What are you looking at?

(Note: this article has a glossary for the terms in bold.)

In the pre-COVID July of 2019, I spent a happy half-hour observing a  ‘Common Blue Polyommatus icarus’ in a disused limestone quarry at Hondoq, Gozo. The early afternoon of July 19th 2019 was sweltering, with temperatures well into the 30s Celsius.

The lone freshly emerged Common Blue was staking out his territory, settling on a range of perch posts, all with a commanding view over the terrain. Luckily for me, he was not very active or shy, so I was able to get to within 20 mm, which enabled me to take some photographs.  Even better, he opened his wings so I got a glimpse of his beautiful, gleaming blue uppersides-something this species will not often allow in in extreme heat when wings are usually kept closed to avoid overheating.

When I checked the photographs later on my laptop, I was surprised to see some differences with the Common Blue I am used to seeing. It was smaller but that is not too surprising because smaller adult specimens often arise when their larval foodplants are hit by drought. The blue was deeper than usual but the depth of colour of a blue butterfly often depends on light intensity and viewing angle so this is not particularly decisive.

However, the specimen had small but well-defined black spots near the edge of the upperside of the hindwing and black dusting along the outer edge of the forewing upperside, extending further inwards than usual; the typical male has a black pencil outline along the length of the outer edge and along part of the upper costal area of the forewing upperside.

After further checking, I realised that I was probably not looking at the Common Blue Polyommatus icarus, but at a species identified in 2008 by the Russian Academy of Science, Polyommatus celina. This study revised the status of  Polyommatus icarus form celina to Polyommatus celina. This revision means that the butterfly is no longer regarded as a form of the Common Blue (it was formerly regarded as the celina form of the Common Blue) but as a new species.

The study found a difference of greater than 6% in the mitochondrial DNA between the Common Blue and Polyommatus celina, now referred to as the Southern Common Blue.  This is a high degree of genetic divergence. The Russian study also found morphological differences (observable physical differences, such as the darkening on the upperside of the male forewing).

Southern Common Blue Polyommatus © J.Harding.
Southern Common Blue Polommatus celina underside © J.Harding.
Southern Common Blue female underside © J Harding.

The recently identified Southern Common Blue uses Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil as a foodplant for its caterpillar, as does the Common Blue. On the Iberian peninsula at least, the two species occur in the same areas and mate. Introgression has been shown to occur in the Iberian peninsula.  From personal observation, it appears both species may occur on Gozo too, but a 2011 study by Dinca et al. states that “The two species appear to completely exclude each other on islands”.

Perhaps the reason males were chosen for a comparison of wing characteristics is that these are far more consistent in male blues than in females so that any difference stands out. The Common Blue females in Ireland, for example, show remarkable variation. Some of the variations are shown here.

These two studies highlight the vital importance of conservation, which includes protecting not simply species but genetic diversity within species.  Under the Wildlife Act 1976 Section 11 as amended by the Wildlife Amendment Act 2000 protection of biological diversity within species as well as between species is a function of the Minister.  The amendment arose from Ireland’s ratification of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 1996 – a landmark convention for the conservation of the diversity of natural life on earth. Just one key issue here is that similar-looking butterflies have been found to be separate species. This can have important implications for conservation, especially when a species believed to be widely distributed and not in need of protection measures proves to be a separate and endangered butterfly.  It is vital that genetic and morphological analysis continues to examine butterflies so that conservation needs can be clarified.

This analysis was responsible for separating two cryptic species that occur in Ireland, the Wood White, which has been shown to be confined to western limestone areas and the Cryptic Wood White, a much more widespread butterfly. There may be more to discover.

Look at the following photographs of the Common Blue found in Ireland. While the males appear similar in colouring, the butterfly varies in size, although this is a feature common to most species.  The apex of the forewing often looks more pointed than in specimens found in England. However, females are highly variable. This variation occurs within populations, between seasons, years, localities and regions. Generally, females found in the north and west are ‘bluer’ than those found in the east and south, which are ‘browner’ on their uppersides.

These variations have been attributed to the Common Blue’s ecological adaptability.  The extent of blue colouring in the female may correlate positively with cooler and or damper conditions during larval and pupal development. This would explain the prevalence of ‘blue’ females in north and west Ireland and NW Scotland. In these areas, the Common Blue is regarded as a distinct subspecies called mariscolore. This ranking is based on morphological features, the extensive blue on the females and the brighter blue of the males, the male’s larger size and more pointed forewing. Furthermore, this population might be single-brooded-it certainly is in Scotland and remains single-brooded even when reared in the south of England. This suggests a genetic difference, supporting the idea that NW Scottish Common Blue is a subspecies (or even a separate species?)

