Ocean Mist

Posted by Jes

My Butterfly Garden-Pat Bell

In this article BCI member Pat Bell provides intimate insights on the magic of wildlife gardening. Pat, an experienced, award winning gardener, describes how he transformed his modest suburban garden into a butterfly haven. Pat also looks at the world beyond his garden wall to see what other wild creatures he can attract.

I was listening to Mooney Goes Wild one Friday afternoon some years ago when they were chatting to someone about butterflies. This person then referred to the number of different species in his garden, something around 15 or 16 if I remember correctly. This stopped me in my tracks. I had recently won a prize in the 2008 Corrin Hill Biodiversity Garden Awards and I guess I was thinking along the lines of bringing a new element to my garden – the emphasis in the competition was to demonstrate that nature conservation and gardening can go together perfectly. Of course with the benefit of hindsight, I think the person that Mooney and panel were talking to that day was Jesmond!  I hadn’t ignored butterflies though and I’m pretty sure that my species count at that time would have been 10: four Vanessids (Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Painted Lady), three whites (Large White, Small White & Green-veined White), two browns (Speckled Wood and Meadow Brown) and the Holly Blue. The latter reliably appears in early spring every year on the Berberis blossom and I have been photographing Red Admirals on my fig tree for the best part of ten years and some interesting clusters of Small Tortoiseshells on the pondside Purple Loosestrife.

Peacock on Tansy

Red Admirals dining on plums.

My garden is located in a housing estate in the town of Maynooth in County Kildare (N941370) and is classed as medium sized suburban for Birdwatch Ireland’s Garden Bird Survey which I’m in my twelfth season of recording at this moment. There is a hedgerow in my back garden which consists primarily of hawthorn but also contains Common Hazel, Holly, damson, crab apple, Honeysuckle and naturalised blackcurrant, willow and briar. Berries such as Hawthorn, Common Ivy, Honeysuckle and Mahonia are enjoyed by the birds. There is also a grassy area (not a lawn) and a wildlife pond which is fed by the overflow from a rainwater butt. No pesticides, herbicides or any chemicals are used. My home office faces the back garden as does my conservatory so I’m well placed to observe wildlife comings and goings. The front garden consists of a herbaceous border, an annual bed and a row of shrubs growing against the external ivy-covered wall (furze, Elder, Mahonia, Common Buckthorn, Berberis and roses). With about 20 different types of tree and bush fruit growing for good measure, plus some vegetables and herbs, the garden was probably also quite moth friendly at the time, of which more later.

So, how to go about increasing the number of butterflies species in my garden? A Christmas present from my daughter Lucy, “How to Attract Butterflies to your Garden” by John and Maureen Tampion, was informative and helped me clarify some thoughts. In addition to dealing with basic principles, butterfly meadows and plants for adult butterflies, it had a chapter on ‘Plants for Caterpillars’. This was a particular revelation to me and gave me plenty of ideas which I then fine-tuned for Irish conditions with the help of Jesmond’s book. My first success was relatively easy. I planted lady’s smock, by the edge of my pond, which had Orange Tip eggs already on them. Both plants and butterflies are now well established and I had eggs and larvae on the lady’s smock this past season but I don’t know if they matured or fell victim to my resident robins or blue tits.

Wildflower meadows are not as easy to achieve in reality as some of those many photos that appear might lead you to believe. I have for many years dabbled with spring meadows and summer meadows, both in this house and other houses I have lived in, which is just playing about with mowing timings in reality. Ideally I should have dug up my grassy area, removed most of the top soil and sowed a mixture of wild flowers and grasses. Instead I just started letting this area get wilder to see what would happen naturally. This can be a slow process so I also planted some wild flowers both bought and introduced such as Ox-eye Daisy, Yarrow and Common Valerian. I planted a dozen Common Knapweed plants last year which I hope will establish as this is a very popular flower with many butterflies from my observations. Dandelion is a most important early season flowering plant and a vital source of nectar for emerging butterflies. Figwort has self-seeded widely, as has buttercup, Wild Garlic and Herb Robert, and is attractive to many insects but not especially to butterflies. All of the browns lay their eggs in various grasses and the appearance of a Ringlet was the successful outcome of this exercise and brought my species count to 12.

Small Whites fluttering among my wild flowers.

Red Admiral on Common Ragwort, an excellent nectar source.

