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25 Feb 2017

Ordinary World

Posted by Jes. No Comments

What has happened to it all?

Crazy some are saying,

Where is the life that I recognise?

Gone Away. (Ordinary World Duran Duran 1993)

A couple of years ago I heard a fisherman describe his experience of the decline of fish stocks in Irish waters. He regretted the dropping catches and commented on how much higher the fish numbers were earlier in his career. He then followed with a telling point. He said that older fishermen told him that what he saw as high fish numbers early in his career were, to them, a huge collapse from the numbers they met with earlier in their lives as fishermen. What had been ‘normal’ for his younger self were abnormal to the older fishermen.

Normality is relative to one’s time and experience. What we see as normal therefore depends on the whole breadth of our experience. Those who follow us may find it impossible to believe that ever a time existed when Garden Tiger moths were everywhere in July, or that House Sparrows in city parks perched by the half dozen on benevolent bird lover’s hands to take proffered grain, or that Swifts dashed along city streets at human eye level plucking insect prey from our midst. It was normal on summer mornings to regret leaving the window ajar and indoor light on during muggy nights for the multitude of nocturnal insects speckling the walls. Vehicle windscreens were greasy with insects arising from day or night journeys. None of these sights are familiar to today’s observer.

Those who knew of a previous, biodiverse world miss this normality. We miss the eager shriek of cavorting Swifts, the chirping House Sparrows, a familiar soundtrack to our daily routine and the chocolate dappled forewings and blue-spotted terracotta hindwings of  Garden Tigers, a welcome reminder of mid-summer. We may not miss cleaning the grimy windscreen but a countryside empty of bees, hoverflies, butterflies, moths, birds foreshadows a darker future for everyone.

If you want to get used to this ordinary world, do nothing.

But if you want a world where life is valued, change.

Do not use chemicals in the garden, or on your driveway. You do not need to kill the insects on your plants; the insects belong there, your chemicals don’t.

If you farm, farm without fertilizers. Grass, the country’s most abundant crop, will grow anyway. But wild flowers will not; fertilizer destroys native flowers.

Send slurry to a sewage plant; do not dump it on wild flower meadows; it destroys them.

Plant native Irish trees and native Irish shrubs. These are great for our wildlife which relies on native plants for survival. Leylandii, Laurel, Grizalinia, Common Beech and other non-native hedging are very poor for biodiversity. A native hedge consisting of Common Holly, Common Hawthorn, Common Hazel, Alder Buckthorn (bee magnet) Guelder Rose (a show-stopper in flower and during autumn for its berries (a Bullfinch favourite) and outstanding leaf  colour) will bring back colour and life to your landscape. A native mini-wood planted along the fringe of your garden (several small native trees are suitable) or a corner of your field (where you’ve got space, native oak, Common Hazel, Common Ash, Downy/Silver Birch, Irish Whitebeam, etc) will restore life and character to your surroundings.

Create a pond/wetland in your farm or garden. Frogs, newts, dragonflies rely on fresh water habitats for survival. A wildlife area without a pond is a theatre without a stage. As I write, the frogs are croaking in my pond while the male newts frolic frenetically around apparently indifferent females as the dance of life kicks off in spring.

Grow genuine, native flowers from a native seed source (why not collect and sow your own?) in your flower bed, rockery, lawn, pond etc. Steer clear of feeble garden varieties lacking nectar, pollen and gilded with vulgarly over-sized blooms that boast absurdly unnatural colours; I saw a purple (!) primrose in a garden centre today; needless to say, no bee went near it.

What is happening to tropical rainforests is horrifying. But our record here is just as bad. Our forests were wiped out long ago. But the few steps outlined here, small as they are, are a start. Let’s create a new, fuller normality, an extraordinary world.

For details on these steps, see the advice on this website http://www.butterflyconservation.ie/wordpress/?page_id=33. See also http://www.wildflowers.ie/

Primroses; where are they now? ©J.Harding.

12 Feb 2017

Butterfly Conservation Ireland Opposes Barrow Blueway

Posted by Jes. No Comments

Butterfly Conservation Ireland has learned that a spokesperson for Waterways Ireland claimed during a recent interview on Kildare FM Radio that Butterfly Conservation Ireland is happy with the plans that Waterways Ireland have for the Barrow River.

Butterfly Conservation Ireland is opposed to the plans for the Barrow. This stance was made clear during a radio interview with Kilkenny Carlow Local Radio 96FM on 19 January and in our press release issued the previous day. The press release can be seen on this website; see http://www.butterflyconservation.ie/wordpress/?p=5228. Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s opposition to Waterways Ireland’s plans was also expressed on 26 January at the Maynooth Biodiversity Planning meeting.  Butterfly Conservation Ireland expressed its opposition to the Waterways Ireland plans when the Waterways Ireland spokesman present mentioned Waterways Ireland’s commitment to biodiversity.

In the event that any confusion remains over Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s stance on the proposed Barrow Blueway we reiterate that any unnecessary intervention that damages habitats for butterflies is opposed by Butterfly Conservation Ireland. Butterfly Conservation Ireland does not regard the installation of hard surfaces to replace the natural grassy tracks as necessary and is strongly against the proposed track. The Barrow towpath as it currently exists provides tranquil access to some of the most valuable habitats in the south-east of Ireland. The Barrow contains several habitats and species protected under European Union law. The Barrow is a Special Area of Conservation  for various habitats and or species listed in Annex I and Annex II of the E.U. Habitats’ Directive. Woodland and herbaceous vegetation found at various points along the Barrow are extremely valuable and rich in species and must be afforded the highest levels of protection; some of these habitats are very scarce in Ireland. The aesthetic values of beauty, harmony and peace, often less measurable yet tangible, must also be defended.

