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21 Mar 2017

Why there are few butterflies on Ireland’s Modern Farms

Posted by Jes. No Comments

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.

25 Feb 2017

Ordinary World

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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.