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10 Jun 2017

Grass or Tarmac?

Posted by Jes. No Comments

Irish Times journalist Paddy Woodworth has again highlighted Waterways Ireland’s plans to install hard surfaces along the canals and River Barrow. The following article explores the various perspectives on the issue. We remain concerned about the plans to remove habitat and to diminish the peace and beauty of the Waterways and their setting. The full article is reproduced here and is in the Weekend Review of The Irish Times of 10 June 2017.

Butterfly Conservation Ireland thanks Paddy Woodworth and The Irish Times for highlighting this important environmental issue.

Grass or tarmac? The towpath debate

Hikers and nature-lovers are unhappy about hard-track plans for Irish waterways

about 13 hours ago
Paddy Woodworth
River Barrow trail: “The grassy towpath is the green frame for the river,” according to Olivia O’Leary River Barrow trail: “The grassy towpath is the green frame for the river,” according to Olivia O’Leary. Photograph: Paddy WoodworthRiver Barrow trail: “The grassy towpath is the green frame for the river,” according to Olivia O’Leary River Barrow trail: “The grassy towpath is the green frame for the river,” according to Olivia O’Leary. Photograph: Paddy Woodworth

“Step out on the grassy way which is the Barrow towpath and you have stepped into another world. You can walk along the river for miles without hearing a car or a lorry. You can’t even hear the sound of your own footsteps. You’ll hear the birds; the rush of the weirs; the wind in the trees. And little by little you’ll let go of your worries because the river has cast its spell.”

Earlier this year, in one of her inimitable radio diaries for Drivetime, on RTÉ Radio 1, Olivia O’Leary expressed her love of a very special landscape – and her dismay at Waterways Ireland’s plans to “improve access” to the Barrow and other rivers (and canals) by building hard-surface, impermeable tracks on the old pathways that give her, and many others, so much balm and pleasure.

“We are all in favour of more walkers and canoeists and cyclists and anglers,” she continued, “but the grassy towpath is the green frame for the river, part of its soft beauty. Why destroy the very beauty we want visitors to see?”

O’Leary is not alone in her concern. Liam Lysaght, an ecologist, and director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, has submitted (as a private citizen) a very strong objection to the proposal.

“The Barrow track is a magnificent site,” he writes, “with qualities that are unique in western Europe. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that this man-made feature, running along the Barrow, has for decades been left to develop organically in tune with nature, with only the minimum of management intervention.

“The resultant amenity is a walking route of stunning beauty, wonderful tranquillity and a rich biological diversity rare across the breadth of the European Union.

“The current proposal….is based on an ill-conceived concept….Attempts to ‘improve’ the track to accommodate increased and more varied usage of the amenity will detract from the very quality it is trying to promote.”

Azure flash

Walking from Ballyteigelea Bridge towards Graiguenamanagh on a luminous early-summer afternoon, it is hard to disagree. A kingfisher catches the light in an azure flash, again and again, and then again. The unusually extensive riverside woodland is ringing with birdsong, and it seems exceptionally rich in plants.

Lysaght’s submission notes that the trail lies within a special area of conservation, with 159 species that are legally protected. Some are threatened by extinction, including the freshwater pearl mussel and the Killarney fern. He warns that engineering works would open new opportunities for the spread of alien invasive species, one of the biggest threats to our native flora and fauna.

The towpath, at least on this part of the trail, is broad, up to five or six metres wide at some points. It can amply accommodate mountain bikes and wheelchairs, as long as the former show consideration for other trail users. And, to my slightly arthritic ankles at least, grass on a firm base – the path was originally created using compacted quarry spoil – is a much happier surface for a long walk than Tarmac.

The path needs management, of course, including regular mowing of the central strip – but not the plant-rich margins – in the growing season. Waterways Ireland is already doing this rather well. So why does it want to mend what doesn’t seem broken?

Local usage

Waterways Ireland is a 32-county body set up under the British-Irish Agreement of 1999; it says it manages, maintains, develops and promotes more than 1,000km of inland navigable waterways, principally for recreational purposes.

Cormac McCarthy, an environment and heritage officer with the agency, says that he appreciates people’s concerns about the plan, “but we have to be objective, not subjective. Local people naturally have a range of intangible connections to the landscape as it is, but the path is not just for local usage.”

He points out that the agency has a brief to attract more national and international visitors to our waterways, to promote tourism. Therefore “we must be able to offer consistent paths, in order to market them”, so that different recreational users “will know what to expect”.