My main target species were now the Small Copper and Common Blue. The larval food plant of the former is common sorrel which has naturalised all over the grassy area but all my attempts to establish Common Bird’s-foot Trefoil for the latter, whether from seed or plants, have failed. Then out of the blue it happened; there was a Common Blue on the Common Valerian in mid-June and even though there was no sign of it when I came back with my camera what an unexpected thrill. A few years ago a ragwort plant started growing and was doing well until a friend uprooted it. A Kildare man like myself his first instinct was to pull it up as it is poisonous to horses but, remembering what sort of a garden he was in, he sheepishly fessed up! No sign of it again until last summer when a large plant appeared and proved very attractive to many insects all summer long and yielded me some nice photos.  However, I could hardly believe my eyes one day in mid-August when I saw a Small Copper on it. I grabbed my new camera but couldn’t master it in time to get a snap and then it was gone. I’m currently reading “Mariposa Road” by Robert Michael Pyle which is a kind of North American “Butterfly Isles”. I was amazed that of his certified total of 478 species, 72 of them were ‘singletons’ i.e. just one individual seen. So I’m cool with my single sightings of the Common Blue and Small Copper and of course I’m hoping that this is just the start as there is plenty of common sorrel for the Small Copper and I have a renewed incentive now to try again with Common Bird’s-foot Trefoil for the Common Blue. I enjoy playing around with my annual bed which was formerly the front lawn. I dig it over in springtime and had been experimenting with various seed crops such as Linseed, Amaranthus, Buckwheat and even an old variety of oats. I would also add some seed of traditional wild flowers of corn fields such as Cornflower, Corn Marigold and Corn cockle, this latter being very popular with butterflies as can be seen below. A patch of Evening Primrose has now established itself at one end of this bed. For the past couple of years I haven’t specifically sown anything but just observed what would happen – anything is likely to appear given what I’ve previously sown in it. Common Cat’s-ear has appeared for example and is proving very attractive to Small Whites. I plan to add a proprietary ‘butterfly mix’ in 2015 just to give this bed a boost.

Painted Lady

Large White

My perennial herbaceous bed gets afternoon and evening sun in summer. Some of the flowers in it include poppy (Papaver spp), rue (Thalictrum spp), a sea holly (Eryngium spp), a daylily (Hermerocallis spp), Elacampana, Camissia, lily (Agapanthus spp), aconitum, lavender (Lavandula spp), knapweeds (Centaurea spp), Lobelia (a popular blue-flowered bedding plant) and geraniums (Geranaciaceae spp). Globe Thistle (Echinops ritro) is extremely attractive to bumble bees and Tansy to hover flies. The Ice Plant (Sedum spectabile) comes into its own in the autumn as does the Verbena bonariensis both of which are very popular with all the Vanessids such as the Peacock and there are also various clumps of nettles around the garden for the larvae of these species. I replaced an existing hydrangea (a sterile plant for butterflies) with a summer buddleia in 2010 and I planted an autumn buddleia in 2011; this latter produced its greatest blossoms in autumn 2012 on which I observed my record numbers of Small Tortoiseshells (50). I intend to experiment with the timing of pruning of both species of buddleia in future with the aim of getting a more continuous supply of blossom between the two plants. The Painted Lady is an occasional visitor and 2012 was my last sighting.

My young neighbour Adam is fascinated with its journey to Europe from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and they’re very fond of the Rudbeckia in his garden. We’ve both been on the alert for it these last two years since but with no luck. Butterflies can also get their sugar fix from fruit of course and this seems to be particularly the case with Red Admirals which have always had a liking for my figs and to some extent also my plums and in the first week of September my peak number for Red Admirals was being broken on virtually a daily basis (ending up at 12). It wasn’t a particularly sunny week but they would appear like magic when the sun broke through – I think most of them were lying low deep in the fig tree. I hadn’t pruned my plum tree in recent years so there was a lot of fruit out of reach and I took to putting the windfalls on the garden table which proved to be a very popular breakfast for them! (See http://www.butterflyconservation.ie/wordpress/?p=3216 for video footage of Pat’s Red Admiral banquet (Ed)).

Female Holly Blue on buttercup

I have been participating in the National Biodiversity Data Centre’s Butterfly Monitoring Scheme since 2011. My transect is the Royal Canal from Maynooth Harbour to Pike Bridge and I took on a second transect in 2013 in the vicinity of our allotment in Stacumny.  I have been participating in Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s National Garden Butterfly Survey since 2010 and I also conduct counts in my garden on a weekly basis.

