Day 1: Lowtown to Monasterevin (27.5 km)

Lock 19
Lock Gate 19 (old), the first lock gates on the Old Barrow Line

This is new country for me. I may have passed through here by car on occasions but I have never stopped to explore. So a new experience awaited me. A short walk took me to Fenton Bridge, where the Old Barrow Line leaves the Grand Canal. A local I spoke with called it The Summit, as it is the canal’s highest point – it is all downstream from here. Fenton Bridge gave me a bit of a feel for life on the river, for there are a few lived-in barges moored here, but only a few.

The next few kilometers took me along country tracks, and a rather gentle introduction to the experience that lay ahead. Beyond Ballyteige the canal became elevated and provided nice views over the surrounding countryside, with the Hill of Allen off to the south. I could not see the bog of Allen to the north, but the few tractors hauling turf was proof enough. The Griffith Aqueduct, carrying the canal over a river below, was fairly cool.

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Blue-tailed damselfly

Walking the tow path is an unusual experience. The slow flowing water and the long straight stretches, away from the hustle and bustle of traffic and houses, lulls you into a gentle mood in keeping with the landscape. As the kilometers unfold the changes in the landscape are not dramatic. Instead, they are subtle; stretches where the view is constrained by tall reeds and sedges but alive with common and blue-tailed damselflies, banded-demoiselle and four-spotted chasers, giving way to sunny banks carpeted with bird’s-foot trefoil and spotted orchids, alive with common blue butterflies and six-spotted burnet moths. There is hardly a stretch of the canal without the scratchy energetic song of the sedge warbler or the metallic ring of the reed buntings in the background – two sounds that I don’t hear near where I live.

path surface
How anyone could think this is a good idea is beyond me.

The issue of the surface of the proposed Barrow Track was brought home to me very starkly, in a way I didn’t expect.  Having walked for maybe four hours along the beautiful soft grass track with lovely wildflower bedecked banks, my feet were tiring. Then as I approached Rathdangan the track suddenly changed to sterile limestone chipping; frankly, awful to look at, awful to walk on, and totally out of keeping with the character of the Track.  How anyone could think this is a good idea is beyond me.

It surprised me that I met so few people along the route. One barge, two men walking dogs, a fisherman with his bored wife and a women looking for a secluded place for a spot of private sunbathing (clearly unsuccessfully on this occasion!) were all I met. I began to question why so few people were using this wonderful amenity, on such a lovely day.  Certainly, one reason was that from my perspective, there was no evidence of any effort made to promote the Barrow Way. With the exception of a rather jaded (and damaged) sign about wildflowers of the canal, there was no effort to promote the canal. Nothing to tell walkers about the canal’s natural or cultural heritage, indeed even it’s industrial heritage. I saw no amenity provided for fishing, swimming or kayaking; and even cyclists would have to navigate the many locked gates along the track. Perhaps before trying to change the character of the Track by developing a cyclist’s rat run, some effort could me made to promote the canal walk as it is currently. At the very least the communities that live along the canal, and who could benefit from it, deserve that.

The only boat I saw on the canal today

An amble by the Barrow

The River Barrow at Clashganny, Co. Carlow

Some of you are aware there is a bit of a controversy brewing about Waterways Ireland’s proposal to develop a ‘blueway’ – ‘a multi-activity recreational trail‘ –  along 112km of the old towpath of the Barrow River. The existing towpath already provides a wonderful amenity, al beit an underutilised one, that many people enjoy because of  its natural heritage, beautiful setting and special tranquility. I feel so strongly about the proposal that I have lodged an objection to the planning application, the first time I have ever objected to a planning application.  I have lodged an objection not because I am anti-development but because I feel that if a decision is made to develop a cycling path (and let’s face it, this is the crux of the proposal) it will radically alter the character of the amenity and will spoil the experience for other users. My contention is that the current proposal does not adequately appreciate exactly how special and unique the Barrow Track is, and that any proposed development of the Track should focus on actively promoting walking and ‘multi-use amenity’, but excluding bicycles. The physical works necessary to accommodate cycling, and the activity itself, would be injurious to the environment and to the experience of other users of the amenity.

