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

The Wood Whites – #9 & #10 Butterfly Challenge

Cryptic wood white (Leptidea juvernica) – the newest addition to Irish species list (Photograph taken on 3 June 2016)

If you happen to see a small white butterfly flying weakly in dampish shaded areas, you are almost certainly looking at a wood white. For wood white keep close to scrub and bushes where shade and dappled sunlight meet. Unlike the other species of white, these are dainty with a lovely rounded profile and, and when seen close up, have a delicate white feathered trim around the wings.  They also always rest with their wings closed to make most of their greenish yellow mottled underwings.

Wood white in the Burren (Leptidea sinapis) (Photograph taken on 6th June, 2016)

At Glencoum, the forested hill to the south-east of Bramblestown, wood white are a common spring butterfly.  An evening walk sees them settling down for the night on the grasses and foliage along the forest path. Their bodies, like pearls, reflecting the last of the sun’s rays before sunset. At the other side of the country, in the Burren, they are also a common sight flying in the shade of the hazel scrub. When I visited the magnificent Slievecarron National Nature Reserve in May, they were the only species of white butterfly to be seen, in amongst the shade of the bushes, unperturbed by the westerly winds that whipped across the exposed limestone.

Cryptic wood white (Leptidea jurvenica) at Glencoum, Co. Kilkenny (Photograph taken on 3 June, 2016)

Although the wood whites at the two locations look and behave identical, at least to my eyes, these are two distinct species. The wood white seen in the Burren and adjoining areas in County Galway, is the species Leptidea sinapis. But up until very recently, until 2011 in fact, it was thought that the wood white found in the rest of the country was Réal’s wood white, Leptidea reali. But a study using genetic analysis to understand in more detail the relationships between L. sinapis and L. reali discovered that lurking within the L. reali was another species, L. juvernica or cryptic wood white. And it was this species, cryptic wood white L. juvernica which occurs in the rest of Ireland, not Réal’s wood white. It is remarkable to think that even with butterflies, the best studied insect group of all, there are still some fairly fundamental discoveries to be made. Mind you, should you feel the urge to take up your butterfly net to go off and make new discoveries, you are likely to be disappointed. The modern day entomologist is much more likely to be equipped with an electron microscope and a DNA barcode than a butterfly net. But, at least it means that I can get two for the price of one, wood white #9 and cryptic wood white #10.

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.

Wood white, settling down for the night

Ringlet – #8 Butterfly Challenge

27834024960_2b854cc6dc_k (1)
The ringlet is an elegent butterfly with fine ringed eyespots on a all wings (Photograph taken 5 July 2016)

Ringlet is the other brown butterfly that is very common at this time of the year. It is an elegant butterfly, smokey brown in colour with a fine white trim to its wings. Each of the four wings are adorned with  delicate ringed eyespots, from which it gets its name. It is most common in damp grassland and flies from late June to early August. Ringlet is not all that abundant around us in Bramblestown, on the well drained soils of mid Kilkenny, but on the high ground north of Paulstown, on the wet land of the Castlecomer Plateau, they must be the most common species seen in July. A walk through the fields where the grass has not yet been cut, results in three or four disturbed with each step.

Rushes dominate the grassland here. But one field in particular caught my eye where some cattle grazed amid meadowsweet, ragged robin, knapweed, self-heal and hawk’sbeards. While walking around this field trying to photograph a ringlet, I was approached by the farmer, intrigued by what I was doing. When I told him what I was at, his eyes lit up, and all he wanted to talk to me about was wildlife. A native of Bray, he bought the farm here when he retired. He is keen that his land provides a haven for wildlife, as nature is important to him. He tells me ‘it costs him money to farm’ as there is no profit in farming these days. I don’t know about the economics, but his land is teeming with wildlife and it is lovely to see his cattle grazing a species-rich grass sward. He is very grateful for the supplementary funding he receives through the agri-environment GLAS scheme, but does question the value of what he is asked to do under the scheme.28023904426_65e0f1f318_k He doesn’t see the merit of building nest boxes, when there are plenty of natural cavities in the trees and buildings on the farm, the placement of sand for nesting bees is a bit of a mystery to him, as his hedgerow banks are pockmarked with holes, evidence of a healthy bee population. And more recently he has been asked to fence off some land to protect it as a ‘wildlife habitat’. But, he welcomes the money, so this is what he will do.

This encounter highlighted to me how under the agri-environment scheme wildlife is seen as very much separate from farming, and that interventions have to be with things that are easily ‘administered’; number of nest boxes erected, number of sand banks made, length of area fenced. Wouldn’t it be an easier world if the farmer could just receive the agri-environment payment as a thank you for farming the way he does? All it would take is for the administrators to get out from behind their paperwork, and just see the results achieved by low intensity farming at first hand.

