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24 Mar 2017

Get Out for The Count

Posted by Jes. No Comments

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.

21 Mar 2017

Why there are few butterflies on Ireland’s Modern Farms

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Driving through the overwhelmingly rural Irish landscape the first impression visitors get is how green the countryside looks. When we are returning home from a warmer, drier location a glance from the plane window (if cloud is absent!) often causes us to do a double-take at the greenness of the land below. In fact, the national landscape is almost a caricature of green!

Advertisers exploit this greenness as a synonym for natural purity and wholesomeness. TV ads for Irish milk showing cattle grazing peacefully in green pastures evoke that sense of purity and freshness the advertiser wants to associate with milk. Dappled cattle munching peacefully in gently rolling fields provides the scenic backdrop for a glass of fresh milk, gleaming snow white, promising natural vitality.

The truth is very different. Your fresh, natural Irish milk is, well, not natural. For the most part the cattle are feeding on a small number, perhaps even one, species of grass (grass does not usually occur naturally as a single species throughout a field) and this grass is fed on a diet of chemicals. The farmer uses a spreader, a machine that sprays granular fertiliser on the field, typically at the start of the growing season in March. The fertiliser contains phosphorous, nitrogen, potassium and sulphur. The grass responds quickly; the broad-leaved species such as Cock’s-foot and Perennial Rye-grass, grow aggressively, out-competing the fine-bladed grasses like Sheep’s Fescue. Flowers are mostly wiped out, apart from a few robust species that can survive the competitive response to fertiliser application. Common Dandelion, thankfully, is one of these flowers. Where grass is grown for silage, the grass is cut in June and sometimes again, in September/October.

What you see in an ungrazed field where grass is grown for silage is a uniform (single height, single colour) sward. The uniform sward height, the low number of grass species and the low number of flower species eliminates habitat for butterflies, moths, bees and most invertebrates. A visit in summer to such a field is a miserable experience for a nature lover. The emptiness is haunting for older naturalists who remember the 1970’s and before.

You only realise what has been lost from most of the landscape when you find an unsprayed grassland, like the one pictured below. However, some recovery is possible. Highly sensitive species, like orchids, might be gone for ever from modified sites but some beautiful native grasses and flora will return if the ground is helped and allowed to recover. The cessation of fertiliser application, removal of  excess fertility through multiple cutting and removal of cuttings and scarifying the surface will allow the return of some of the plants that butterflies and other invertebrates need. Cattle will graze very happily on this land too; they will yield good milk; cattle reared for beef may not be super-sized in the same time as they would if fed on chemically fertilised grassland.

Biodiversity in a farmed landscape can be achieved by balancing the needs of farming and nature. This can be done, and is done, in the Burren and especially in eastern Europe. Why not here? If the drive towards chemical agriculture continues we may well see the extinction of all sensitive butterflies from the farmed landscape and severe reductions in more generalist species but even these may suffer extinction in the event that farming manages to eliminate all grassland plants not eaten by livestock. If this happens, we will lose the birds that feed on butterfly and moth larvae; it is believed that the lack of insect prey is already affecting populations of that once most familiar of birds, the House Sparrow.

What to do? Never use chemicals in your garden, buy organic produce whenever possible, mention your support for chemical free farming whenever you meet a member of the farming community. Where you work and live, advocate the planting of native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants on the premises and avoidance of chemicals in managing the outdoor environment. Leave a “wild” area on the green space in your estate for native species to flourish; if moving to a brand new estate, tell the builder about the value of native Irish trees and shrubs; give him a list, from this website (see http://www.butterflyconservation.ie/wordpress/?page_id=33) or from the Tree Council website, on the trees that he should grow. Make nature part of your life; develop a wildlife garden, not as an isolated oasis but as a link in your local landscape so that wild creatures can move and not be stranded in a isolated or diminishing refuge. We need a build a nature-friendly, people-friendly landscape to enhance not just wildlife, but your life.

Wildflower meadow in Kildare, 2015. ©J.Harding.

10 Mar 2017

First Butterflies of Spring 2017

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The higher temperatures and calm conditions over the past few days has tempted the first butterflies of spring to take to the air. We bring you news of the first Small Tortoiseshell of spring, recorded on 8 March by Pat Bell in the Irish Wheelchair Association Biodiversity Garden in Clane, County Kildare. Pat, his daughter Lucy of Growing Gardens and David Collins, head gardener at IWA,  were putting in a wildlife pond as part of the project when the butterfly was seen.

Another first, recorded by Pat Wyse, was a beautiful Brimstone butterfly, in lovely condition on 9 March on the Crabtree Reserve, Lullybeg, also in Kildare. Spring, it seems, is here. Get out in the garden, park, country lane, canal or river bank, woodland or wherever you enjoy a stroll, soak up the sunshine and remember to send us word of your butterfly sightings. We really want to learn more about how our butterfly populations are surviving, so see our Records tab for details of how to record your sightings with us.

Small Tortoiseshell, Clane, County Kildare. Photo by Pat Bell.

Brimstone sunning himself at Lullybeg, 11 March 2017.© J.Harding.