Wednesday 17 January 2018

When those nasty nettles in the garden bring friends around

Country matters

BRUSH OF COLOUR: The Peacock butterfly has distinctive circular markings on its wings and its larvae (black caterpillars with white specks) thrive on nettle leaves
BRUSH OF COLOUR: The Peacock butterfly has distinctive circular markings on its wings and its larvae (black caterpillars with white specks) thrive on nettle leaves

Joe Kennedy

Leaving, undisturbed, a large patch of stinging nettles in a wilderness area of a house garden can pay dividends.

A buddleja bush in adjoining woodland also certainly helps. In this particular sunny corner on a rural slope there are now "loads" of black caterpillars entwined in a communal silken net feeding on the nettles.

These are larvae of the Peacock butterfly, a beautifully marked nomad with flashing eye-spots, like old RAF aircraft logos, to scare off predators. Peacocks are rare enough these days, on these so-described "Butterfly Isles", but because of another summer of discontent, sightings of any species more arresting than the regular white brassicas have been rare.

Who remembers Red Admirals thronging buddlejas adjoining the breezy piers of Howth in a thick brush park also an assembly spot for dozens of house sparrows? This year I missed Small Blues, always first to flutter in my range. Not a sign.

Paul's peacocks - for that is the name of the enthusiast who deliberately encouraged the nettles to thrive in the sunniest spot in his acre - have a couple of stages ahead of them before transformation into creatures of natural beauty.

It all began back in May for the peacocks when a female insect carefully selected a sheltered, sun-drenched site to lay her pale-green eggs in batches of up to 500 underneath the nettle leaves. Two weeks passed, young larvae emerged and began to spin their protective, silken web.

When that leafy food supply was exhausted they moved along to construct another web, and so on. After a fourth moult the larvae are full-sized, velvet black with white speckles.

At this stage each drops to the ground and pupates on a nearby shrub where it hangs from a silken pad blending with its surroundings awaiting critical emergence as a true butterfly. When the insect bursts through, its wings are small and wrinkled. Blood is pumped into them until they reach full size. They are then held motionless to dry and harden.

Last week several butterflies of an earlier manifestation were sipping nectar on remaining buddleja flowers. They will wander, take rapid flights and bask with open wings before hibernating in tree hollows, old buildings and hidden places used by one generation after another.

Ice plants, Michaelmas daisies and, of course, buddleja will attract them to gardens. But don't forget the nettles!

Swallow scare: A sparrow-hawk was thwarted when it suddenly swooped into an outhouse after swallows who were feeding fledglings perched on a rafter. The householder happened to enter the shed at the same time and scared off the predator. This was in north Leinster.

Swallows remain in many areas preparing to migrate. In the far south they are gathering and stoking up on insects, preparing to go, perched on wires and fences, chattering away, watching cows coming from milking parlours for fly feasts.

There has been different story in parts of Mayo from where the birds departed weeks back, indicating more unpleasant days ahead after a washed-out, cold summer failure of garden crops. There was even one report of stock dispersal because of complete collapse of a hay harvest. Signs of a hard winter ahead, it would appear.

Sunday Independent

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