Enjoying the Barrow by kayak.

To this end, I am going to spend this week walking the Barrow Track to experience fully what the amenity offers  as it currently is, and to attempt to share with you why I feel it is so unique and special. I will be sharing photographs and posting blogs about the experience over the week, so please follow me on this blog or on #BarrowWalk. Must remember to pack the sunblock!

Brown hairstreak – #19 Butterfly challenge

The Brown hairstreak, one of Ireland’s rarest butterflies (Photograph taken, 30th July 2016)

There is a field at Gortlecka, in the shadow of Mullaghmore in the Burren, which is special. It is not a field in the traditional sense, but more a tongue of land reclaimed from the limestone pavement. Yet this thin sliver of land probably supports a greater diversity of butterflies than any other site in Ireland, for here you can find 27 of Ireland’s butterfly species. So it was to this field that I headed in July to find and, hopefully, to photograph the brown hairstreak. It is not the scarcest Irish butterfly, the pearl-bordered fritillary probably holds that distinction, but the brown hairstreak has a very restricted distribution. At one time it was to be found at a few locations in counties Kerry, Cork, Waterford and Wexford, but now it is confined to a swathe of land from the Burren, northwards to the western shore of Lough Corrib.  There is also a small isolated population on the shores of Lough Derg to the east. It has the latest season of all Irish butterflies, flying only in late July and remaining on the wing until late-September.

The brown hairstreak is an inconspicuous medium size butterfly, usually seen flying over bushes and scrub. However, if fortunate enough to see it perched, it has the most beautiful orange underwing with two transecting white streaks, and a dinky little ‘tail’. The female has large orange patches on the upper wing, which are visible when she basks. The day I was there I saw a few brown hairstreak flying, but none would oblige for a photograph. Finally I did manage to get one photograph, not a work of art I grant you, but sufficient proof that I did indeed come eye to eye with a brown hairstreak.

More species of butterfly can be seen at the meadow at Gortlecka that anywhere else in Ireland.

On that sunny afternoon in late July, as I enjoyed the biological delights of this most magnificent meadow, it was hard to believe that this was one of Ireland’s fiercest conservation battlegrounds.  For here, in the early 1990s, the Office of Public Works, that bastion of nature conservation best practice, planned to build an Interpretative Centre for the Burren National Park. Right here, right in the middle of the most sensitive part of the National Park, the plan was to build a place for busloads and carloads of tourist to come and walk, view and have a coffee, (or as they used say, for a Pee and a Tea) all in the name of conservation.  What must have seemed like a wheeze, to promote employment in a rural area and avail of European funding opportunities, floundered on public-sector hubris. For there was a band of feisty men and women who felt this was the wrong thing to do, that Gortlecka was a unique, sensitive landscape with special qualities, qualities that should not be sacrificed on the altar of commercialism. The ensuing controversy threw the OPW into a state of chassis and turmoil that was all consuming and lasted for five or six years. Hardly a month went by without some twist or turn in the saga, and it even made it to a panel discussion with Gay Byrne on the Late, Late Show! The fate of the Centre was sealed when the Supreme Court found (by a majority decision) that the OPW acted outside its powers and that the Interpretative Centre, like any other public building, should go through the normal planning process. This resulted in emergency legislation rushed through the Dáil to grant retrospective planning to Garda Stations and Army Barracks, and the full reinstatement of the Interpretative Centre site to its original status; it meant the foundations of the building and the car parks were dug up.

It was into this maelstrom that I was thrown, and on this controversy that I cut my teeth in nature conservation. I can’t say it was an enjoyable apprenticeship, but it certainly taught me a great deal. One thing it taught me is that, what was portrayed in that brilliant British comedy ‘Yes Minister’ was not really that far-fetched. For, at one critical stage in the controversy, I heard the then Minister ask my boss ‘Is it at all possible that we might be wrong?’ to which my boss replied, ‘We’re winning, Minister’.

