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.
This spring, I visited parts of Connemara that I would have known well, when I worked there in 1990-1992. I remember the machair grasslands at Aughrus Beg, just west of Cleggan as being a magical place, so I decided to search them out again to see if they have changed. And much to my delight, the extensive grasslands here still look fabulous. The rolling grasslands were carpeted with yellow bird’s-foot trefoil and dandelions and pinks of thrift- a veritable pollinator’s paradise. As it was early in the season I wasn’t expecting much butterfly activity, but close to the shore, along a sheltered bank, I came across a couple of common blue butterflies enjoying the spring sunshine. I was able to get my photograph, and tick another species from my list.
Common blue is the commonest and most widespread of the three species of blue butterfly that we get in Ireland. It can be found in dry areas wherever its food plant bird’s-foot trefoil grows, and on the machair here at Aughrus Beg, it can be extremely plentiful at peak season. Males are bright blue with no markings on the upper wing, whereas in females the blue is fringed with orange spots. This predominately blue form of the female common blue is considered an Irish subspecies, referred to as Mariscolore, which differs from the predominately brown females found in England and Wales. Both sexes have well marked underwings with prominent orange dots. These differentiate common blue from the other two species of blue butterfly found in Ireland. If you have missed seeing common blue this spring, don’t worry, for they are double brooded and will be flying in abundance again in August.
Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3 & Common blue #4.
Wall brown was one of the species that I thought might be difficult to find and photograph. It is one of six butterfly species threatened with extinction in Ireland, having suffered an alarming 50% reduction in range over the last 20 or so years. I have personal experience of this decline, for wall brown used to be seen at Bramblestown until about 2000, but I have not seen it there since. Indeed it is now a very scarce, if not already extinct butterfly in County Kilkenny, which is a shocking thing to report.
The last time I saw wall brown in any great numbers was in 2003 when on a visit to Inisbofin off the Galway coast. As luck would have it, in May this year I was invited over to Inisbofin to officiate at the launch of the locally-led Nature Plan developed for the island, a visit that coincided with glorious weather. I took the opportunity to revisit where I had seen wall brown 13 years previously, and sure enough, along the road to Cloonamore, east from the pier, exactly where I had seen them in 2003, they were in abundance. Wall brown are described as ‘being alert and difficult to approach’, but here many butterflies were basking along the sheltered warm earthen and stone banks by the roadside, so I did not the let photo opportunity pass.
Wall brown is a butterfly of unimproved dry grassland and is another of our species that is becoming much more localised in its distribution. At one time it would have been found across most of the country, but it is becoming increasingly confined to the coastal fringe and to fewer and fewer sites in the midlands. The 50% reduction in range was reported in the Red List of Irish Butterflies published in 2010 but based on data up to 2009. Wall brown occur in too few sites for its population to be monitored effectively under the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, so it is unknown how its population has fared in Ireland since 2010. But my guess is that its population continues to decline, which is a shame.
Speckled wood #1, dingy skipper #2, wall brown #3.
Dingy skipper is a curious little butterfly. It is drab and unassuming, rather like a dayflying moth in appearance. It has an erratic, skipping flight, making it difficult for the eye to follow. But if you are successful in following its flight, it will soon land and bask with its wings wide open, often on the flower head of ribwort plantain. It flies in spring, May and June, but needs warm, well sheltered sites. It is a localised species in Kilkenny, known from no more than a handful of sites, but undoubtedly this species is under-recorded. When I first moved to Kilkenny 18 years ago, it was known to occur in a small disused limestone quarry near Thomastown. My first visit to the site was a delight as I found it straight away but, I’ll admit, it was rather a challenge to separate it from the burnet companion, a day-flying moth with which it shares the site.
Since then I have found dingy skipper at a handful of previously unknown sites in Kilkenny, mostly along forest tracks on the higher ground to the south of the county. It makes me wonder have they always been there, or have dingy skipper eggs or larvae been transported with the limestone chippings brought in to make the tracks when the land was first afforested?
If so, I have benefitted from this, for on the high ground at Glencoum no more than 5km from where I live, there is a small isolated wooded area overlooking the beautiful Barrow valley. Here, dingy skipper are plentiful along one section of the somewhat overgrown forest track, and are a delightful butterfly to see so early in the year.
