Tuesday 21 November 2017

Country Matters: Butterfly beauty in a woodland

BEAUTIFUL: The picture of a Red Admiral butterfly sent in by a reader
BEAUTIFUL: The picture of a Red Admiral butterfly sent in by a reader

Joe Kennedy

Just a month ago, as wings of beauty should have been fluttering, I might have observed some small tortoiseshell butterflies basking on a sun-baked path.

Or, while walking, noticed a red admiral 'puddling' in a tractor tyre track, and, indeed, peacocks growing intoxicated on tree sap. Instead, it was a deadly time for such beautiful insects, a cold spring and a wet and sunless early summer making it, experts said, the worst year for butterflies in a long time.

Caterpillars which had emerged early in December, had starved or were killed off by the cold. Some surviving small blues and cabbage whites were a compensation, but the scented, flourishing buddleja of town, countryside and railway appeared devoid of insect visitors seeking nectar.

But to suggest there was a total wipe-out of butterflies was an exaggeration. The Dublin Naturalists' Field Club website reflected a logging of species with pages of data, and the National Biodiversity Centre checked the country's 59 species.

Last week, one reader, PJ, in North Leinster, sent, by phone, pictures of red admirals and peacocks feeding on buddleja and stonecrop in a woodland place near Slane, in Co Meath. In this area, there have been sightings of short-eared owls, many finches and once (which I recorded here), a pine marten road-kill which was an unusual end for one of these stealthy pursuers of grey squirrels, and some distance northwards of perceived territory in the Wicklow uplands.

The pictures of the admiral and peacock show that, in least disturbed habitat, wildlife flourishes. Reports from places in England which have been purposefully reverted to 'back to nature' bear this out. The 're-wilding' of an arable and dairy farm at Knepp Castle in West Sussex has seen throngs of butterflies on the wing, as reported in The Guardian, meadow browns mingling with gatekeepers, ringlets and marbled whites with a white admiral and scallop-winged comma feeding on early ripe blackberries.

Grazing of free-roaming animals has encouraged habitat change across the estate's open grassland, regenerating scrub and wooded groves. Thirty-two species of butterfly have been recorded.

There was much more to come, relative to a dramatic sighting of rare purple emperors, a species now confined to central southern England. Exciting action was observed with two males jousting round treetops in a violent duel with flashing amethyst wings before a sudden change caused by the appearance of a bird!

A house martin caused the dominant male emperor to confront the bird to chase it out of its territory. The butterfly speedily flew straight at the martin which, startled, wheeled away. This was like something out of a vintage W H Hudson observation of more than a century ago.

For me, more was to come. While reading an old butterfly 'Observers' book by Paul Morrison from the 1980s I was reminded that butterflies have "distinct personalities, some being aggressive, others shy and retiring, with a few being positively gregarious." Not many people may know that, as the actor Michael Caine said of his potato gardening skills! Butterflies are creatures with more than just an eye-catching mosaic of fluttering beauty.

Sunday Independent

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