My records and breeding experiments and the records of many recorders do not support the idea that subspecies mariscolore is single-brooded in  North-west Ireland.  This does not mean that the Common Blue found in the west and north is genetically identical to populations found elsewhere in Ireland.  The picture is very confused, however. Females referrable as subspecies mariscolore and females referable as the typical (nominate form) mainly ‘brown’ form are not infrequently found together, both in the west of Ireland and midlands. Subspecies are usually regarded as occupying a distinct geographical region, separate from other populations of the same species and having constant and clearly different characteristics. These populations are not meant to overlap with other subspecies or with the typical form of the species. However, butterflies do not always conform to definitions!

In the absence of genetic analysis, we need to keep open the possibility that we have additional blue subspecies or species, perhaps endemic, on our island.  If a reason to protect genetic diversity within species is sought, surely this is one such reason, among others.

Enjoy the beauty below…

Common Blue male Lullymore County Kildare © J. Harding
Common Blue female, Lullymore, County Kildare. © J. Harding.
Common Blue female, Lullymore, County Kildare © J. Harding.
Common Blue, female, County Meath © J.Harding.
Common Blue female, County Clare © J. Harding.


Costal: the front/leading edge of the forewing/hindwing.

Endemic: a species found only in a limited geographical area (The tree Irish Whitebeam Sorbus hibernica occurs only in Ireland).

Form:  any classification below the level of a subspecies that refers to ecological, seasonal or sexually dimorphic/polymorphic forms.

An ecological form is a form that develops in response to conditions in the butterfly’s environment. Thus, a darker colouring is often associated with a butterfly population that lives in a cooler, damper climate as an adaptation that enables a basking butterfly to absorb heat from the sun.

seasonal form is a form that is associated with a multi-brooded species. Thus, the Large, Small and Green-veined Whites occur in two-three broods in one year, with progressive darkening of the dark markings over the season.

Sexually dimorphic forms are differences in wing markings (Large White) and colouring (Orange-tip) between the sexes.

Introgression: in genetics, this is the movement of a gene from one species into the gene pool of another by the repeated backcrossing of an interspecific hybrid with one of its parent species. Purposeful introgression is a long-term process; it may take many hybrid generations before the backcrossing occurs. Introgression differs from simple hybridisation. Over time, offspring with a genetic identity close to that of one of the two species will be achieved.

Mitochondrial DNA: DNA found in a unit of the cell outside the nucleus. The mitochondria produce energy for the cell.

Morphological: referring to the study of the appearance, size and shape.

Subspecies: A population occupying a distinct geographical region, separate from other populations of the same species, and having constant and clearly different characters. Such populations have the potential to interbreed and therefore cannot overlap.




Responsible gardening protects wildlife

Gardening is a great activity that builds health, pride in one’s home and offers insights into the world of nature. Unfortunately, some gardening has created massive biodiversity challenges which could easily have been avoided. Here we look at a few plants you should definitely avoid.

Montbretia Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora is a hybrid of a species originating from South America. Undeniably attractive, it is, unfortunately, extremely invasive. It escapes from gardens and is sometimes deliberately planted to beautify hedgebanks adjoining gardens.

The plant is not used for breeding by our butterflies or moths. Even worse, it grows in dense clumps that completely exclude native plants. It is becoming established in many places around our island, including in the County Clare Burren,  in west Kerry, in Donegal, Kildare and many other areas, even in areas with low human population density. It is damaging many protected habitats, including Special Areas of Conservation on state-owned land. It spreads by the division of underground corms.

Recently I pulled up metre high clumps from a roadside in the Burren and observed that no other plant was present where the Montbretia was grown. It is displacing all flowering plants and grasses. I particularly noted that the highly attractive Tufted Vetch, used by the rare Wood White for breeding, was also absent from areas where Montbretia was established.

The Montbretia along this stretch of roadside in south-west Donegal replaced violets, Harebells, Common Knapweed and vetches. Photo J.Harding.

This threat must be tackled, by all of us. Avoid planting it in your garden-there are more attractive, butterfly-friendly native plants such as Devil’s-bit Scabious that you can use instead.  If you have a weakness for it, never allow it to escape into the countryside.

If you see it in the hedges near your home and want to protect the environment, pull the clumps up-they are easy to pull up and the corms come with the rest of the plant. You must not put the material in the compost bin. It must go to landfill.  If you are left with a large area of bare soil after the plants are removed, sow native seed from nearby by simply tossing it on the soil surface-do not bury the seed.

Another non-native that damages native hedges is Fuchsia magellanica ‘Riccartonii’. This originates from Chile and Argentina and is probably the hardiest of all the Fuchsia here. This plant is out of control in parts of the west of Ireland where it overwhelms native shrubs. It appears to be very difficult to remove without digging it up or treating the freshly cut main stem with glyphosate.

Another invasive that some gardeners love is Red Valerian. Again it is pretty and it is a good source of nectar. But it is highly invasive when it becomes established on free-draining soils and rocky areas such as limestone pavement where it can become dominant very quickly.  It is currently established at Ailwee Mountain in County Clare where it is out-competing Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, an important breeding plant for some moths and butterflies. It has taken hold at Bull Island, County Dublin, on the dunes which are especially noted for their orchids.