It’s surely equally arguable, however, that tourists will want diversity, not uniformity. No one expects the Camino de Santiago, Spain’s long-distance pilgrimage path, to have the same appearance from start to finish.

The Barrow is not the only place where the agency has run into strong local opposition. Two weeks ago on this page we visited the Royal Canal with Jesmond Harding of Butterfly Conservation Ireland. He expressed grave misgivings about the effects on biodiversity of the agency’s hard-track engineering along its margins.

Until recently Harding had been fairly happy with the way Waterways Ireland was managing the butterfly-friendly canal-bank vegetation between Leixlip and Kilcock, Co Kildare. It has regularly mowed a swathe of the grass towpath to facilitate walkers but it has left a border of wild flowers along the canal itself, and another on the bank between the path and the hedgerow.

Corridors of habitat

“These swards form essential corridors of habitat for butterflies and other species,” he says, “and Waterways Ireland has also been helpful in trimming back the trees in the hedgerow itself, which would otherwise march out and shade out the wild flowers. Up to now we have found them very helpful and amenable to consultation.”

However, he was horrified when he recently visited a section of the towpath much farther west, near Enfield, and found a bulldozer ploughing away several metres’ width of the towpath, including the south-facing bank vegetation that is critical for butterflies to sun themselves and breed.

McCarthy is refreshingly open about the bulldozing at Enfield.

“We hold up our hands: this shouldn’t have happened. It was due to a breakdown of communication between us, the county council and the contractor. As soon as Butterfly Conservation Ireland alerted us to it we stopped it, and we have met them again and will have further meetings.”

Harding acknowledges the level of engagement but remains unhappy with much of the plan. At Allen Bridge, near Kilcock, the towpath towards the Shannon is green and a little uneven (which is good for biodiversity), and the bank vegetation is intact. It is easily accessible to walkers.

Towards Dublin, however, the towpath has been levelled and covered, to up to four metres width, in Tarmac. Harding recognises that some locals are happy with this development, and it certainly makes fast biking and skate-boarding easy, although no lanes are marked. However, it has turned a rich and visually varied semi-natural space into blank urban pavement.

Mary Jennings, of the Tidy Towns committee in nearby Maynooth, also expresses anxiety about Waterways Ireland’s plans.

Older feel

“We have been well served by the existing pathway. It has retained an older feel than the Tarmac areas, and it doesn’t need any heavy construction work.

“We understand that many interest groups need to be accommodated on this route, including cyclists, but our biodiversity action plan stresses that these paths should be well managed for wildlife. We want to meet Cormac McCarthy to discuss what is really being planned.”

McCarthy stresses that the type of surface envisaged varies from section to section, that planning permission with public consultation is a condition of all the agency’s work, and that even after permission is granted he is willing to meet anyone onsite to discuss their concerns and to modify implementation if necessary.

It seems likely that he will be very busy.


A canalbank or riverbank is a very narrow ground where Waterways Ireland must integrate a very broad range of legitimate public interests.

Even among environmentalists there are inevitably clashing priorities for such spaces. Some argue for cycleways as a climate-change essential; others stress biodiversity protection. And the push to increase visitor numbers and boost tourism clashes with the need for quietness associated with contemplative hiking and fishing.

McCarthy says that “the overarching aim of our heritage plan is the protection of biodiversity”. He points out that the agency has carried out detailed professional ecological assessments of its plans, in collaboration with the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Jane Stout, director of the Trinity Centre for Biodiversity Research and deputy chair of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, says they’re happy that Waterways Ireland is engaging fully and openly with the pollinator plan as best it can.

There is a still a lot of room for improvement, however, and for a lot more discussion with local groups. One size will not fit all over 1,000km of walking routes, North and South of the Border.

29 May 2017

Butterfly Conservation Ireland highlighted in Irish Times

Posted by Jes. No Comments

Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s work and the importance of the waterways for butterflies and moths was profiled in the Weekend Review of The Irish Times of 27 May 2017. Journalist Paddy Woodworth wrote the article, the text of which appears below. A further article concentrating on the controversial plan of Waterways Ireland to install wide tracks that will remove some excellent habitat will appear in a future weekend edition, probably in two weeks’ time.

A special thanks to Paddy Woodworth for his interest in saving our natural heritage.

