where you have seen these moths. If you see any of these species, contact us by email at conservation.butterfly@gmail.com.

Tell us  your name, date of observation, the species you saw, the numbers of the species, habitat and placename of the site and a grid reference for the site which you can find here: https://irish.gridreferencefinder.com/

Your record can be stated like this:

John Smith  (16/06/2020)

Cinnabar moth 10 at  O159757, sand dunes at Mornington, Co. Meath.

We will publish your record on our Records page. The records will be sent to the National Biodiversity Data Centre at the end of the year so that the records will be saved by two organisations that track biodiversity.


The Rise and Fall of Ireland’s Butterflies 2008-2019

The recently reported increase in the population of the Purple Emperor in England offers a wonderful uplift and an antidote to the gloom and sometimes paranoia pervading our outlook on the seemingly unending downward plunge of biodiversity across the globe.

And we all need a boost, especially in the current social, political and economic uncertainties bombarding us each way we look. And butterflies, the most beautiful animals in the world can provide this much-needed balm.

While our suite of butterfly species on this side on the Irish Sea does not include the Purple Emperor, we do have some good news to share about the progress of Ireland’s butterflies. This good news is backed by science. We have been counting butterflies here systematically for the past 13 years so we have a good idea about how populations stand.

What do we know? We have 35 butterfly species that we encounter every year-three are regular migrants, the others are year-round residents. We have recorded data on all of these species. The findings from the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme published by the National Biodiversity Data Centre tells us that seven have increased in population size since 2008, five species are stable, there is uncertainty about five species while the status of 11 is unknown due to the small number of sites being monitored.

Some increases are spectacular. Based on the 2019 figures, the Peacock, surely our most beautiful butterfly, is up 250% since 2008. The Brimstone,  golden yellow in the male and greenish-white in the female has jumped 191%. The deep black patterned orange Silver-washed Fritillary, our largest native butterfly showed a rise of 57%. The latter two butterflies are benefitting from a warming climate and an increase in the woodland habitat that is developing throughout the Irish midlands as native woods develop on cutaway bogs. The Holly Blue is up 34% on 2008 figures-this looks like a beneficiary of warming too, for it loves to lay its eggs in hot shrubbery, particularly in urban settings. It can even be seen fluttering its azure blue wings in Dublin city centre.

The situation may be a little different from that reported by the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. It appears that at least nine species have increased in abundance. This includes two species not included in the scheme’s increase data. These two are the orange-red Comma, first confirmed breeding in Ireland in May 2014 by Jesmond Harding and Brian Power, now spreading throughout the south and east of Ireland and the Cryptic Wood White, a delicate, slow-motion flyer that loves bushy, grassy areas that must be benefitting from a more relaxed style of land management.

One butterfly that many have seen in abundance this spring is the charming and exquisite Orange-tip. The male sports gleaming orange wing-tips on his upper surfaces which blaze hotly against the otherwise starched white wings. Reports to Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s recording scheme (see https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/records/ ) show many accounts of our prettiest spring butterfly. While it appeared to be so numerous this year, a note of caution must be struck.

This year’s Orange-tip populations were laid down last year when the eggs were laid. Therefore, the 2020 population size largely reflects 2019’s conditions. Although 2019 was not a stellar year, it was a good year. But the boom in Orange-tips this April and May reflects the weather this year. Typically, Orange-tips emerge from their pupae from early April to early July according to the on-off weather in the more usual Irish spring/early summer. But because the weather this spring was consistently sunny, dry and warm the Orange-tips burst upon our countryside in numbers over just a few weeks in April and the first half of May. Their flight period is already over, excepting a few stragglers.

While it is heartening to see such beauty in abundance, we must be mindful of declines. The Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme shows that five species have declined, two of these sharply (Small Copper and Small Heath by more than 5% per year). While it cannot be confirmed due to lack of data, Butterfly Conservation Ireland takes the view that the Large Heath and Green Hairstreak butterflies, both bog specialists, are in decline, especially the Large Heath which is fully dependent on wet bogs which are being destroyed at an alarming rate.

Interestingly, all three parties involved in negotiations on a programme for government, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, made manifesto commitments to conserve and restore the bogs. We shall see…

But we should not wait for politicians to improve the environment. All gardeners can help to protect the commoner species. Avoid using peat. Your garden does not need it.  Don’t use any herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilisers. Grow native flowers and shrubs to provide nectar and breeding sites for butterflies and moths. Build habitats that reflect those found in the countryside around your home. Around 20 of our species have been recorded in gardens so there is much you can do to help.

More information can be found on our website at https://butterflyconservation.ie/wp/ and our Facebook page.  If you would like to record butterflies take a look at the Records page on our website. Butterfly Conservation Ireland is a charity that was established to conserve butterfly and moth populations. Butterfly Conservation Ireland is keen to receive new members to boost the drive to save our loveliest creatures.

Brimstone, up by 191% from 2008-2019. © J.Harding
Peacock has shown an increase of 250% 2008-2019. © J. Harding
Silver-washed Fritillary, up 57% over the period 2008-2019. © J.Harding
Holly Blue has shown an increase of 34% during the period 2008-2019. © J.Harding
The Comma is rapidly expanding its range in Ireland. © J.Harding
The Orange-tip was abundant during April and May 2020. © J.Harding

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.