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Butterfly Isle


By Richella Duggan.

Last Christmas I had the great pleasure of reading Patrick Barkham’s The Butterfly Isles, which documents his travels around the UK during 2009 in search of all Britain’s native butterflies. Barkham recalls happy childhood memories of excursions with his father around their home county of Norfolk and further afield in search of butterflies they had not seen before. Their goal, to see all species on the British list, was never fully accomplished. So some 30 years later Barkham rekindles his childhood passion and decides to attempt to ‘complete this unfinished business’ to see all 59 British species in a single year. It’s an engaging read, which not only describes his search but also includes much information on the history of lepidoptera and the current challenges faced by butterfly conservationists in the UK.

After finishing the book I did a quick tally and realised that I had only seen 24 of the approximately 34 butterflies on the Irish list and so was inspired to make my own odyssey to find and photograph all Irish species during 2011. Living in Mullingar I knew that finding the less common species would involve a few carefully timed expeditions outside of the midlands. I started by consulting the Irish butterfly bible or Discovering Irish Butterflies and their habitats by J.M. Harding, to give it its proper title! I drew up a list of species, flight times and known habitats and decided to keep a diary of my efforts in the form of an online blog (www.butterflyblog2011.com). At the time it all seemed perfectly feasible!

It started well. A warm spring resulted in many species appearing earlier than expected. I was up to eight species by the end of April. During May I managed to tick off another 7 including Dingy Skipper, Marsh Fritillary, Wall Brown and Painted Lady. It looked like we might be in for a bonanza year for butterflies. Instead we got the coldest summer in at least 25 years.  On one memorable showery day out in June I had to don my wet gear 3 times – one shower included a good clatter of hailstones. By July I was becoming increasingly fed up of Met Eireann’s excessive use of the word ‘unsettled’ in nightly weather forecasts.  August was somewhat drier but very windy and dull. My final list therefore stopped at a disappointing 28 species. I can’t blame all of my misses on the weather however. For example on a visit to the Burren in early May I could have filled the boot of the car with Wood Whites. However, I was so preoccupied with finding my first Pearl-bordered Fritillary that I didn’t manage to get a decent photograph of Leptidea sinapis. By the time I returned to the Burren in August – it was too late.

A major highlight was finding Small blues (Cupido minimus) still flying around the dunes in Portrane on the 24th of June. After a very wet and windy early June I thought I had left it much too late to spot this tiny flickering jewel. My joy at find 5 beautiful Small Blues that hazy morning was tempered by the knowledge that this species is one of three classified as endangered by the NPWS Red List of Irish Butterflies.

Another highlight was finding a single Clouded Yellow in the Raven Nature Reserve on the 20th of September. I visited the Raven with high hopes of finding a Comma, which didn’t happen – but the fleeting sight of the bright buttercup-coloured Clouded Yellow was a wonderful consolation prize.  I had hoped to get to Wexford earlier in the summer to find Essex Skippers and Gatekeepers but the relentless dullness of August meant that I didn’t make it in time for these two. I was disappointed also not to find a Dark Green Fritillary on visits to three known sites in Counties Clare, Sligo and Donegal. Likewise I couldn’t find any Purple Hairstreaks on visits to the Phoenix Park and Killiney Hill Park but on both occasions the sun didn’t oblige. I suspect from looking at 2011 records on the DNFC website that it was not a great year for either of these species.

Despite the disappointing misses, I hugely enjoyed my time searching for Ireland’s butterflies throughout 2011. It was a great excuse to visit some interesting places but I also got great pleasure from ticking off species in my own local neck of the woods around Mullingar. This year I am looking forward to working on my dragonfly identification skills. This will undoubtedly involve visiting sites in the south east of the country again so I may get to tick off one or two of my missing butterfly species on my travels. My full 2011 list is below. The individual stories of each ‘tick’ below can be read at www.butterflyblog2011.com

No. Species Where When
1 Small Tortoiseshell Wooddown, Mullingar March 22nd
2 Peacock Wooddown, Mullingar March 30th
3 Orange Tip Wooddown, Mullingar April 6th
4 Green-veined White Woodown, Mullingar April 6th
5 Small White Bellview, Mullingar April 11th
6 Speckled Wood Scragh Bog, Mullingar April 17th
7 Green Hairstreak Wooddown, Mullingar April 19th
8 Small Copper Wooddown, Mullingar April 29th
9 Wood White (Cryptic) Wooddown, Mullingar May 2nd
10 Dingy Skipper Lullymore West, Kildare May 13th
11 Marsh Fritillary Lullymore West, Kildare May 13th
12 Painted Lady Killinthomas Wood, Kildare May 13th
13 Wall Brown Killinthomas Wood, Kildare May 13th
14 Pearl-bordered Fritillary The Burren, Clare May 24th
15 Common Blue Wooddown, Mullingar May 31st
16 Small Heath Lullybeg, Kildare June 4th
17 Ringlet Wooddown, Mullingar June 23rd
18 Meadow Brown Wooddow, Mullingar June 23rd
19 Small Blue Portrane, Dublin June 24th
20 Large Heath Lodge Bog, Kildare July 17th
21 Silver-washed Fritillary Killinthomas Wood, Kildare August 3rd
22 Holly Blue Killinthomas Wood, Kildare August 3rd
23 Brimstone Killinthomas Wood, Kildare August 3rd
24 Red Admiral Bellview, Mullingar August 15th
25 Large White Bellview, Mullingar August 15th
26 Brown Hairstreak The Burren, Clare August 17th
27 Grayling The Burren, Clare August 17th
28 Clouded Yellow The Raven, Wexford September 20th