Speckled wood is a common and constant summer companion around us here in Bramblestown. It has a long season, fitting in three generations between April and October, and can be seen flying daily throughout this period. It is perfect here for them as we have many overgrown shaded hedgerows and areas of tall, unmanaged grass. It is wonderful to watch them on our sun-speckled lane; males standing guard over individual patches of sunlight, then flitting out to entice passing females or scare off encroaching males. On dull, overcast days their behaviour is very different as they bask low down on grasses and other vegetation.
It is appropriate that speckled wood is the first species of my butterfly challenge as, surprisingly, all is not well with this common and widespread species. The Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme which monitors butterfly populations across Ireland each year, found that the speckled wood is one of three common butterflies species that has experienced a steep population decline between 2008 and 2015. Declines of this kind in common species is something that should be taken seriously, as it means that habitat changes in Ireland are no longer local, but happening at a landscape-scale. Perhaps the widespread clearance of patches of scrub and improvement of rough grazing areas that has continued apace over the last couple of decades is now reaching a tipping point where even our common countryside species are being affected? Now that is something to stop and think about! Do we really want to create a countryside that lacks vibrancy and richness? And rob the next generation of all the wonderful benefits, both intrinsic and tangible, that nature has to to offer?
Now as I watch speckled wood on the lane, knowing that they might become yet another species that is seen less commonly in the countryside, I look on them with far more affection.
After my adventure of 2014 when I cycled around the coast of Ireland, I was looking for something else to do this summer. Another cycling adventure was considered but ruled out for a couple of reasons, mainly because I am terribly out of shape due to a long run of injuries and an equally long bout of laziness. Yet I am determined to continue to do my bit to promote Ireland’s biodiversity and to make a case for better nature conservation policies and practices in Ireland.
So the challenge I set myself this year is to find, photograph and write an account all of 35 species of butterfly that regularly occur in Ireland. If I had chosen to undertake this challenge say, ten years ago, I would only have to find 32 species, for Essex skipper, small skipper and comma have only established resident populations since then. And, if I had chosen to do this challenge in, say 1900, I would have to search for one additional species, the mountain ringlet, as it has become extinct in Ireland, probably since the beginning of the 20th Century.
Butterflies are a good group to choose for a challenge of this kind. Quite a bit is known about their distribution and their status, and populations are monitored through the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, managed by the National Biodiversity Data Centre. In 2010, a Red List or conservation assessment was completed which found that six of Ireland’s butterfly species are threatened with extinction. These are pearl-bordered fritillary, small blue, wall, large heath and marsh fritillary. A further five are near threatened; dingy skipper, grayling, gatekeeper, small heath and wood white. Of these, only the large heath is of conservation status at a European level, and the marsh fritillary is the only species of butterfly, indeed insect, protected by law in the Republic of Ireland. So insects are a manageable group to tackle and each has a unique story to tell.
To find all butterfly species in Ireland in a single year may seem a fairly straightforward task, but it is not without its challenge. Firstly, it is one thing to see a butterfly flittering past, it is another to observe and anticipate butterfly behaviour to enable a decent quality photograph to be taken. Also, some butterflies have both limited flight periods and geographic distributions, so it will involve some planning to make sure I don’t miss these windows of opportunity. As both my wife and colleagues will attest to, I am not the most organised person in the world, so organisation may be my downfall. Also, I have never seen the rather elusive purple hairstreak in Ireland, so locating and photographing one may prove my biggest challenge.
So, having publically announced the challenge I have set myself this year, it will be interesting to see how I get one. Over the season I will be writing profiles, species by species, once I have found and photographed them. So be sure to follow my progress here.
Below is my Comment piece in the latest issue of Biodiversity Ireland newsletter. This issue is on sale for €5 until 31 May, with all proceeds going directly to Special Olympics Ireland in support of their annual collection day. Our employer Compass Informatics will match any income from the sales. This issue can be purchased on-line by clicking here Purchase Biodiversity Ireland. The 24 page issue is crammed full of information about Ireland’s biodiversity, and purchasing it is a good cause.
People do care about biodiversity
If one were to judge only by the coverage that biodiversity receives in the mainstream media, then it would be easy to conclude that there is no support for the conservation of biological diversity in Ireland. Nature conservation provides rich pickings for a mainstream media whose primary focus is on conflict and controversy. Biodiversity loses out for seldom does the media have the patience to understand what often can be complex issues, nor does it find much value in good news stories. The one exception to this is the coverage received by the publication of the All-Ireland Pollination Plan. In contrast to other conservation issues, this has received serious media attention and there is genuine and deep interest in the plight of pollinators. The message is stark; about 30% of bees are threatened with extinction in Ireland, and unless we take concerted action, the pollination services which are so beneficial to Irish society and the economy will be lost.