The Barrow is probably the most beautiful waterway on this island. It deserves the protection needed so that it will continue to be a haven for wildlife and people. To this end Butterfly Conservation Ireland supports the maintenance of the Barrow towpath. Butterfly Conservation Ireland expects that its support for the maintenance of the Barrow Way as it is at present is represented correctly in the media.

4 Feb 2017

Early Butterflies

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I have read accounts of the Brimstone butterfly which contain descriptions of its early emergence such as: “seen as early as February” (Goodden et al. 2005), “ready to fly on the first warm days of spring”(Haahtela et al. 2011) “Herald of spring and on the wing as early as March”(Sterry et al. 2016) “males…leave hibernation on warm days in late winter”(Tolman and Lewington 2009). While emergence times vary across Europe and the information in the texts cannot to be taken to apply everywhere in Europe, three of the texts are titled “The Butterflies of Britain and Europe” and make some reference to Ireland. The fourth, Sterry et al. is called “The Complete Guide to British Butterflies and Moths” and covers Ireland too.

Despite these ‘promises’ of early Brimstones, I feel let down! Never have I observed the beautiful daffodil yellow male in late winter. My earliest record is March 12. Trawling online for earlier reports from Ireland, I see little reason to believe the sources I quoted.  Most ‘early’ records are from late March and early April. Are we missing this butterfly, and only noticing it in late March because this is when we begin to get outside after winter? Somehow, I doubt this. We get reports of other species in winter and early spring so there are observations happening before late March. I get the impression that the Brimstone does not emerge early in Ireland for climatic reasons. Early emerging butterflies like the Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell deal with cool spring temperatures by basking frequently, often on bare ground with wings held horizontally and the body raised above the surface. This method is called dorsal basking and it exposes the surfaces of the Small Tortoiseshell’s and Peacock’s wings and body to warmth both from the direct sunlight above and by trapping warm air from below. The main function of basking is to increase body heat to enable the butterfly to carry out necessary activities such as flight, feeding, mating, egg development, egg laying etc.

But the Brimstone does not use dorsal basking to warm itself. Instead, it uses lateral basking with appression in spring when ambient temperatures are low. This involves the Brimstone settling with its wings closed (lateral basking) and one side of its wings pressed against the surface on which it basks (appression). In early spring the chosen basking surface is often the great flattened tufts of bleached moor-grass. The butterfly basks on the dry grass sometimes for several minutes when it does not engage in activities like feeding that dorsal baskers often engage in. As it heats up, the butterfly tilts away from the surface until it stands perpendicular to the sun; see photo below. If the moor-grass is sodden/cold a basking Brimstone  would not obtain heat radiated from the surface but may lie prone, unable to move swiftly, an easy meal for a hungry bird.

While the Brimstone does not obtain heat solely from the surface but also from direct heating of the thorax and transfer of heat to the thorax from heated wings, it might be that the Brimstone’s emergence coincides with the drying out of the basking vegetation, from mid-March. If the contribution of radiated heat from the surface is of importance to the species, the very wet winters and springs of recent years may have contributed to later emergence from dormancy. Perhaps the changes in rainfall levels (according to Met Éireann rainfall has increased over the past three decades) is causing the Brimstone to emerge later than it did up to the 1980’s. The increases in rainfall levels from around 1985 may have caused the Brimstone’s disappearance from Fermanagh in the very wet mid-1980’s. Timing is vital for butterflies; emerging too early or too late might cause the species to be out of sinc with the development of its larval food plant. An adult butterfly precluded from emerging when it should might starve or suffer predation. Tracking emergence dates through recording may provide clues as to how species like the Brimstone are responding to our changing climate. We would, of course, need to compare emergence times and weather conditions with those from before the 1980’s to investigate these proposals.

However, the winter of 2016-17 has been fairly dry, quiet and mild so far. We may see butterflies that pass the winter in the larval stage earlier this spring, if spring is warm. A reason for earlier emergence for some butterflies following mild winters is the fact that some species’ over-wintering larvae will feed during mild spells in winter and will therefore be better developed. This might result in early emergence in species like Small Heath, Wall Brown and Speckled Wood. However the phenology of the Speckled Wood is complex being unique among Irish butterflies in being able to pass the winter in the pupal and larval state. The stage in which this multi-brooded butterfly over-winters may depend on which population cohort the larva belongs to, autumn temperatures, photoperiod (amount of daylight received), genetic factors, latitude, etc. Spring warmth will cause earlier hatching of the Speckled Woods that over-wintered as pupae while winter warmth may even allow faster development of over-wintering larvae causing these to appear as adults early too, often overlapping with the individuals that passed the winter in the pupa. The Holly Blue, another species to emerge in spring is more straight forward in that the species spends the winter in the pupal stage and mild springs will prompt early emergence, especially in built-up areas where it can be seen from March.

Not all Irish butterflies and moths are well served by mild winter weather or by warm springs. Indeed, these conditions are suggested as reasons for declines in some species (Garden Tiger may be negatively affected by mild winter weather followed by a cold February). To give a recent example; in 2011 a warm, sunny spring accelerated the development of Marsh Fritillary larvae on inland areas especially, resulting in emergence in early May, as opposed to its more usual emergence in late May/early June. Disastrous May weather followed, drastically reducing and even eliminating inland populations. The weather in early June was fine, but by then the damage was done.

These are volatile times for our butterfly and moth populations. Butterflies, being day-flying, allow for ready monitoring. We ask you to keep your eyes peeled for early and all butterflies! Please email us with your records; details of how to do so are found by clicking on the Records tab. The Butterflies tab contains a gallery showing all our butterflies.
Get out and seek and tell us what you found!
Holly Blue, spring male. © J.Harding.
Spring Peacock dorsal basking.© J.Harding.

Spring Brimstone lateral basking. ©J.Harding.