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5, Small blue #6, Meadow brown #7, Ringlet #8, Wood white #9, Cryptic wood white #10, Orange-tip #11, Green-veined white #12, Large white #13, Small white #14, Green hairstreak #15, Marsh fritillary #16, Dark green fritillary #17, Silver-washed fritillary #18 & Brown hairstreak.

The Burren National Park, once the scene of one of Ireland’s most contentious conservation battles.


Silver-washed fritillary – # 18 Butterfly challenge

Silver-washed fritillary, Ireland’s largest resident butterfly (Photographed on 23 July 2016)

To see at first hand what was happening on Ireland’s raised bogs, I visited many midland bog sites in July. Quite simply, what I saw shocked and saddened me; almost everywhere wanton destruction of this most special of Irish habitats, wrought by both State and private citizen alike. As an antidote to this devastation, I called in to Abbeyleix Bog as I knew about the wonderful conservation work that has, and is, being carried out there. Here the local community, supported by Ireland’s state agencies, are restoring this site to its former glory, and creating a showcase for locally led conservation action. The evidence of the care and pride invested here at Abbeyleix Bog for community benefit, could hardly contrast more with the plundering of the same national resource only a few miles up the road.

The hindwing is suffused with pale silver streaks, from which this species gets its name.

Walking along the track that skirts Abbeyleix Bog I was delighted to see, resting on one of the display signs, a silver-washed fritillary. This is Ireland’s largest resident butterfly and the last of the fritillaries to emerge, not seen until late June each year. This was my first for the year, so I was thrilled. As I watched this beauty and wondered was there merit in photographing it on the artificial surface of the sign, out of the corner of my eye, I saw another perched on an ivy leaf off to my right. As I homed in on the second to get a photograph, I disturbed another. Then I noticed there were others, at least ten, basking in the shafts of sunlight penetrating through the overhanging branches. A short walk further along the track revealed at least another ten, feeding hungrily on the purple knapweed. What a delight that my visit coincided with the recent emergence of these magnificent creatures. All beautifully fresh, vivid orange, standing sentinel over the approach to their territory; to their home.

Silver-washed fritillary is a butterfly of deciduous and mixed woodland found wherever there is a rich ground flora of violets, its larval food plant. It can be difficult to tell apart from its close relative, the dark green fritillary; identification is easiest by observing its underwing which is suffused with pale silver streaks, from which it gets its name. Fortunately, both species occur together at only very few sites, which makes separation of the two species on the basis of habitat alone possible, as  silver-washed fritillary never occur on the open grasslands favoured by the dark green fritillary. We are fortunate that silver-washed fritillary is a fairly common and widespread species adorning many of Ireland’s native woodlands, and the population seems to be doing well.

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5, Small blue #6, Meadow brown #7, Ringlet #8, Wood white #9, Cryptic wood white #10, Orange-tip #11, Green-veined white #12, Large white #13, Small white #14, Green hairstreak #15, Marsh fritillary #16, Dark green fritillary #17 & Silver-washed fritillary #18.

Abbeyleix Bog is a showcase for locally-led conservation action

Dark green fritillary – #17 Butterfly challenge

Dark green fritillary  (Photograph taken on 30 July, 2016)

The dark-green fritillary is a large bright orange butterfly with a powerful flight. It can be difficult to separate from the similarly sized silver-washed fritillary, particularly in flight, but  if you manage to see the distinctive white circles on the hind underwing you know it is a dark green fritillary. The dark green fritillary is quite a localised species in Ireland, primarily found at coastal sites where there is herb rich pastures; dune grasslands are a particular favourite habitat. It is a high summer butterfly, on the wing from June to August. The range of the dark green fritillary has contracted over the last few decades, consequently its conservation status is considered to be vulnerable.  In other words, it is facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in Ireland in the medium-term future. Sadly, another bleak outlook for one of our most beautiful butterflies.

dark green frit underside
Delighted to discover a new site for dark green fritillary in County Kilkenny (Photograph taken on 30th July 2016)

