Wednesday 18 September 2019

Country Matters: Painted Ladies are all aflutter

Painted lady
Painted lady

Joe Kennedy

The squatting cliff-faces gradually fall away to marram-grass dunes on a northwards slope, the deep-holed homes of sand martins, with scattered windows like an apartment building, one year becoming no longer occupied.

The birds never came back. Small boys used, occasionally, to pitch pebbles towards the entrances to see if the soft soil would spill and block them in some way.

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Where the birds once flitted in the morning sunshine, I became blessed by a flutter of Painted Lady butterflies which had arrived from over the sea to make a landfall in their perpetual migratory life pattern. On towards the Sailor's Grave, Cromwell's Harbour and French's Lane, which once led on to a hamlet-of-the-herrings. There are no herrings seen here now; like the martins, they have disappeared. And, like Yeats's old fisherman at Rosses Point more than a century ago, "they are not on the tides as they were of old… when I was a boy with never a crack in my heart".

The herrings have gone the way of much inshore fish. But the butterflies continue their cycle of propagation and travel. Man cannot eat them. They flit about in silence, some looking the worse for wear after long journeys. Their arrival seems to be a miracle of sorts; they breed, lay eggs and keep moving on.

In recent weeks, thousands have been spotted here, north and south, from Donegal to Mount Brandon in Kerry. From there, one regular correspondent has sent an iPhone image of insects on purple loosestrife "down at the beach". These do not look tattered and battered and may be new life from colonies in England.

Some earlier sightings last month were of faded insects, ragged, of diluted colour. It usually takes two weeks of activity for butterflies to lose their scales so these arrivals had been travelling for some weeks, according to Jesmond Harding* of Butterfly Conservation Ireland.

News stories last week indicated a "massive front" of Ladies arriving from Scotland to form an "amazing carpet" on the Donegal coastline.

In the north-east, in Co Down, one man reported 100 insects feeding on verbena and lavender in his garden. Mr Harding, himself, observed more than a dozen on bramble blooms; he had also seen a female laying eggs on creeping thistle near his home in Co Kildare. One could be lucky and see "great clouds" of them, a breathtaking sight, he reports.

Mr Harding has noticed a changed migratory pattern in the past three years with large numbers appearing each year instead of the usual 10-year cycle. This signals some change in the species or one of climate. "I think they are following the food," he says. Soon enough, later this month the native-born generation will take off for the sunnier climes of the Middle East and Africa.

*JM Harding is the author of Discovering Irish Butterflies and their Habitats (The Heritage Council). He encourages Painted Ladies' sightings to be emailed to

Sunday Independent

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