A butterfly’s view of the Royal Canal

Don’t dismiss that patch of nettles as ‘weeds’, it is prime butterfly habitat

Sat, May 27, 2017, 06:00
Paddy Woodworth
Royal Canal walk. Photograph: Francis BradleyRoyal Canal walk. Photograph: Francis Bradley

The last refuge of nature in our overcrowded world is often, ironically enough, to be found in obsolete remnants of human industry.

Our canal system is a monument to Victorian engineering, but these artificial waterways no longer carry commerce from town to town. Meanwhile intensive farming, with its pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers has, biologically speaking, impoverished the soils of the agricultural land around the canals. So the pathways and hedgerows alongside their banks have inadvertently become sanctuaries for the great variety of wild flowers that can no longer survive in industrialised grazing and cereal systems.

One of the last places in counties Dublin and Kildare where you can still find the characteristically rich plant life of calcareous (limestone-based) grassland is along the banks of the Royal Canal. And with these plants come a host of associated life-forms, from butterflies to birds, once abundant in these landscapes, now often also reduced to these accidental arteries of biodiversity.

“Occasionally, the butterfly’s common name will give a clue to one of its host plants.”

The idea that the natural world is a web, in which everything is connected to everything else, lies at the heart of ecology and has become commonplace in our nature education. But there are myriad interlinked strands in this web, and many of them are not at all obvious – until someone points them out to you. Grasping a fresh set of such connections directly is always a special pleasure, and reframes the way we look at familiar places.

Wealth of species

Jesmond Harding is a good man to reframe your view of a canal bank in early May. At first sight, the vegetation is still mostly an unexceptional muddle of green leaves but Harding deftly identifies a wealth of species, linking most of them to the life-cycle of particular butterflies.

Occasionally, the butterfly’s common name will give a clue to one of its host plants. A holly blue appears, flittering obligingly over a holly bush. Harding says that this generation will lay eggs on the holly’s tender fresh leaves, perfect food for its caterpillars. By midsummer, however, the leaves will be too tough. So the next generation will lay on ivy, and the caterpillars will feed on its emerging berries.

Harding is a schoolteacher, and exhibits the best of his profession’s ability to rapidly communicate facts through infectious enthusiasm. He has been interested in birds since the 1980s, but more recently became fascinated by butterflies, and helped found Butterfly Conservation Ireland.

So the way he views the canalbank vegetation is focused through the lens of these creatures, extraordinary not only in their beauty but in their two radically different lives, first as crawling planting-eating caterpillars and then as flying nectar-feeders.

One of the few plants already in flower where we are walking the canal bank, near Louisa Bridge at Leixlip, is the cuckooflower, also known as lady’s smock. Its variable lilac, pink or white blossoms are familiar in wetlands. I was vaguely aware that it was associated with the orange-tip, a small white butterfly with vividly contrasting wingtips. And sure enough, we see an orange-tip flickering away within minutes of first seeing the cuckooflower. Harding is able to show me exactly where to find the orange-tip’s eggs, tiny green ovoids adhering just below the blossom where the seed pod develops.

A few minutes later, we visit the remarkable landscape of a former spa, alongside the Louisa Bridge railway station section of the canal. This is a Special Area of Conservation, and is rich in wetland plants such as bog cotton, the carnivorous common butterwort, a small galaxy of bogbean in spectacular bloom – and more cuckooflowers.

Above them, a green-veined white butterfly dips and rises. Harding explains that this species also uses the cuckooflower to host its eggs – and to feed its caterpillars. But it lays eggs not on the seedpod, but on the rosette of leaves at the base of the plant. This is an example of “ecological separation”, whereby neither butterfly need compete with the other.

Nearby, Harding identifies two speckled wood butterflies engaged in what I have always taken to be an elegant, spiralling courtship dance. But Harding gently corrects me. These are two males, disputing territorial rights. “They have no biting body parts,” he says, “but they can knock scales off each other’s wings.”

“A male would have taken off in pursuit of the shadow, hoping to find a mate.”

Everywhere along the bank, Harding identifies more plants whose leaves (or berries) feed caterpillars, or whose flowers provide nectar for butterflies – meadowsweet, restharrow, meadow vetchling, wild marjoram and many more. You might dismiss that patch of nettles as “weeds”, but it is prime butterfly habitat.

A peacock butterfly settles nearby to feed on an elderflower in the hedgerow. Harding thinks it’s a female from its size. To check, he tosses a small stone, so that its shadow moves rapidly over the leaves near the butterfly. It does not stir.  “Definitely a female,” he says. “A male would have taken off in pursuit of the shadow, hoping to find a mate.”