But what sets this issue apart from many others is that the All-Ireland Pollination Plan presents a clear roadmap for how the plight of pollinators can be addressed. Thanks to the exceptional work of Úna FitzPatrick, Jane Stout and others, 81 easily implemented actions have been identified that can create a landscape that is more pollinator friendly. And there is something for everyone to do, no matter how much land, time or interest one has in the issue. The message I take from this is that there is an innate interest in biodiversity amongst the Irish population, but this can only be unlocked with innovative approaches to conservation.
Another initiative that has proven successful in unlocking this interest is the Data Centre’s BioBlitz event. This year BioBlitz will be a celebration of the natural heritage of islands, with five of Ireland’s special islands participating. BioBlitz has struck a chord with people as it allows everyone to participate and experience at first hand the remarkable diversity of life supported by some of Ireland’s most special places. It is a simple, yet effective, way to communicate the message that the conservation of biological diversity is important, and to demonstrate in a tangible way that natural heritage is a valuable asset.
And the value of this natural asset is being eroded continuously, as shown by the National Biodiversity Indicators. Progress has been made on only 32% of the indicators established to track the delivery of the conservation of biodiversity in Ireland. This demonstrates that Ireland is falling well short of meeting its national and international conservation targets, and that a much more concerted effort is needed to remedy this. This concerted effort will require tapping into the innate interest in conservation amongst a much broader population base.
Agreement has been reached between Fine Gael and some of the Independents on a broad policy platform to stimulate the rural economy as part of efforts to gain support for Enda Kenny’s nomination for Taoiseach when the Dáil meets next week. The main plank of this policy is a new scheme to help struggling farmers who have seen their income fall sharply in recent years. The scheme will target some of the most agriculturally disadvantaged areas, and provide payment to farmers who undertake a programme of countryside enhancement measures.
The scheme, to be called the Countryside and Rural Area Programme, will be open to all farmers with annual incomes of less than €50,000 per year or those that live in areas identified as ‘Special Areas of Concern’. Participating farmers will be able to draw down a maximum of €8,000 per year if they carry out different countryside enhancement measures. It is understood that the Scheme will cost €60 million, but economists predict that the downstream benefits will far exceed that initial outlay.
The full range of options are yet to be finalised, but it is likely to be based on the current GLAS model. It will be a three tiered system. To receive the basic payment of €5,000 per annum, participating farmers can choose from three measures; the cutting and grubbing out of hedgerows and other bits of scrub that are cluttering up the countryside; dredging drains, streams and other wetlands to improve drainage; and the burning of hillside vegetation to clean the land. In the more disadvantaged or ‘Priority Areas’ of Kerry and Roscommon, farmers will have the option of getting an additional top up payment of €2,000 if they agree to drain and get rid of any remaining raised bogs, clear their land of any wild flowers and other wildlife, and put up electric barbed wire fences to keep any birdwatchers, families with young children or city slickers from entering their land. There will be an additional €1,000 per year available for ‘gold standard’ CRAP participants who agree to put out crow bangers to scare off seagulls and operate live traps to capture pine martens and put them back into Nature Reserves. The introduction of a corncrake scaring measure in key corncrake areas is also being considered.
The CRAP will be part of a new Department of Rural Affairs, established to drive real change in rural Ireland. The Rural Development and Forestry sections of Agriculture will transfer to this new Department of Rural Affairs, as will the LEADER and Roads sections of the Department of Environment and the drainage section of OPW. It will also be given a statutory role for rural planning, merging some of the existing responsibilities of NPWS, EPA and An Bord Plenala, to deliver a more common sense approach to planning for rural Ireland. With the exception of the Greens who feel there is a better way of doing things, it is expected that this policy platform will have broad political support.
For many, birdwatching is about making lists. Lists of the birds seen on a walk, lists of the birds that visit your garden, or lists of all the birds seen over one’s lifetime. This characteristic of birdwatching is taken to its logical extent with the advent of Patchwork Challenge –500 or so birdwatchers across Britain and Ireland making lists, and competing, to see who can see the most birds in their site (or patch) in a year. The rules are quite simple; your patch can’t be more than 3 km2. You make a list of all the birds seen over the year and for each common bird seen you score a single point, less common species 2 points and 3 or more points for rarities, mega rarities, etc. The patch with the most points at the end of the year wins. Simple!