This plant can be pulled up but the roots can be hard to remove all the roots when it is established on limestone pavement.

Our wildlife has enough challenges to deal with without needlessly adding more problems in the form of invasive inedible non-native plants that displace important foodplants. Native plants are here for good reasons. They have existed alongside a suite of other plants and animals and formed important biological relationships which must not be disrupted.

If you want to plant flowers and shrubs in your garden, take a look at the species that occur naturally in your area and use these. The local native plants will add great wildlife value to your garden and you can make a real contribution to nature, both directly in your garden and indirectly in the wider area.  You will also be caring for nature by not growing invasive non-native plants.

Our native trees and shrubs are beautiful and some are available in good garden centres. However, just because a garden centre sells plants does not mean it is a good idea to buy them. In our view, garden centres should not sell invasive species. While it is not illegal to plant such plants in your garden, it is illegal to introduce exotic (non-native) plants into the wild (Section 52 of the Wildlife Act 1976 as amended by Section 56 subsection 7 of the Wildlife Amendment Act 2000).

For nature, think native. Non-native plants can ruin habitats. This is happening worldwide as well as in Ireland.  If we allow non-native plants to overwhelm our countryside, sights like this may become consigned to the past.

A Brimstone butterfly feeding on a lovely native flower, Devil’s-bit Scabious. Photo J.Harding.

Free Offer

Devil’s-bit Scabious is a magnificent native perennial and grows happily in most garden soils.  It flowers from August to October and delivers nectar to butterflies, moths, bees, etc. Its seed is eaten by Goldfinches and Lesser Redpolls.  If you would like us to send you some Devil’s-bit Scabious seed, send a stamped, self-addressed envelop to Butterfly Conservation Ireland, Pagestown, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Offer available while stocks last.

Event Reports

Site Management at Fahee North, County Clare

COVID-19 has severely curtailed events this year but we did have two events on September 5th and September 6th in the Burren, County Clare.

On Saturday, September 5th Butterfly Conservation Ireland and Burrenbeo Trust teamed up to cut scrub on the wonderful habitat just north of the Burren Perfumery near the site of St Fachtnan’s Holy Well.

Owing to various weather and COVID-related cancellations, we have not been able to get on the site to manage it. In short, there was and still is much to do!

Ten of us got stuck into the scrub that has encroached onto the highly species-rich grassland. The site contains a very large range of flora, including rare plants such as Hairy Violet.  Mountain Avens, Spring Gentian, Goldenrod, Bloody Cranesbill, Devil’s-bit Scabious, Meadow Thistle, Lesser Meadow-rue, eye-bright, Common Cow-wheat, Common Dog-violet and several species of grass occur on the site.

The main threats are presented by the spreading of Common Hazel and Common Blackthorn, which must be kept under control if the rich flora and associated butterflies are to be conserved.

Smaller, more isolated hazel plants were uprooted while established scrub was cut. This will have an important impact as it reduces shade and uncovers flora that was hidden and unavailable for breeding by butterflies.

We were able to see some Marsh Fritillary caterpillars on a well-developed Devil’s-bit Scabious plant and noted how the plant was sheltered by the shape of the adjoining ground and unshaded, making it an ideal site for the larval nest. These are among the conditions our work is designed to maintain.

After a solid morning’s work, we rested for lunch and chat, while we looked at our work and the lovely landscape all around us. We returned and the group I was with finished clearing ‘our’ patch of scrub.

We finished at 4 pm, tired but happy, knowing we were back outdoors, together, at last! The site will now be grazed to improve the sward so by the time we are back in February we will see a great improvement.

A big thanks to Anne Mullen and Kate Lavender for all the organisation of the event and all the conservation volunteers who helped.

St Fachtnan’s Holy Well is near the northern edge of the site at Fahee North, County Clare.
This Coxcomb Prominent moth caterpillar was found on the site.
Mountain Avens, a classic Burren flower blooms on the site.
Goldenrod, a lovely flower found on the Burren limestone.
This photograph shows a part of the site rich in Devil’s-bit Scabious, an important source of food for autumn butterflies and the foodplant of the caterpillars of the Marsh Fritillary butterfly.

Walk in the Burren National Park,  Knockaunroe, County Clare

On Sunday 6th September we had a fine, sunny afternoon for our walk in the Burren National Park. We had 16 people for our event, reduced to incorporate social distancing.

The partly reclaimed area has developed into a beautiful mix of scrub and flower-rich limestone grassland containing habitats of the highest quality for a large suite of butterflies and moths.

A wet summer did not help us to see many butterflies but we obtained good views of the important areas and we did see some species, especially Speckled Wood butterflies. The males could be observed flying to and fro patrolling their scrub edge territories while females kept a low profile by flying low to the ground, fluttering around grass blades close to scrub in their search for suitable places to lay their eggs.

