Tuesday 21 August 2018

Chasing a wing of beauty

Worst year: Butterflies struggled in the cold spring
Worst year: Butterflies struggled in the cold spring

Joe Kennedy

Schoolboy forays into lepidopteran pursuits appear now to be nothing more than savage hunts of trophy killings.

Armed with nets (home-made) and tin boxes, which once contained one's father's Christmas cigarette gifts, we set out along hedgerows, field banks and waste ground thick with docks, ragwort and various flowered growths, with excited cries in the chase. Unlike birds, the insects seemed oblivious to our actions.

On some days, there seemed to be butterflies everywhere, passages of the mere mundane cabbage whites, meadow browns and small tortoiseshells, and then, suddenly, a peacock with its aircraft wing markings, or a painted lady appearing in the fluttering frame like some exotic humming bird. The chase was on!

The poor creatures, when captured, were brutally done to death by means of straight pins to the abdomen which subsequently affixed them to the pages of old books or unused stamp albums for boastful display.

"Any swaps?" as the Roddy Doyle boy asks in one of his stories about comics or footballers' pictures, as collections of wings of beauty were shown off and compared.

The insects' names were learned from one boy who seemed to know them all. He had an illustrated British Butterflies, showing exotics such as clouded yellow, small copper, hairstreak, ringlets, blues and a red admiral, a thing of beauty which liked nettles and the seaside and whose original name was "admirable", you learned. This was the semi-rural butterfly reality of almost 70 years ago. There is nothing like it now .

Last week I saw a cabbage white - just the one - between trees, observed from a top window. Later, I saw it again, crossing a road to scout a flowery garden. A month back, there were some tiny common blues about and, my great surprise (which I wrote about here at the time) was the discovery of a beautiful peacock emerging from hibernation in a garden shed.

But this year caterpillars and butterflies were dealt a blow by the cold spring and the wet and sunless early summer. It was a deadly time and, some experts say, the worst year for butterflies since records began.

You might be forgiven, though, for some scepticism while looking at the website of the Dublin Field Naturalists' Club, which reflects the tremendous enthusiasm of members logging the sightings of species since early year. There is screen-page after screen-page of data, so it would be an exaggeration to say that this year has seen a total wipe-out of insects. There is more gloom over the Irish Sea. There, last week, Butterfly Conservation began what it describes as the world's biggest insect survey, roping in such luminaries as Sir David Attenborough to urge the public to take part in the count to find out how the country's 59 species are faring.

Our own National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford is engaged also, with the wonderful weather taking people out with binoculars and hand lenses. Many common species, such as whites, blues and meadow browns, are extremely scarce this year. Caterpillars, which emerged too soon in December, starved or were killed off by the cold.

These days, they would no longer be chased as trophies by eager schoolboys.

Sunday Independent

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