Monday 11 December 2017

A butterfly farm flaps its wings

DIVING BELL: Iris Fox, co-founder of the Straffan Butterfly Farm, demonstrates one of the exotic butterflies. Photos: Tony Gavin
DIVING BELL: Iris Fox, co-founder of the Straffan Butterfly Farm, demonstrates one of the exotic butterflies. Photos: Tony Gavin
Butterfly farm inhabitant
Allison Bray

Allison Bray

After flying in close to 250,000 live butterflies from South America over 30 years, the purveyors of Ireland's oldest stand-alone butterfly farm are calling it quits next month.

What started off as a flight of fancy for engineer Des Fox (61) soon became a full-time obsession after the Co Kildare native was given a framed butterfly as a gift when he was a child.

"I was fascinated with the colour and I took an interest in it and started collecting them," he told the Sunday Independent.

But no longer content with poring over stunning photographs of the colourful, iridescent beauties in the local library, Mr Fox soon began corresponding with suppliers in South America who would post dried tropical butterflies to his home. By the time he was 15 he was breeding them. And while he went on to a successful career as an engineer at his family's engineering firm in Baldonnel, Co Dublin, butterflies were never far from his heart.

Even today, after more than 30 years of lovingly nurturing them, they still give him butterflies in the stomach. "I absolutely love them. I could sit there and watch them all day," he said.

Mr Fox's passion for the colourful creatures was infectious and his wife Iris (55), soon took a keen interest as well.

By 1985 they were the subject of a television documentary after they set up a tropical hot house in their back garden in Straffan, Co Kildare in which to breed and house the tropical insects.

They held their first exhibition in 1985 which attracted 1,500 visitors and the following summer, the Straffan Butterfly Farm and Exhibition was born.

The couple installed a pond stocked with Koi and goldfish surrounded by palm trees and other tropical plants in the lush, jungle-like hothouse which is kept at a minimum temperature of 30c year-round in order to house hundreds of the free-flying insects which flit from branch to branch, sometimes alighting on delighted visitors.

"People get a view into a magical world and then they step out the door again," he said.

"You'd have to go somewhere deep in the jungle to see them flying around like that in the wild."

Each week, approximately 150 tropical butterflies of 30 various species in the pupae or chrysalis "resting" stage arrive in the post from Peru wrapped in cotton wool. They hang bat-like from plants or a special enclosure until they emerge a few days later as butterflies.

But sadly they're all doomed. Adults will only live about a week, while some of the larger African butterflies have an adult lifespan of just two days.

The work involved in breeding the butterflies and constantly maintaining the tropical garden which gets slowly eaten by the caterpillars is a feat in itself, Mr Fox said.

But the cost of running the centre, which also includes a collection of live tarantulas, scorpions, lizards and snakes, has become prohibitive with insurance and massive heating costs, he said.

And after running the exhibition seven days a week during the summer, they will close for good on August 30. "We can't go on for forever," he said.

Sunday Independent

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