Some late Meadow Browns and some Small Tortoiseshells were seen along with a white butterfly, either a Small White or Green-veined White.

Dragonflies, mainly Brown Hawker and Common Darter were seen flying over the grassland and along the scrub, picking off small insects in flight. In truth, numbers of insects appear well done on previous Septembers, but the pleasant, gentle autumn sunshine and excellent conversation made for a memorable day.

A special thanks to Pranjali for organising the event.

The Burren National Park at Knockaunroe, County Clare.

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly of the Year 2020

For some butterflies a year gets it just right. A lovely, prolonged almost rainless spring with warm sunshine on most days in April and May followed a wet February. These conditions helped the Small Tortoiseshell butterfly to launch its year.

When it wakes from its hibernation in spring, the Small Tortoiseshell needs warm weather to fly. The butterfly needs to feed, find mates and the females look for nectar to develop their eggs and then seek suitable breeding sites. The larval foodplant, the Stinging Nettle, is not well developed in March and early April so the females must continue to feed and develop their eggs. When she is ready to start laying her eggs, it is vital that suitable nettles exist.  By mid-April this year, the nettles reached a suitable size. There were excellent weather conditions for egg-laying. The sunshine helped females that had laid their first egg batch to take nectar to develop further egg batches and disperse to reach new breeding sites. The eggs, larvae and early pupae developed quickly in the warm sunshine during May, with the first new-generation adults observed by June 1st.

After some very hot weather during the first week in June, the rest of the month saw above-average rainfall and temperatures near the average for June. This helped because a continuation of the drought conditions that developed over the spring months would have reduced the suitability of the nettles. These were now refreshed, and grew strongly, making for excellent breeding conditions for the vast number of Small Tortoiseshells that emerged during June and July.  Most of these butterflies stayed close to nettles and bred. The off-spring of these mid-summer breeders are appearing now, in very large numbers in some eastern areas.

Unlike their parents in mid-summer and grandparents in spring, this generation, the second born in 2020, will, in the vast majority of cases, not breed this year. It is their need to feed heavily in preparation for a long overwintering period that brings them to our gardens and to our attention.  Seeking nectar, the butterfly turns up in warm, flower-rich,  sheltered areas near suitable overwintering sites where they settle to feed. Their focus on feeding without expending energy makes them very easy to approach with some so docile that they can be touched without taking flight.

Small Tortoiseshell butterflies busy feeding in preparation for overwintering are quite tame. This behaviour is diagnostic of a delayed breeder. Photo J.Harding.

These make for lovely viewing and there have been spectacular numbers, with hundreds seen at Pollardstown Fen, County Kildare on August 30th. On that date, I saw around 400 on the bog at Lullymore and Lullybeg in County Kildare and 22-27 in my garden in County Meath each day for most days over the past two weeks (to September 1st). One indication of high numbers for anyone who does not seek the butterfly in its prime feeding stations is that it can be seen in low numbers flying across roads, fields, parks and other areas in its search for food.

The weather conditions we are seeing now with mild air and good sunshine is of great benefit to this overwintering generation because they have the conditions needed to move to good sites, feed and seek places to see out the colder months.

We urge you to enjoy seeing the butterfly because its current high abundance is quite short-lived. A butterfly that needs to survive for several months in the adult stage cannot expose itself for too long. The habit of feeding in large groups makes it an easy target for insectivorous birds, especially members of the tit family, wrens and robins. The Small Tortoiseshell is slowing down at this stage (its increasing weight and falling temperatures make it heavier and slower), making it easier to approach and catch. In short, it spends only a few weeks feeding before hibernating until next spring.

During September numbers fall, although newly emerged individuals that arise from eggs laid later in summer, probably by late-emerging or older females will appear into October. Some of these October butterflies may represent a small third generation, meaning that their parents that emerged during August bred rather than attempting to overwinter.

Up to three generations of the Small Tortoiseshell may overwinter in some years. Indeed, some of the first generation of Small Tortoiseshells that arose from eggs laid last spring do not breed in June and July but enter hibernation. These are probably few in number in most parts of Ireland, but this overwintering strategy of some first-generation adults is implied from observations made of adult behaviour in Counties Dublin, Meath and Donegal. Therefore, there may be three generations of the butterfly in hibernation over the winter.

Regardless of which generation the butterfly is from, it enters our attics, sheds, outbuildings, homes, woods, dense scrub, caves and other sites that will shelter it until spring.

