My butterfly challenge

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Marsh fritillary, Ireland’s only legally protected butterfly

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.

Small tortoiseshell, one of Ireland’s most familiar species

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.

Common Blue, the commonest of our three species of blue butterfly

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.

Speckled wood, a common species of woodland edge but its population is now in decline

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.