When you see a butterfly fluttering over flowers without pausing to feed, he says, it is usually a male, searching for a female freshly emerged from a chrysalis. The females may emit a pheromone – a chemical signal to indicate their presence – but this has still to be confirmed by science.

The male has to be quick off the mark, because the female will usually only mate once in her life cycle. A single batch of sperm will enable her to lay successive sets of eggs over the next few weeks. Harding says, however, that there is some evidence now that some females mate twice, and that those that do may live longer; food for thought, perhaps.

But even as Harding reveals the multiple quirks and connections of the web of life around us, he expresses anxiety that this rich and threatened ecosystem is threatened by the plans of a State agency, Waterways Ireland, to “improve” public access to the canal banks. His concern is shared by walkers and nature lovers along the Barrow and elsewhere. This issue, and Waterways Ireland response, will be the subject of a future article on this page.

Love butterflies? Help their habitats!

Butterfly Conservation Ireland was born 10 years ago when some birders ran into some butterfly enthusiasts in the bogs of Kildare. They were quickly – and happily – infected by their passion. Together, they decided to form the first Irish group dedicated to butterfly conservation.

Essentially, this means conserving habitat favoured by their food plants. “Our love of butterflies led to our love of the places where they live,” says Jesmond Harding. He adds that butterflies are a great flagship species for conservation generally, because most people find them very attractive, even when they know very little about them.

The group now manages two sites for butterflies, one on an organic farm in the Burren, another on Lullybeg Bog, Co Kildare, partnered by Bord na Móna.

“Conservation management often means scrub clearance,” says Harding. Abandoned habitat is often not good habitat. Direct intervention is often necessary, reviving traditional practices like coppicing trees.

You can also do lot for butterflies in a small garden. Harding recommends limestone gravel for growing devil’s-bit scabious and bloody cranesbill, and a patch of grass, mowed only very early in the season, with common knapweed and bird’s foot trefoil. Avoid exotic plants, he says, you certainly don’t need buddleia or rhododendron, which easily escape and may quickly monopolise nearby native habitats.

The group also organises walks and lectures, and records species as citizen scientists. See butterflyconservation.ie/wordpress.

27 May 2017

Burren Trip Report

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Today is Saturday and rain is spilling from a uniformly pale grey sky. The Burren visit was provisionally set for a May weekend but unsuitable weekend weather confounded this plan. Left with no weekend to see the Burren in its May glory, we set Thursday  25 May for our day out.

The conditions were cloudy until about 12 noon when the sun finally burned through the gloom and the heat, already present, increased. Butterflies there were in plenty but the strong temperatures and strong breeze meant that the butterflies and moths were restless. Even the often sedate Marsh Fritillary were skittish, flitting nervously from daisy to cranesbill then rising, swerving sharply, carried by the gusty breeze almost out of view only to suddenly collapse into vegetation. Wall Browns were a welcome sight, given their status as an endangered species but these were more evasive, surging along the walls edging the green road, suddenly appearing interested in making a stop only to pick up speed as if to make up for time lost investigating the possibility of landing.

Pearl-bordered Fritillary, our particular target, were uncooperative too. Males were much in evidence but flew swiftly along the green road, without even hinting at a pause for nectar. During a cloudy interval, we got good views of a male on Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil but he was too intent on  moving from one small bloom to the next to allow for a good photograph. The only good image we took was of a female that we released where she was taken as a larva. She posed nicely on the bare ground before finally fluttering away to explore her habitat. Wood White were abundant, fluttering along the road and among open scrub but, apart from the occasional pause by a female at a nectar station, these were characteristically persistent in their weak but sustained flight.

A great number of micro-moths were seen, and two really attractive macro-moths; the Dew Moth, a Burren specialist and Speckled Yellow, headquartered in the Burren but found elsewhere in Ireland too. Strangely, no Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoths were seen here but this moth dislikes hot conditions and may have been sheltering. An Oblique Carpet, a night-flyer, was observed flitting uncomfortably from one grassy clump to another, irritated by the sharp sunlight and our attempts to get close views.

Overall, we saw most of our target species but the butterflies and moths were too active to obtain good photographs. We’ll just have to return next year…

Green Road at Clooncoose. ©J.Harding.

Pearl-bordered Fritillary, female. ©J.Harding.

Dew Moth. ©J.Harding.

Lackey Moth larva. ©J.Harding.

Wood White, female. ©J.Harding.