When they awake in good weather, usually later in March we are looking at butterflies that range in age from five to eight months. We are also looking at siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins on the wing at the same time. This does not necessarily mean that all of these individuals are breeding with each other because the Small Tortoiseshell is a mobile butterfly that will travel to seek mates and breeding sites. However, in Britain, it has been found that the butterfly does not travel large distances across the country because Small Tortoiseshells from different regions show a different response to day-length. Thus, larvae that were taken from Scottish populations always produced adults that delayed breeding until spring, irrespective of the amount of daylight they received.  In the south of England, the butterfly has shown the ability to produce three generations.

There is much more to learn even about common butterflies like the Small Tortoiseshell.  A study in the UK found that much of the variations in the Small Tortoiseshell’s phenology (the study looked at emergence peaks) are unrelated to temperature or northing (latitude) (Hodgson et al. 2011).  Whether a similar study carried out here would show a similar result is unknown. However, the UK study did not take account of various effects of winter minima, summer maxima, rainfall, and cloudiness. That is unfortunate;  for example, the issue of cloudiness is relevant because the species is expected to respond to features such as photo-period (amount of light received, day-length).

It appears that the butterfly is faring better in Ireland than in Britain. Here the population is regarded as stable (‘2019, the year of the Painted Lady’, The Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme Newsletter, Issue 13). ) while in the UK it has shown a significant major decrease in abundance of -73% from 1976-2014 (Fox et al. (2015). The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2015. Butterfly Conservation and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wareham, Dorset.). It should, however, be noted that the Irish abundance study covered a shorter time (2008-2019) than the UK study. We can add 2020 as another year when the Small Tortoiseshell abounded in Ireland. Long may it continue to flourish.

Small Tortoiseshell, in our gardens now. Remember to record it for our National Garden Butterfly Survey. Photo J.Harding

Where has happened to the Grayling butterfly?

Growing up in Dublin in the 1970s, a real foreign holiday, and I don’t mean the Isle of Man or the UK mainland, was beyond the pockets of most Irish people. The era of monopolies meant that Aer Lingus could charge astronomical fares, even for a trip to London and this it did.

Irish people with sun-tans were identifiable as a privileged class such was the extraordinary costs of foreign travel. Now even teenagers head off to Spain-the communion money would cover the cost!

For the average Irish family, the foreign holiday was substituted by a day out at the beach. Happily, in many coastal counties, we have some great beaches. If only we had reliable warm sunshine to go with it, we’d be less likely to flee the rain each summer.

When my father announced a day trip to the beach an almost inexplicable excitement pervaded the household. We’d need the beach accoutrements-buckets and spades, fishing nets, beach towels, a picnic (surely we could rise higher than Tayto cheese and onion?) and sun-tan lotion (today we’d pack sunblock). The Ford Escort was loaded down with all-sorts and the last minute checks “Did you leave a note for the milkman?” annoyingly delayed our rising excitement.

At long last, off we went. Songs, mostly those repetitive ditties learned in scout and girl guide troops were sung with gusto-I wonder now how parents put up with the raucous.

After interminable “Are we there yets?”  we finally joined the traffic jam near the beach. Dollymount strand on Bull Island was the beach we went to and it was packed with families.

Too packed. On one such visit, my younger brother disappeared. A golden-haired boy, he sometimes drifted off and this day, it seemed, he did it again. My mother was hysterical. A search was instituted and everyone around us was asked to look out for a “lovely little boy with blond hair”.

After a fruitless scan of the strand, I decided to search the sand dunes. I soon drifted off into my own happy world. Graylings were found.

Large butterflies bounded up from just under my feet (alas, why didn’t I bring my net and jam jar?), flying energetically for a few feet (no metres back then), then apparently disappearing. They look ashy grey when settled with its wings shut but when it pops up its forewing a warm orange underside with a startling white-pupilled black eye-spot hoves into view. It then explodes into flight. I would leap up turning 360 degrees to find it, but by then it was gone.

The butterfly rarely bothers with flowers so seeking out patches of flowers did not help me to re-locate it. The best way to find the butterfly was just to keep going until another one was disturbed. When I got a glimpse of the lovely warm tawny patches on the upper surfaces of the wings when the butterfly is in flight, it was and is a great disappointment that it always settles with its wings closed.

Luckily, it tends to occur in colonies, so you rarely meet just one individual. In some suitable dunes, usually eroding dunes with a mixture of exposed sand and patches of Marram and fine grasses, dozens can be seen. Great sites can be found in parts of the dunes at Brittas Bay, County Wicklow and south of Cahore, County Wexford.

But the 1970s were better times for butterflies. The Grayling, it seems, is not as abundant or as widespread as it was then.  Rated as Near Threatened on the Irish Red List, it has lost habitat along its coastal strongholds due to the loss of rough grazing, protection of dunes by fencing them off which often results in dense Marram growth, invasive species taking over dunes, the development of golf links which changes the vegetation,  coastal erosion and fire damage. Unfortunately, it also seems to be increasingly absent from areas of dunes that still appear to be suitable-this always creates a most uneasy feeling; either something is fundamentally wrong with our world or a subtle change has occurred in the habitat that we are yet unaware of, so a remedy is not to hand.

