Butterflies are a colourful part of the natural world that we can enjoy from springtime to the autumn as we watch them move about, resting on sunny vegetation and feeding on flowers. How often we see adult butterflies really depends on the amount of sunshine on a particular day within the flying period of each species, and the range of species that we have in Murroe depends on the presence of the plants that the caterpillars feed on.
There are two local species that overwinter as adults and it is possible to see either of them on a warm sunny day on most months of the year, even early in the year; these are the Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock. Both species use nettles as their caterpillar food plant, so it is good to see large clumps of thriving nettles at the edges of fields. They shelter during the winter in natural places, such as woods, as well as closer to human habitations, such as behind curtains in houses and inside sheds. Both species are very distinctive – the Small Tortoiseshell has a lot of contrasting red, yellow and black on its wings, while the Peacock is a particularly strong flyer and has purple wings with a striking eye pattern at the corners of the wings.
One of the joys of spring is to see the first of our spring-emerging butterflies. In late March and early April we can anticipate the sight of three beautiful species coming into our gardens or flying along the hedges. Each of them is distinctive, but perhaps the most alluring is the Holly Blue, whose numbers vary greatly over the country and which was only first seen in Murroe in 2007, but has been seen most years since. It is a fairly tame butterfly and will allow us to approach it if it rests on bushes. In spring time it lays its eggs on Holly, of which there is plenty in Murroe, but this brood is on the wing again in July and August, and this time it is looking for Ivy in which to lay the eggs, and these will then become the adults that we hope to see in the spring.
The two other spring butterflies are the Orange Tip and the Speckled Wood, and it can be interesting to watch to see which one is the first to be on the wing, though usually there is only a couple of days between them.
The Orange Tip is a white butterfly, but the males have a distinctive broad orange patch on their fore wings, which the females lack, but when they fold their wings we can see a lovely marbled pattern on their hind wings. They lay their eggs on the Lady’s Smock, a small plant with lilac flowers that grows in wet fields, including a patch that grows in the grassy area in front of the thatched cottages.
The Speckled Wood is a brown butterfly that has splashes of lemon-white on its wings. It lays its eggs on a variety of grasses that are common in the meadows and local woods. As well as being on the wing in spring time, it can have two other broods in the summer and autumn.
The Large White is a distinctive butterfly that is the scourge of the gardener who grows cabbages and finds them covered with their caterpillars, though they will also use nasturtiums. We can see it in early summer and again a second brood in August and September.
The Small White is also seen twice in the year, early and late summer, and again it uses garden cabbages as its larval food plant. More common though is the Green-Veined White, similar in size to the Small White and flying at the same times, but the black marking on the edge of the fore wings extends further back and is broken into small sections, and the underneath of the hind wing has darkened veins. This butterfly feeds on a range of wild crucifer (cabbage) plants, which often grow in wet fields, such as Lady’s Smock and Water cress.
There are two species of brown butterfly that we can usually see in plentiful numbers in July and August, the Meadow Brown and the Ringlet, which both use grasses as their larval food plants. The Meadow Brown has bright orange patches in the fore wings with a large ‘eye’ at the wing tips, while the Ringlet’s wings are quite dark on the upper surface but paler underneath, where the small eye spots are visible. The Meadow Brown is well served in Murroe by the abundance of open grasslands and roadside hedges, whereas the Ringlet is more at home in the woods.
August and September are the months in which we are most likely to see the common migrants, Red Admiral, with its bright red band across its black wings, and the Painted Lady which is similar in size with peach-coloured wings with black tips. Both are strong flyers that can be seen in any part of Murroe, feeding on flowers of bramble, thistle etc.
Anyone with an interest in butterflies has a number of interesting habitats near to Murroe. For instance, in Glenstal forest there are populations of the Small Copper and Wood White. In the Slievefelims the Green Hairstreak has been observed on open heathland. But probably of most significance is the Marsh Fritillary, Ireland’s only EU-protected butterfly, which can be found in Dromsally Bog, about 6 km from Murroe. Its caterpillars feed on the Devil’s-bit Scabious, a common plant of bogs and wet places.