Now I am no great fan of forestry in Ireland, but perhaps I should qualify that statement. I am no great fan of commercial forestry, where non-native species are dug into our uplands, destroying peats and heaths, to produce low grade timber. However, the one benefit that this kind of forestry brings is it provides many kilometres of forest tracks which, fortunately, are open for people to hike and cycle. On a glorious sunny day, at the end of July, I took my bike to the forest paths of Brandon Hill, which stands sentinel over the picturesque village of Graiguenamanagh and the Barrow valley. Not long into my cycle, at Deerpark, I noticed a fritillary fly past and assumed it was a silver-washed fritillary. A bit further on, at Raheendonore, where the path descends steeply in a valley, I saw another. Then in a clearing I noticed there were a good number, at least a dozen, feeding on the nectar-rich thistle flowers. Image my delight when I realised these where not silver-washed fritillaries, the species you would expect in these parts, but the much more localised dark green fritillary. A new site for the species, an inland site, and one discovered completely by accident. Super!

It is this sense of discovery that I enjoy most about wildlife. I know that if I follow the path less traveled, or indeed the path well trodden, there are things to find, to discover. An interest in wildlife means I am never bored for each unfolding seasons brings its own bounty. And documenting what I find means I am helping to gain a better understanding of what wildlife we have, and sharing that knowledge with others. For, in a rapidly changing environment, if we don’t know what we have how can we ever expect to conserve it?

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5, Small blue #6, Meadow brown #7, Ringlet #8, Wood white #9, Cryptic wood white #10, Orange-tip #11, Green-veined white #12, Large white #13, Small white #14, Green hairstreak #15, Marsh fritillary #16 & Dark green fritillary #17.

The view from Brandon Hill looking towards Glencoum, Co. Kilkenny

Marsh fritillary – # 16 Butterfly challenge

marsh fritillary#3
Marsh fritillary, Ireland’s only protected insect (Photographed on 6 June 2016)

To photograph the marsh fritillary, the smallest of the four species of fritillary that occur in Ireland, I travelled to the Burren, my old stomping ground. I lived here for much of the 1990s and was privileged to work as a Park Ranger in what must be one of the most special landscapes in western Europe. There are two times of the year when it is best to look for marsh fritillary; in May and June when the adults are flying, and again in autumn when the caterpillars bask in protective webs, low down on the foliage of its food plant, Devil’s-bit scabious. To photograph the adults, in June I visited a site close to Carron village. The site here is managed specifically by farmer Hugh Robson to make it more suitable for marsh fritillary, advised and supported by Butterfly Conservation Ireland. That it took me no more than a few minutes to find and photograph the butterfly is testament to the success of their efforts.  But sadly, there are few success stories like this to relate, as the marsh fritillary is under pressure, not just in Ireland but across Europe.

The marsh fritillary holds a special place in Irish conservation for, despite insects accounting for more than one third of all species here, it is the only insect afforded legal protection in Ireland. And not any old airy-fairy protection, but the full might of European law, under the EU Habitats Directive. So that means it is all happiness and light for the species, right? Hmmm…. not sure about that.

There is little that is straightforward about the marsh fritillary, and there is even uncertainty about how poorly the species is doing in Ireland.  One assessment indicated that marsh fritillary range has decreased by an alarming 50% in Ireland over the last few decades and another assessment has put the figure at 30%. Yet another concludes that whereas there are certainly local-level declines, when viewed at a coarse scale, the range is actually stable.  And what’s more, new marsh fritillary sites have been found recently, mostly in counties Donegal and Wicklow, which has extended the known range of the species. But this is not considered a real increase but a consequence of increased recording effort! Got it?

marsh fritillary#1
Marsh fritillary should be considered the species that farming forgot.