Recent searches of the dunes at Bull Island has failed to find it. A search of the dunes at Portmarnock revealed a single Grayling and that individual was flying northwards up the beach, clearly on the move. It was not seen at Howth either.

We would appreciate your sightings of this butterfly. If you are walking any coastal area in the next two weeks, please keep an eye out for it. The butterfly can be found on rocky areas that have grassy areas as well as on sand dunes with bare and vegetated areas. It also occurs inland in rocky places. Send us your name, date of your sightings, the number of butterflies seen, place name and a six-figure grid reference, available here: https://irish.gridreferencefinder.com/

Our email address for these records is: conservation.butterfly@gmail.com

A photo of the habitat would also be very useful.

As for the “lovely little boy with blond hair”, he was eventually found beside the ice-cream van where he was handed ice cream by parents buying for their own children!

A Grayling feeding on Wild Carrot. This butterfly occasionally feeds on Creeping Thistle, Wild Thyme and other flowers but it is not a regular feeder. Photo J.Harding.
The Grayling’s habitat with vegetated and bare areas of sand and rock on coastal dunes. Photo J.Harding


In the Moud for Change?

In an episode in the political satire sitcom, Yes Minister, Sir Arnold, the Cabinet Secretary and Sir Humphrey Appleby, a Permanent Secretary, are conspiring to defeat an idealistic cabinet minister’s reform. Sir Arnold mentions the rule of least relevance: the more you talk about something, the less you intend to do about it.

Politicians are renowned for their communication skills. They are professional communicators, communicating, often selling their message, to their consumer, the voter. With an army of advisers, both private and paid civil servants, politicians are counselled in the art of remaining on message. The English language, so malleable, is sent into battle in the form of press releases, online quips, speeches, media interviews and government reports.

We’ve had the National Peatlands Strategy 2015, the national biodiversity and climate emergency declared by the Dáil on May 9th 2019, the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 (awaiting the approval of the Taoiseach and EU heads of government), commitments in the various party manifestos 2020 and commitments in the programme for government, Our Shared Future 2020. The Programme for Government uses the word “Biodiversity” 51 times. The Programme commits to “Review the protection (including enforcement of relevant legislation) of our natural heritage, including hedgerows, native woodland, and wetlands” and to “Coordinate the actions in the Programme for Government regarding peatlands to maximise the benefits for biodiversity.”

And what is there to show for these words?

A skim through the list of sites designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs) will show that a great many of these sites are bogs, fens or other wetlands. The ongoing damage being done to many of these bogs is astonishing.

Let us look at just one example. Mouds Bog, near Newbridge in County Kildare, is a Special Area of Conservation. It is a raised bog, one of our most important habitats and the habitat type that is being rapidly destroyed throughout the Irish midlands.

Domestic turf cutting continues to this day on this site, which, Butterfly Conservation Ireland understands, is done without ministerial consent. Some small areas of the cutover have been reclaimed for agriculture in recent years. Burning has taken place in the recent past, and there is extensive damage in the west of the site due to previous industrial peat production. These are all activities that have resulted in the loss of species, habitat, and damage to the hydrological status of the site and pose a continuing threat to its viability. Within the last 20 years, County Kildare’s last remaining Red Grouse population has ceased to exist on this bog and the Curlew has not managed to successfully breed in there in recent years.

It is our understanding that local National Parks and Wildlife enforcement staff are instructed not to patrol this site or any other protected bogs in the region. We are aware that flights have been made over the site by staff of the National Parks and Wildlife Service to take photographs of the ongoing illegal damage but despite the collection of this data, no prosecutions have been taken to ensure that the illegal activity is ended.

Why is this blatant example of wildlife crime not being tackled? It is not as if the powers to do so are lacking. There are severe penalties for damaging a Special Area of Conservation. Under European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011 “such person shall be liable on summary conviction to a Class A fine or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to both, or on conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €500,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to both.’’

Butterfly Conservation Ireland has written to the Minister at the Minister of State at the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Malcolm Noonan, to see what he intends doing about this illegal destruction.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service contains some excellent, dedicated staff who tackle some very difficult issues. Given the right support, the staff would have the additional confidence needed to tackle these important challenges. The culture in the organisation must change so that it can protect our habitats. This lead must come from the government.

Many of our most threatened bird species breed on bogs and other wetland types. The same can be said for some of our rarer butterflies. Unless the protection of our habitats is enforced, we will almost certainly be looking at the extinction of some bird and butterfly species locally and even nationally.

Words are not enough. Action now.

The photographs below show the ongoing damage being done to raised bogs.

August Butterflies

A drenching in June and July has not helped our butterflies but the good news for gardeners is that the big influx of butterflies into our gardens typically takes place in August up to mid-September. For those of you who are doing the National Garden Butterfly Survey, keep a special lookout on sunny days over the coming weeks. The form is here: National Garden Butterfly Survey

Here are a selection of butterflies to look for in your garden now.

