Our `stronghold' for a vanishing species

THE little moth fluttering at the bathroom light was one of the teeming family of noctuids - stout, stubby bodies and "cryptic…

THE little moth fluttering at the bathroom light was one of the teeming family of noctuids - stout, stubby bodies and "cryptic" wings, patterned for camouflage when the insects are at rest on bark or stone.

Another word books often use for noctuids is "drab", but looking into their intricate geometry, their sombre opulence of colour like intricate paisley or art nouveau, makes me wish I was a fashion designer. Such collections one could launch on the backs of moths with names like the feathered gothic, great brocade, varied coronet, copper underwing merveille-du-jour - even the clouded drab itself, in such subtle browns and greys!

The glorious patterns go on into hundreds and so do the names, though very few are of the sort we'd usually call "common". Only the eye-catching, day-flying moths such as the garden tiger and magpie, or moths with caterpillars that feed on particular crops (spinach turnip, cabbage), have earned any folksy appellation from the masses.

One of the most common moths in gardens is the Hebrew Character, but once you hit a name like that, you're into the fascinating culture of what could be called "gentomology" - the Victorian world of insect-study by country clergy and classics scholars. At least we could see why our bathroom moth, Autographa pulchrina might deserve to be called the Beautiful Golden Y, since that is roughly the shape of the little golden tick in its wing-pattern.


The day-flying Silver Y was the migrant moth that poured into southern England from the Continent last May and June, in company with the brilliant waves of painted lady butterflies. While the butterflies were greeted with delight in both the UK and Ireland, the moths came to be cursed by many of England's arable farmers, since millions of the Silver Y caterpillars devastated field after field of sugar beet and oil seed rape.

Even the painted ladies were not universally popular among Britain's butterfly-lovers. Reports to the Buttely Conservation News (when will Ireland support anything of the kind?) spoke of colonies of native butterflies - rare fritillaries among them - being booted out of their flowery dells by the nectar-hungry invaders. So, if last summer's abundance of migrant butterflies and moths did have anything to do with global warming, the final results will be far more complex than we can guess at now.

However dense the annual migration of painted ladies, they are unable to survive the northern winter, and many of their offspring are thought to survive a remarkable return to Africa across the high passes of the Pyrenees.

Red admirals, too, fly southwards in autumn, but a few of them hibernate successfully in both these islands and re-emerge in early spring. This seems particularly likely to happen when, after a good breeding summer, large numbers of the butterfly arrive at the south coasts and are marooned there by bad weather.

There's even evidence from England again - of red-admiral caterpillars surviving the winter in diapause (suspended animation) and then going on to pupate and emerge as a butterfly.

In the sheer pleasure of seeing more of our favourite migrants summer by summer (clouded yellow butterflies and exotic hawkmoths among them), we should not take our eye off the welfare of Ireland's indigenous species, especially those dependent on particular plants and habitats.

The marsh fritillary, for example, a smallish butterfly of stained-glass brilliance (see drawing), lays its eggs on devil's bit scabious, a flower like a violet pin-cushion that grows in fens and boggy grassland and limestone pastures. The fritillary's colonies are small and very localised and in steady retreat throughout Europe as farming and forestry claim the last untidy corners.

In Britain, its range has been severely reduced. It has recently disappeared from most of eastern England and eastern Scotland, and in Northern Ireland its ranged is thought to have dwindled by half. It's no surprise, therefore, to find the marsh fritillary among. the three butterflies - all fritillaries - singled out for attention in the UK's state-funded action plans for conserving "biodiversity".

In the shaggier four-fifths of Ireland, the marsh fritillary is probably fairly secure, its colonies succumbing only slowly to drainage-schemes, road-widening bungalow-building, scrub-clearance and grassland "improvement".

A couple of years ago an Irish amateur entomologist, Michael Salter of Dundalk, plotted a score of unrecorded marsh fritillary sites simply by driving slowly through likely habitats in the midlands and east Connacht.

THUS, we are still a "stronghold" for another of Europe's vanishing species - this until we find the balance suddenly tipping the other way. Among the butterflies of Killarney National Park, for example, the marsh fritillary is counted very rare. "Colonies," notes the official butterfly guide, "seem to have become smaller and more isolated."

In the elegant new guide to Glenveagh National Park in Donegal, the marsh fritillary is absent so far from the butterfly list, though the dark-green and silver-washed fritillaries are there. Go to Northern Ireland, however, and marsh fritillary colonies are an early summer draw at a number of reserves (Inishargy Bog, tucked away on the Ards peninsula, was bought by the Ulster Wildlife Trust just to protect its colony of the butterfly).

Glenveagh in November has other, more magnificent attractions. This is the best possible time - the rutting season - to watch the action among the park's 500 red deer: stags bellowing and waving their horns; even pushing and shoving each other, if you're lucky. Even if you're not, there are fabulous autumn colours and reflections in the lake.

The new guide is generous and informative value at £5, and can be had from booksellers or from Government Publications in Molesworth Street, Dublin 2.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author