But of course it is only the very special wildlife sites that can compete at this level, so the Patchwork Challenge has another dimension. It allows participants to list all the species they find in any given year, and use this as the benchmark to reach, or exceed, in subsequent years. This ‘comparative’ score allows everyone to compete on an equal basis, irrespective of the quality of their patch. It is this that makes it so appealing (or compelling) for bird watching in a local patch.
Well I thought I would join this merry band of men (for the majority are men) and give this Patchwork Challenge a go, to see what it is all about. First task was to decide on my site. As I don’t have much time for birdwatching these days, the choice was simple. My patch would have to be either around where I live, or around where I work. As the latter was already someone else’s patch, it had to be around where I live in Bramblestown, Co. Kilkenny. This is prime agricultural land – not great raw material to work with, in birdwatching terms, that is. But looking at the map, if I was clever, I could draw the boundary to include Bramblestown Bog and Gowran Park Race Course within my patch to maximise the variety of habitats. The patch I settled on has an area of 254 ha, comprised of 121 ha of grassland, 55 ha arable, 33 ha golf course, 31 ha broadleaved woodland, 8 ha commercial forestry and 6 ha of wetland. That I could find such diversity of habitat in my local patch was my first ‘patchwork’ surprise, and this augured well for my challenge.
I have now completed my first month of the Patchwork Challenge, so how have I got on? Well, first the statistics. In January I recorded 44 species and amassed 47 points; I picked up double points for long-eared owl (seen in the headlights of my car going to work), peregrine and hooded crow. The latter is a geographic anomaly of this being a British-led initiative!
And more importantly, what do I make of it all? Certainly it has given birdwatching around my home some purpose, and adds more enjoyment to walking the dogs. And although it is just a list, it has meant that I am far more observant and questioning about bird behaviour in my patch. I was intrigued that I had difficulty, for example, in seeing snipe despite there being plenty of apparently suitable habitat. I did manage to see them, but not in the area I expected. I wondered why that was the case? I know there are tree sparrow in the area so I make a point of regularly locating and scanning the resident flock of finches and buntings looking for the ‘tick’. Still no sign of the tree sparrow, so I am curious, where might they be? Or perhaps the population in Ireland is on the decline once more? [note to self- I must check the Common Birds Survey data]. And late last year I thought yellowhammer numbers were way down on previous years, but that is not the case; it is only that they have moved to a part of the patch I rarely walk through. This has made me question, what determines small scale distributional shifts like this? And showing off stock doves was a regular party piece of mine for any visiting birder, but no sign of them so far this year. Where have the blighters gone when I need them?
And, perhaps most importantly of all, I know that if I make a full list of all the species I see on my regular walks and submit this to the British Trust for Ornithology’s Bird Track system, then I know that I am helping to build up quantitative information that can be used to track bird population change across Ireland and Britain. That is a good use of my precious birdwatching time.
All in all, this has been enjoyable, and I have been surprised at how much there is to learn on one’s doorstep, on one’s patch. Oh, and the dogs are fitter!
Here is my month’s diary:
1st JANUARY: was a wet, windy day. Took dogs for walk across Tomas Brennan’s arable fields – didn’t even make it into to double figures!
List: 1. Blackbird, 2. Robin, 3. Blue Tit, 4. Great Tit, 5. Rook, 6. Woodpigeon, 7. Dunnock, 8. Skylark.
3rd JANUARY: was drier. Visited Bramblestown Bog for a while. Delighted visit brought me to 28 species, including beautiful views of a peregrine and heard jay calling -15 teal, 2 mallard. First proper day birding in my patch and was able to add 20 species.
9th JANUARY :Cool (6 °C) and overcast. Ground still saturated. Tomas Brennan and Greg’s fields. Added only two new species, song thrush and raven. Surprised not to have seen redwing, fieldfare or snipe yet
List: 29. Song Thrush, 30. Raven.
10th JANUARY: walked the large cereal field to north of Drey’s Gate (got strange looks from neighbours when taking photograph in middle of field!) Here I located my flock of finches, buntings and thrushes. Field very wet but good numbers of birds about.
14th JANUARY to work spotted Long-eared owl in headlights of car (too easy!).
List: 36. Long-eared Owl
17th JANUARY: Dull overcast damp day. Had a few nights of frost during week, but gone now, 8 °C today. Walked south of Drey’s gate to forestry at south western side of patch. Nice patch of woodland; alder and birch around perimeter of conifers. Flock of about a dozen siskin was my highlight, and a sparrowhawk. Tracked down the linnet flock near John O’Donnells.