All photographs © J.Harding.

The Silver-washed Fritillary (a female is shown here) is the only fritillary that is recorded in gardens although it does not appear very often. A female was recorded recently in a garden in Castleknock, County Dublin. It may have wandered in from the Furry Glen in the Phoenix Park.
This is a female Holly Blue. Holly Blues love gardens. It really is a garden butterfly; it will complete its entire life cycle in a garden containing holly and ivy.
This Peacock butterfly is feeding on Common Ragwort growing in a garden. Expect peak numbers in the last two weeks of August.
The female Large White, shown here on Common Knapweed, is not as abundant as it used to be. A large and showy butterfly, it should be welcomed even though it does breed on cabbage leaves and nasturtium.
This is a female Common Blue. The female is very variable in its upper wing colouring, particularly in the amount of blue it has. Many females are brown on their upper surfaces. The male is blue on his upper side, with the wings edges outlined in black followed by white.
The male Common Blue is a bright shining blue. While nowhere near as prevalent in gardens as the Holly Blue, the males of the two blue species look similar in flight but the Common Blue can be separated from the Holly Blue by its tendency to feed on grassy areas while the Holly Blue is usually seen on shrubs. A tall, open grassland containing Black Medic can attract the Common Blue to breed in your garden.
The Small Copper is one of our most attractive butterflies. Small but unmistakable, it breeds in gardens with good wildflower ‘meadows’ containing Common Sorrel.
Grayling (female), feeding on Wild Carrot. You won’t find this butterfly in your garden but it is worth looking for on eroded sand dunes and on rocky outcrops, including outcrops on wet bogs. We receive few records of the Grayling and a decline is feared.



Hedgerow Destruction During the Bird Nesting Season Punished by the Courts

Ireland’s hedgerows are a vital resource for wildlife. The vast majority of the country’s hedges consist of native trees, herbs and grasses providing food and resting places for a great range of butterflies, moths, birds and mammals. About 595 species of larger moths have been found in Ireland. Many are dependent on hedges. Indeed, the Programme for Government mentions hedges and contains a number of commitments to review their protection (including enforcement of the relevant legislation). The government have indicated that they will re-double their efforts to protect Irelands’ natural heritage, including our hedgerows, our native woodland, our wetlands, and to complete a national hedgerow survey.

Peacock butterflies often breed on nettles growing as part of a hedge ©J.Harding

Aside from biodiversity benefits, hedges add enormously to the appearance of our landscapes. How naked and characterless would our countryside appear without hedges? It is vital that our National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) enforce the laws to defend this national resource. Their drive to protect hedges was evident when NPWS formerly of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht brought a case under Wildlife Acts before Judge Catherine Staines in Tullamore District Court on 20th July 2020.

The case was prosecuted for the Department by William Maher and the State Solicitor for County Offaly, Sandra Mahon. Mr Michael Cahill, Knockspur, Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary was summonsed under Section 40 of the Wildlife Acts for the destruction by grubbing up using a Hymac vegetation on lands not then cultivated and on vegetation growing in a hedge during the bird nesting season, which runs from the 1st of March to the 31st of August each year. The offences took place on lands at Gortcreen, Shinrone, Co. Offaly on April 09th and 10th 2019. This activity involved the destruction of over 300 metres of vegetation growing in a hedge, and on lands not then cultivated during the bird nesting season.

Mr Cahill entered a guilty plea through defending solicitor, Donal Farrelly. William Maher BL outlined the facts of the case to the court and highlighted the fact that the offence took place at a particularly sensitive time for nesting birds. Judge Staines warned the defendant that the matter had serious implications for nesting birds and other wildlife and told him not to engage in similar activity or come before her again on similar charges. If he did, the outcome would be more serious. Judge Staines then required a €300 contribution to be made by Mr Cahill to a suitable wildlife charity payable by the September sitting of Tullamore District Court in lieu of a conviction.

In that regard, NPWS Conservation Rangers who took the case nominated Butterfly Conservation Ireland.

Green Silver-lines moth breeds on hedgerow plants such as Wych Elm and oak.

Commenting, Minister of State at the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Malcolm Noonan said:

“I welcome this prosecution as hedgerows are vitally important for our wildlife and contribute hugely to biodiversity.

There have been other successful prosecutions this year taken by the NPWS for illegal vegetation clearance and hedge-cutting in counties Laois, Tipperary and Waterford.

The minister added: “It is the department’s policy to prosecute those found in breach of the legislation, including public bodies, and any incidents of illegal burning, clearing of vegetation or hedge-cutting should be reported to the local National Parks and Wildlife Service Office or an An Garda Síochána.”