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5, Small blue #6, Meadow brown #7 & Ringlet #8.

meadow Pulst

Meadow brown – #7 Butterfly Challenge

Meadow brown
The meadow brown is not one of Ireland’s most flamboyant butterflies (photograph taken on 3 July 2016)

I understand that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but let’s face it, the meadow brown doesn’t have much going for it! Not only is it a fairly nondescript brown butterfly, with only an eyespot and splash of orange to enliven its appearance, it is also very common. Wherever there is grassland with a bit of structural diversity it will be found flying from June through to August.

Meadow brown have benefited greatly from our biodiversity area (photograph taken 28 June 2016)

I didn’t have far to go to photograph this species, just outside my office window, in fact. And even managed to get the photograph during work time (Oops, sorry boss!). For we have left the grass around the Data Centre grow to encourage biodiversity. The cutting regime couldn’t be simpler; the grass is cut once in autumn and taken away. In a sea of otherwise tightly cut lawn on the campus, our patch stands out, and confirms to our neighbours that we are a bit odd, doing all that biodiversity ‘stuff’. But our wildlife patch is proving a great success. First the dandelions, then the ox eyed daisy and bird’s-foot trefoil, then the self-heal and knapweed ensure we have colour throughout the season.  Last year the first orchid, a common-spotted, grew much to our delight.  But it is the insect life it attracts that surprises me most. I know little of the tiny insects that lurk in the depths of the vegetation (I leave that to others with more expertise), but I love watching the meadow brown, ringlet and common blue content in our patch.  After suitable south easterly winds the migratory Silver Y, the moth made famous by Ronaldo, arrives to keep the six-spot burnet and cinnabar moths company. And almost daily the large and hugely impressive emperor dragonfly can be seen quartering over the grass. Not bad for a small patch of uncut grass! But, I suppose, better get back to work….

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5, Small blue #6 & Meadow brown #7.

Meadow at Centre
The uncut grass area at the Data Centre is a great distraction from work!


Small blue – #6 Butterfly Challenge

Small Blue#1
The small blue has only a dusting of blue, unlike the two other species of blue (photograph taken on 6 May 2016)

The small blue is the third species of blue that occurs in Ireland, but you really shouldn’t confuse it with the others as it is tiny, often no larger than 20mm. And whereas both the holly blue and common blue often announce themselves with a flash of bright blue, the small blue is a butterfly that one needs to search to find. Even where it occurs, you need a sharp eye to see it, and even sharper one to follow its erratic flight. It is found in very dry habitats, mostly along the coast but also at a few inland sites. Dune grasslands, esker ridges, disused quarries, and the limestone of the Burren region are the habitats where it can be found.

When speaking to Jesmond Harding, one of the foremost authorities on butterflies in Ireland, he mentioned to me that the Gortlecka area of the Burren National Park was one of the best places to see this species. This surprised me greatly for I walked a regular butterfly transect along that area for about four years in the mid-1990s when I was a Park Ranger in the Burren, and I never once saw it in that location.  So to satisfy my curiosity I visited the area in May. And sure enough, after a short time of searching to ‘get my eye in’, I found one, then another, and another…  Jesmond, of course, was right and they are to be found there in good numbers. However I find it hard to believe that I would have missed them back in the 1990s, particularly since I spent so much time at Gortlecka recording butterflies. The only explanation I have is that they must have colonised the area since the 1990s; an alternative explanation is that I should have gone to Specsavers earlier!

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5  & Small blue #6.

One of the best places to find small blue is at the magnificent Burren National Park, a ‘must see’ site for anyone interested in butterflies.

Holly blue – #5 Butterfly Challenge

Holly blue is, for me, a harbinger of spring (photograph taken on 8th May 2016)

Holly blue is the other butterfly than could be confused with a common blue, however, its behaviour is very different. Holly blues tend to fly strongly around bushes and shrubs, often quite high up; by contract common blue fly low to the ground.  The holly blue is also the first of the blue butterflies to be seen each year, emerging in March and April. For me the sighting of my first holly blue is as significant an event as hearing my first cuckoo a month or so later – it is a harbinger of spring.

Holly blue is an intriguing species. It was once a much more localised butterfly, but its range has expanded significantly in recent years and is now commonly seen in gardens, even in urban areas. The sight of holly blues flying around parks in Dublin is not uncommon, and delightful to see. But holly blue populations vary significantly from year to year, and years when they are very plentiful can be followed by years when they are very scarce. It is thought that this population cycle is due to predation of holly blue by ichneumon wasps.  Predation rates by ichneumon wasps increase as the butterfly population increases, only for the butterfly populations to crash when predation levels reach a certain level.

Here in Bramblestown, holly blue is most often seen in April and May, and again in August in years when it has a successful second brood. I find this a difficult butterfly to observe at close quarters, as it is always actively flying. But, as luck would have it, early one morning I noticed one on our garden hedge, and it remain still long enough for me to get my photograph. Job done!

Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4 & Holly blue #5.