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15 Apr 2017

April: Month of the Dandelion

Posted by Jes. No Comments

Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is a native plant that flowers most abundantly in April/May, although later repeat flowering is common, even in late autumn.

It carries prominent, deep yellow flowers containing nectar that early bees, hoverflies, moths and butterflies are drawn to. The plant is often abundant on grass verges, hedge banks, gardens, fields, woodland rides and clearings. It is not fussy about soil type, but it does not grow on waterlogged ground or on wet acidic peat soil. Unfortunately, many gardeners regard the plant with disdain, even revulsion. The first sign of its golden bloom on the lawn has the gardener reaching for herbicide, trowel or mower.

This irrational hatred is greatly to be regretted. The Common Dandelion is a wonderful wild flower. Every spring butterfly and many moths rely on the plant for sustenance when little nectar is available. Bees love the plant too. Several moth larvae feed on the leaves. Indeed, the leaves can be used in a salad; no spring salad should be without their leaves which can be eaten fresh or cooked (steamed). When the plant produces seed, Goldfinches and Bullfinches tuck in, and the fluffy part is used to line bird nests.

If the plant was not native, and was offered for sale in garden centres, I have little doubt that it would be a best seller. It would be likely to have an attractive name; Taraxacum officinale “Golden glow” might serve. Spare the flower and you spare the bees, moths, butterflies and birds that rely on the plant. Common Dandelion is spring’s gift to our butterflies; be its advocate, and when neighbours ask why you’ve got these flowers all over your lawn, tell them!

Orange-tip butterfly on Common Dandelion. ©J.Harding.

Brimstone on Common Dandelion. ©J.Harding.

8 Apr 2017

Brimming with Light and Life

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The uninterrupted sunshine forecast for today promised the ideal conditions to visit a favourite patch so we set off for Lullybeg.

The work party in February 2017 was dedicated to removing heavy scrub that shaded the small tree species used by the Brimstone for breeding (see Facebook for details). It was hoped that opening the area to light and warmth would create the conditions needed for the butterfly to breed in this particular spot, chosen for scrub control because it contains a significant concentration of Common/Purging Buckthorn and Alder Buckthorn. These are the only plants used by the Brimstone in Ireland for breeding.

When we worked our way in from the edge of the clearing to tackle the taller scrub we discovered other very heavily shaded food plants present. We now had the chance to free not just the plants at the edge of the clearing but also several more buckthorn plants in the interior of the scrub.

Today we were able to see how our work succeeded. At one time, four female Brimstones were observed, fluttering around the food plants and laying eggs. We watched this activity for over two hours and was still in progress at the time of our departure, highlighting how suitable the habitat is now. The habitat is still sheltered by tall trees but shade has been greatly reduced. The heat created by the continuing shelter and direct sun meant that the females were able to maintain activity levels for a prolonged period, with only very brief basking breaks to recover heat lost during flight. A good deal of heat is radiated by the dry Moor-grass present around the buckthorns that are located at the edge of the original scrub and this is where basking took place. The presence of this leaf litter creates warmth around the food plant and we observed that most laying took place on these plants, with less attention given to plants that grow where the dense scrub was located. This might be due to the cooler conditions as there is less Moor-grass present where scrub was thickest, owing to the lack of light. However, as the spring advances, air temperatures increase and there may be more eggs laid on these plants then.

Thanks to all our conservation volunteers; your management work is achieving success.

Click on the image for enlargement.

Brimstone lays an egg on unshaded Alder Buckthorn. ©JHarding.

Freshly laid Brimstone ovum on Alder Buckthorn, Lullybeg.©J.Harding.

24 Mar 2017

Get Out for The Count

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Butterflies are synonymous with sunshine, happiness…and spring.

Butterflies gliding in the sparkling March sunlight invite us to celebrate spring.

They will share our gardens with us, if invited in by the right plants and management.

Butterflies mark our seasons for us, bringing us to a deeper awareness of time’s rhythms.

Their colours inspire reflections on the perfection of creation, and a poignant appreciation for a delicate elegance that cannot last, but a glory that will be repeated, if we look after their habitats.

The sight of new and first butterflies in spring is a joyful, reaffirming vision of hope.

The sun will shine and butterflies will fly over the coming weekend.

Enjoy them and let us know what you see.

Here are some recent butterflies.

First Holly Blue of 2017 on Honesty, in a Kilkenny garden. ©Elizabeth Dunne.

First Comma of 2017, in a Carlow wood. ©Andrew Power.

My first Peacock of 2017, Louisa Bridge. ©J.Harding.

Small Tortoiseshell, basking in the sun at Louisa Bridge, Kildare.©J.Harding.