Marsh fritillary is an enigmatic species in other ways. Populations at any one site fluctuate widely from year to year, for no one site functions in isolation, but rather is part of a complex of sites in the landscape between which some individuals will move. Conditions at local sites might not be favourable in any given year, but having a diversity of sites allows overall population levels to remain stable over time. It does mean that the area of available suitable habitat needs to be larger than the area of occupied habitat to allow for the natural expansion and contraction characteristic of the cyclical nature of the species.   However, marsh fritillary are fussy butterflies, and need habitat conditions to be just right for them to flourish. First of all, they only occur where Devil’s-bit scabious grows. But even then, there needs to be at least three plants per m2, and growing where the grass is lightly grazed and not too dominant. But too little grazing is also bad, for invading scrub is disliked also.  In short, marsh fritillary require habitat conditions that are generally only provided by truly extensive livestock grazing systems, and it is the quintessential beneficiary of what is described as ‘High Nature Value Farming’. But the benefits only accrue on land where livestock stocking density is far lower than current agricultural policy and agricultural advice dictates. In this regard I consider it the species that farming forgot.

And despite the marsh fritillary still occurring at many sites in the western half of the country, from Limerick to Donegal, the future looks bleak as it is having to face so many challenges.  But, of course, having a series of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) providing protection for this species means we can control some of these factors. Right? Ah, not really, for as luck would have it, only less than 12% of marsh fritillary sites fall within the SAC network.

As I walked across the Burren on that June day, basking like the butterflies in the spring sunshine, I got angry thinking that,  despite the billions of euros that taxpayers have contributed to supporting agriculture in Ireland, we seem unwilling to make space in the Irish landscape and Irish agriculture for this beautiful and vulnerable creature. That is just downright wrong.

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5, Small blue #6, Meadow brown #7, Ringlet #8, Wood white #9, Cryptic wood white #10, Orange-tip #11, Green-veined white #12, Large white #13, Small white #14, Green hairstreak #15 & Marsh fritillary #16.

Prime marsh fritillary habitat in the Burren with a spectacular display of Devil’s-bit scabious in autumn

Green hairstreak – #15 Butterfly Challenge

Green hairstreak#1
Green hairstreak is a delightful tiny green butterfly of peatland edge (Photograph taken on 25 May 2016)

The green hairstreak is probably responsible for stimulating my interest in butterflies. Back in 1990, when I worked as a Park Ranger at Connemara National Park, I was dipping into a book about butterflies of the ‘British Isles’. Despite its name, it was almost exclusively about butterflies of Britain, except for a comment by the author (I forget who it was) that the green hairstreak was nowhere more plentiful than on the roadside near Kylemore in Connemara. This comment intrigued me, for if the truth be told, before then I had probably never heard of a green hairstreak, let alone seen one.  I read that green hairstreak were to be found at the edge of bogs, on gorse bushes, in May and June. As it was the right time of the year, off I went in search of my prey.

At first, I failed to see these beauties for I didn’t really know what to look for. I think I was expecting a much more conspicuous creature. It was only when I finally glimpsed something tiny and flighty, that I ‘got my eye in’ and entered the wonderful butterfly world that heretofore was hidden from my eyes. As I searched I saw more and more of these tiny, delightful iridescent green butterflies, living their lives quietly among the gorse and heather of the Connemara hills, on the doorstep of the National Park where I worked. From that day on, butterflies have held a fascination for me.

Green hairstreak#2
Rhododendron is now very much part of the green hairstreak’s territory in Connemara

Green hairstreak is a very localised butterfly in Kilkenny; I know of only two sites where it can be found and even at those sites it is difficult to find. In May, I had an opportunity to once again visit Connemara National Park, and photograph this species.  I pulled into a track, and sure enough, no more than 10 metres from the car, I spotted my first green hairstreak. Perched proudly on a Rhododendron leaf surveying its territory, just waiting for me to take its picture.

What surprised me greatly by my visit back to Connemara was how much of a foothold non-native plants now have in the area around the National Park. Back in the early 1990s Rhododendron was confined to some small patches of hillside, but now it has taken a firm hold in the countryside. But it was the expansion of the Gunnera, the giant rhubarb that was introduced to Irish gardens as an ornamental plant sometime before the Second World War, that really shocked me.  I don’t remember Gunnera  growing here in the 1990s but today, it has infested roadsides and hillsides of Connemara, and is everywhere.