For this I use a methodology similar to the Garden Bird Survey in that I record the highest number of butterflies observed at any one time for each species every week. I then put these numbers into Transect Walker software package which enables me to print useful tables, charts and graphs. I noticed that the first peak for 2013 was strongly influenced by Small Whites and the later peaks in September by the build-up of Small Tortoiseshell numbers. The first peak in 2014 was dominated by an early surge in Small Tortoiseshells in July and they are complemented by Red Admirals to produce the second September peak. My recording period has not been long enough or my numbers large enough to warrant detailed analysis but it is interesting to note that the total abundance in 2014 was just over 300 which is approximately 40 less than 2013 but 40 more than 2012. The Small Tortoiseshell was again the most abundant species (142). It was a good year relatively for Red Admirals (40) and Speckled Woods (15) but a less successful year for whites especially the Large White. Total for all whites was 73 compared to 135 in 2013 and 63 in 2012.

Meadow Brown on buttercup.

What next? There has been a convergence in the number of species observed in my garden and my two transects with 13 now common to all three sites. I’ve seen the Painted Lady in my garden but not on the transects and the Wood White on both transects but not in the garden so maybe the Wood White is my most likely next addition? I have buckthorn (both alder and common) planted for the Brimstone but for the moment I think this is unlikely; we need more people planting buckthorn to maybe entice it closer from its peatland strongholds to suburban areas. Silver-washed Fritillaries have been recorded in some rural gardens but again I think I’m too far removed from their woodland haunts. Jesmond has had the beautiful Clouded Yellow in his garden so perhaps this irregular migrant might turn up in its next good year, what a thrill that would be.

A pond brings a whole new dimension to any garden and a wildlife pond in particular. There’s always something happening from frogs spawning in February to bird activity in winter – at the time of writing I’ve had redwings bathing in it, a rare visitor to Irish gardens. My main pond plants include water lilies, water forget-me-not, spearwort, arrowhead, water plantain and flowering rush while around the margins and vicinity there are plants such as Marsh Marigold, Marsh Mallow, Purple Loosestrife, Yellow Flag and Alder Buckthorn.

Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) have started to populate the garden with the Blue-tailed Damselfly and Common Blue Damselfly now resident. They spend most of the day in the long grass actually and seem to be very fond of sorrel flowers. While a Brown Hawker dragonfly sometimes buzzes around, the Migrant Hawker is a more frequent visitor and even gives me some photo opportunities; note the distinguishing abdomen of this male.

Common Blue Damselfly.

Migrant Hawker.

I’ve borrowed BCI’s moth trap three times now in the last two years. As a complete novice in this area I could not attempt to identify a fraction of the catch without the help of Philip Strickland who happens to live near me. Our methodology is that Philip drops in early morning, sometimes on his way to work, and I take notes as he empties the trap and then ‘one of these months’ he sends me his list – I don’t know how he does it. Combining these lists and my occasional sightings and photos of moths from over the years my full consolidated listing now stands at a healthy 101 and includes a few notable catches. The Codling Moth has only been recorded 22 times on the Moths Ireland database, Lobesia abscisana has only been recorded in six 10km squares in Ireland and the Variegated Golden Tortrix might be a first county record for Kildare according to Philip. There are three species of China-mark which are unusual in that their larvae are entirely aquatic, feeding on water plants. I also love some of the exotic names, such as Yellow-barred Brindle, Muslin Footman, Burnished Brass, Smoky Wainscot and Setaceous Hebrew Character. My aim for 2015 is to at least set the trap in months not previously counted and expand my range of night-scented plants with the likes of Sweet Rocket, Night-scented Stock and Tobacco plant (Nicotiana alata) to complement existing ones such as Jasmine, Honeysuckle and Evening Primrose.

Large Emerald

Burnished Brass

One autumn evening last year I had possibly my biggest thrill of all when I spotted a Hummingbird Hawkmoth hovering around my autumn buddleia in evening sun. Philip suggested that they are also seen on phlox so I immediately got a couple of plants for a spot that gets late evening sun but I never saw it again – another amazing singleton experience!


Harding, J; Discovering Irish Butterflies & their Habitats, ISBN 9780956054609

Pyle, Robert Michael; Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year, ISBN 9780618945399

Stevenson, Violet; The Wild Garden, ISBN 0711204225

Tampion, John & Maureen; How to Attract Butterflies to your Garden, ISBN 1861082975

Pat’s Garden Bird Survey 2003-13: http://1drv.ms/1yy4r8I

All photographs which were taken in Pat’s garden are copyright Pat Bell.