20th JANUARY: Didn’t need to leave for work until about 10:00hrs so took the dogs for a walk. Frost overnight so ground was white, but not too frozen. On John Farrell’s scrubby patch flushed three or four snipe. First for the year. Relieved to have them ticked off!
List: 42. Common Snipe.
22nd JANUARY: beautiful bright mild spring day. Walked across Tom Brennan’s fields in afternoon. Flock of 35 yellowhammers, and 30 or so Skylark. Saw a large flock of Golden Plover, 500 birds at least, high in the sky off to the east. Two Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the distance too.
List: 43. Golden Plover, 44. Lesser Black-backed Gull.
More than 200 years since the last Irish wolf was shot in Co. Carlow, wolves are set to make a return to Ireland. Plans are at an advanced stage to re-introduce these magnificent creatures into Ireland. The first pack of two males and five females will be released into Killarney National Park, as part of a controlled release programme that will run for 5 years and involve the translocation of 30 animals to Ireland. The project is spearheaded by the Irish Grey Wolf Re-introduction Group and NPWS, and has the support of the IFA, Failte Ireland and Kerry County Council.
Speaking at the launch of the project in Muckross House, Prof. Canis Lupus, Chair of the IGWRG and a native of Norway said ‘he was thrilled that these majestic creatures would once again roam the Irish countryside’. This is the fourth re-introduction project in Ireland, but the first involving a mammal. ‘That the project has received such widespread support is testament to the huge support there is in Ireland for wildlife and nature conservation’, Lupus added.
The project was fast-tracked when Ireland stepped in after the Scottish Highlands wolf re-introduction programme was abandoned late last year. Despite the EU already spending £3.2 million on planning and consultancy fees, continued funding of the ‘Bring Wolves Back to Britain’ campaign, one of several re-introductions programmes planned under the Re-wilding Britain initiative, was considered too risky by the European Commission now that Britain was to push ahead with it referendum on EU membership and a potential BREXIT. A spokesman for the Commission, Mr. Carnivorous explained that ‘despite having already invested heavily in this project, the Commission has a responsibility to spend its money wisely, so now was a good time to withdraw further funding’.
Killarney National Park is considered an ideal alternative site to the Scottish Highlands as it is a similar habitat, a wilderness, it rains alot and is in State ownership. Careful habitat management will be the key to the success of the project. Wolves are shy, elusive creatures that require wide open hillsides with unobstructed views to breed successfully. The recent decision to amend the Wildlife Act to extend the season for burning of upland vegetation will provide this unique habitat. Amending the bill will overcome the final obstacle to allow NPWS pitch for the lucrative EU-funded project, set to bring in at least €5 million annually in compensation payment to farmers.
The IFA is supportive of the project as it will make good use of waste land, and provide an additional source of income through compensation for lost ewes. Mr. Paddy O’Brian, Head of IFA’s Wilderness Committee said ‘this really is a win-win situation for farmers as it will help manage our uplands in a sustainable way and provide good compensation payments. Wolves will also prey on pine marten and other vermin that are over-running the country at the moment’.
Failte Ireland has welcomed the initiative as yet another tourist attraction along the Wild Atlantic Way. Mr. Dar B. O’Gill, Head of the Failte Ireland- Kerry said ‘that the Wild Atlantic Way runs through a wild, rugged landscape, so adding the wild wolf as an additional theme can only but help to re-inforce this strong brand’. It is understood that a number of ‘Wolf Viewing Areas’ are to be established where tourists can park their cars and watch wolves in the wild. ‘Clearly there will be a significant investment needed to fence off these viewing areas, for health and safety reasons, but as it is an election year, that shouldn’t be a problem’. O’Gill added that ‘Failte Ireland is also looking at the feasibility of totally enclosing these areas to ward-off marauding seagulls who are terrorising young families, many of whom find the great outdoors a scary place’.
The European Commission has said that it will very shortly make a final decision on the total amount of funding that the project is to receive. Mr. Carnivorous said ‘that the Commission was very supportive of initiatives of this kind. After decades of EU policies the West of Ireland is fecked anyway, so leaving it to the wolves is probably the best thing we can do’.
Note from the author: This is a satirical piece on attitudes to nature conservation in Ireland. Please don’t think it is factual!