It seems like the task of the National Park to retain tracts of land of high nature value, is full of challenges. When I worked there hungry sheep were the bane of our lives, now it looks like it is the turn of invasive species. If only addressing the problem of invasive plants was as easy as tackling the problem of overgrazing.

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5, Small blue #6, Meadow brown #7, Ringlet #8, Wood white #9, Cryptic wood white #10, Orange-tip #11, Green-veined white #12, Large white #13, Small white #14 & Green hairstreak #15.

Rhododendron and Gunnera as now as much part of the Connemara landscape as Gorse and Heather.

The ‘cabbage’ whites – #13 & #14 Butterfly Challenge

Small white, one of the two ‘cabbage white’ butterflies,  feeding on knapweed (Photographed on 25 July 2016)

Gardeners, as a rule, are gentle nature-loving people, but this trait is often strained when mention is made of the cabbage whites. For together with slugs, carrot fly and greenfly, cabbage whites are the bane of their lives, working hard to undo the benefits of the gardener’s toil. And as the name suggests, they adore cabbage and other brassicas and will travel far and wide to search them out. Once located, they lay their eggs on the underside of leaves and upon emergence the larvae, if left unchecked, will set about busily devouring all around them. Hardly any wonder, therefore, that cabbage whites are very commonly found in gardens, in both urban and rural settings, and clouds of them can be seen on fields of oil seed rape, particularly where it was decided to eschew the use of insecticide.

Two different species, the large white and small white, comprise the cabbage whites. Freshly emerged both have a lovely neat appearance, their underwing suffused with pale yellowish-green and fine dark speckles, and a forewing ink-spot partly obscured by the hindwing. As the name suggests, most large whites are appreciably larger than their smaller cousins, but a word of caution, the difference in size is not always apparent. The caterpillars of the small white are all green and masters of disguise, mind you, the green and yellow patterned caterpillars of the large white are also surprisingly hard to spot.

The large white, the second of the ‘cabbage whites’, happily feeding on nectar-rich thistle flowers (photographed on 26 July 2016)

This has been a very poor year for butterflies generally; exactly how poor it is too early to say. I have gone for many a walk this summer looking for butterflies, only to return home pondering why so few were seen. The only butterflies to buck this trend, to my mind, were the cabbage whites. In early July when the second generation emerged, I began to see them in good numbers. At first it was the small white appearing more regularly in and around our garden. Then I noticed more and more large white passing the office window, flying by as if on important business elsewhere. The second generations at this time of year are fortunate to have the nectar-rich flowers of knapweed and thistles upon which to feed, two plants that any gardener should be happy to have growing in their garden. The knapweed-rich  uncut meadow at the Data Centre provided me ample opportunity to photograph both species, so they provided little challenge.

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5, Small blue #6, Meadow brown #7, Ringlet #8, Wood white #9, Cryptic wood white #10, Orange-tip #11, Green-veined white #12, Large white #13 & Small white #14.

Knapweed is a very important food source for all types of insects, not just butterflies, at this time of year.

Green-veined white – #12 Butterfly Challenge

Green-veined White
Green-veined white is one of Ireland’s commonest species (photograph taken on 22 July 2016)

I am generally enchanted by butterflies, but I have to admit, the green-veined white is one species that holds little fascination for me. It is a very common species, flying from early April until October, with numbers peaking in May and August coinciding with its two generations.  It can also be encountered in all habitats across the country as it is rather undiscerning as to its larval food plant; seems like any crucifer will do.  In flight, it is almost inseparable from the small white, so one needs to wait for it to alight to confirm its identification.  Inspection of its closed wings reveals raised veins, accentuate by darker lines running along the veins, a pattern found in none of the other white butterflies.