Butterfly Conservation Ireland wishes to congratulate everyone involved. Their actions ensure that our heritage has the protection it so badly needs. We further hope that this case sends out the message that breaches of the wildlife laws will be prosecuted. We also wish to thank a journalist present in court for sending us the details of this case.


July Butterflies

Summer 2020 is a dull, wet contrast to the sunny, dry spring. But summer butterflies have to get out and get their business done. Butterflies are great at making the most of the brief sunny windows, flinging themselves into the sun, urgency the byword, feeding, mating and egg-laying achieved efficiently. The poor summer of 2009 was no bar to Silver-washed Fritillaries, despite fears that it suffered from a lack of opportunity to lay down the next generation. In the summer of 2010, it emerged in good numbers.

Of course, there have to be some good days. Prolonged bad weather can cause serious damage. Grassland butterflies can be badly hit by unsuitable weather. A long period of extreme, rainless heat can destroy larval foodplants. Bitter cold can ground butterflies, making them easy prey to amphibians, birds and spiders.

A good butterfly-watching tip is to visit good habitat on a warm sunny morning directly after a few days of rain. A burst of activity will often be your experience. I remember showing a friend a beautiful habitat in the Burren in County Clare on a sunny afternoon after a couple of days and a morning of heavy downpours. On this early August afternoon, dozens of butterflies fluttered around wet but fragrant blooms. There was tremendous energy and excitement in the air as though nature celebrated the sun’s revival. Golden Brimstones, chestnut Brown Hairstreaks, gleaming Small Coppers, shimmering Common Blues among others burst into view, happy to be out!

Butterfly life is often short so they have to make the most of their time. Their ability to fit so much into short intervals means that we generally have the most adaptable butterflies in Ireland. As long as our butterflies have their habitats…

Here is a selection of what is on offer in July.

Female Brimstone on Fragrant Orchid.
Female Meadow Brown feeding on hawkbit.
Silver-washed Fritillary basking on bindweed at the edge of woodland. This high summer butterfly is a magnificent flyer, and a stunning species when pristine.
A pair of mating Ringlets. While not a glamorous butterfly it has a gentle charm, bobbing gently as it does on warm, sticky July days. It even flies in the drizzle, making it ideally suited to Ireland’s climate.
A rarity in Ireland, the Essex Skipper is found in a few lucky, hidden corners in north Kildare and more generally south Wexford. This is a basking male. This species likes tall, dry grassland with a warm micro-climate.
Small Heath, a declining butterfly, is on the wing mainly in June and July and into August.
Small Purple-barred moth, a day flyer that is easily disturbed from flower-rich grassland.
The Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth caterpillar feeds on Devil’s-bit Scabious, the foodplant it shares with the Marsh Fritillary butterfly.
A flower-rich hedge-bank in County Meath. Butterflies need wildflowers and wild grasses. Don’t cut grass unnecessarily in summer.

Photos J.Harding


The Dark Side of the Comma

Take a look at these two photographs, taken in  County Kildare this month.

The dark form of the Comma butterfly, Lullybeg, County Kildare. Photo J.Harding
The light form of the Comma butterfly, Castletown, County Kildare. Photo J.Harding

We are trying to understand more about the life cycle of this colonising butterfly. The colour of the butterfly is a major help in unravelling the details of the ways the butterfly breeds, especially the timing of breeding.

The Comma exists in two colour forms, the dark form which also shows a more deeply indented outline and the light, more golden form, known as the Hutchinsoni form, after the famous Comma breeder, Emma Hutchinson from Herefordshire, who bred the golden form named after her.

The light form is a short-lived, direct breeder while the dark form is the long-lived delayed breeder. The light form flies in July and August and breeds shortly after it hatches from the pupa and dies off long before winter. The dark form is usually seen in September and October and in spring. The dark form Commas flying now delay breeding until next year.

The Dark Commas flying now will be joined in hibernation by the offspring of the light form, all of which are dark Commas. This means that two generations of dark form Commas pass the winter in hibernation. These are the summer emerging dark form and the autumn emerging dark form Commas. All the Commas breeding in spring are dark form butterflies.

Until recently, the Commas reported in July were light form butterflies. Now we are seeing dark individuals, a development that is influenced at least partly by overcast weather during the larval stage.

We would like your help to investigate the prevalence of delayed breeding by the Comma in summer. Please send us your Comma records with photos to us at conservation.butterfly@gmail.com.

Your records should be phrased as follows:

Mike Smith (21/07/2020)

Comma 2, one light and one dark at T 11261 25271, Raven Point Nature Reserve, Co. Wexford. Sunny, 21C.

We will publish your record on our Records Page unless you ask us not to.

If you are not sure what form you are seeing, we should be able to judge this from the photographs. The butterfly’s underside is a great help in determining the form, so images of the underside are really valuable.

The Comma can turn up anywhere, including in gardens, but rides and clearings in woods, canal and river banks with Stinging Nettles are the usual places to find it.

We look forward to hearing from you!