I know I should not be so dismissive of this humble creature, for we need common and widespread species to make it easier for us to monitor the plight of butterfly populations in the Irish countryside ( as well, of course, of cherishing all creatures equally). Since 2007 the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme has a band of volunteer recorders who each week, from 1 April to 30 September, walk a fixed route (or transect) counting all the butterflies seen. Thanks to their efforts, data from 120 transects can be compiled by the National Biodiversity Data Centre and used to show categorically, which years were good for butterflies and which years were not, and over time to separate between-year variation from long term population trends. Even with this really dedicated band of volunteers, we can only monitoring the species that occur in more than 25 of the sites annually; at present this is only possible for 16 of Ireland’s butterfly species, one of which is the green-veined white. At least it meant that getting a photograph proved little of a challenge!

Butterfly transects
Each year 120 transects across the country are surveyed to give us precise data to track butterfly populations in Ireland

It is interesting to use the results of the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme to calibrate one’s own subjective assessments with the reality, or at least the reality as seen through the lense of a statistician. I am convinced that the green-veined white is the commonest and most abundant butterfly species in Ireland, but figures don’t bear that out. Green-veined white is only the fourth most widespread species after speckled wood, small tortoiseshell and peacock. And it terms of the number of individuals, more meadow brown, ringlet and speckled wood butterflies are seen each year than green-veined white.   And for all my complacency, it is surprising to find that those clever statisticians can show  (with a 99% level of confidence no less!), that the population of the green-veined white in Ireland has suffered a moderate decline since 2008.  Just think about that for a minute – what is this telling us about the state of the Irish countryside? This is a question upon which I’d prefer not to ponder for too long…

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5, Small blue #6, Meadow brown #7, Ringlet #8, Wood white #9, Cryptic wood white #10, Orange-tip #11 & Green-veined white #12.

Orange-tip -#11 Butterfly Challenge

Orange-tip populations have suffered greatly from land drainage in Ireland (photograph taken on 8th May, 2016)

When we moved to Kilkenny 20 years ago, we bought a derelict house in Bramblestown, a large townland of prime agricultural land. The older generation referred to our house as being in Power’s Bog not Bramblestown, yet the map showed clearly that we lived in Bramblestown. This confused me for a time until I found out that this area was once a ‘bog’; not in the turf-cutters-destroying-raised-bog sense, but rather that the surrounding low-lying fields were at one time poorly drained. Once pointed out to me this history is perceptible, but only just. And one of its signs is the Cuckooflower, or Lady’s smock, that grows in a couple of the fields around us but not in the others. This is a flower of damp soil, and is one of the few residuals from a time long gone.  It is a shame that the land here has been improved, but at least the Cuckooflower means that I have the pleasure of seeing plenty of orange-tip butterflies in spring, for Cuckooflower is its principal food plant. Females lay only a solitary egg on each plant, for laying two would be quite a waste as after emerging the young larvae will eat its own egg case, and any other eggs it finds, as it has cannibalistic tendencies.

The orange splotches of the male make it unmistakable.

The sexes of the orange-tip differ more than perhaps any other butterfly species in Ireland, for it is only the male that supports the trademark bright orange splotches on the wings. They also differ in behaviour as the males roam the fields and hedgerows looking for the more sedentary females that keep closer to their food plant. Some clever people suggest that this difference in roaming behaviour explains why it is only the male that needs the orange patch as a warning signal to potential predators that it is unpalatable as a result of mustard oils it accumulated in its body from the larval food plant.

The land drainage that Bramblestown, or Power’s Bog, has experienced over the decades is something that has happened the length and breadth of the country. Somewhere in the region of one third of the country (2,022,590 ha!) has been drained through government supported schemes since the 20th Century, making drainage the single most destructive force that has waged war on biodiversity in Ireland since the felling of our native woodlands. And this war continues, for everywhere, fields are still being drained and improved at a depressing frequency, not grant-aided on this occasion, but sacrificed for the relentless objective of increasing productivity in the name of progress.  It is little wonder, therefore, that the orange-tip, a denizen of damp places, is one of three butterfly species suffering a steep population decline since 2008.  Poor little blighters, what hope do they have against the might of the farming lobby!

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5, Small blue #6, Meadow brown #7, Ringlet #8, Wood white #9, Cryptic wood white #10 & Orange-tip #11.

The Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis) is the principal larval food plant of the orange-tip