19 May 2022

Kildare's Wildlife Watch: A tale about nettles — without the sting!

With the Irish Peatland Conservation Council

Kildare's Wildlife Watch: A tale about nettles — without the sting!

Peacock caterpillars on nettles. Picture: Nuala Madigan

The first signs of autumn are arriving in our communities, the days are getting shorter and the leaves are beginning to fall from the trees.

At this time of year our local wildlife is busy preparing for the colder winter ahead. Bumblebees are feeding on the late flowering plants such as ivy (eidhneán) while many wildflowers begin their retreat beneath the surface.

Butterflies have laid their eggs, which have now hatched and the caterpillars are busy feeding on their chosen foods.

One example of an important food plant for butterflies is nettles (neantóg). The Peacock (Péacóg), Red Admiral (Aimiréal Dearg) and Small Tortoiseshell (Ruán Beag) butterflies all lay their eggs on nettles.

Nettles are often not a welcome wildflower in our gardens due to the fact they can sting us. Yet if you are involved in a community group maintainin and enhancing biodiversity, I suggest you identify an area to allow nettles thrive.

Nettles only have this stinging ability to protect the plant from being eaten by herbivores. Remember, the leaves of the plant make the plant’s food through photosynthesis. If herbivores ate the leaves the plant could not survive.

The nettle has the ability to sting as the stems and leaves are covered in hollow, fine, hair-like structures.

These, once triggered, release a chemical known as formic acid that irritates our skin, presenting in a rash. You will know that dock leaves are often suggested to relieve the pain of a nettle sting. Dock leaves don’t have any special chemical that relieves the sting — it is simply the moist sap released when the leaves are rubbed against our skin that soothes the irritation.

Over the coming weeks, more signs of autumn will become evident. For now I encourage you to continue to enjoy the outdoors and discover for yourself the diversity of wildlife in your community that you will find when you stop and take a moment to look.

If you would like help identifying local wildlife or indeed to share your images of local wildlife encountered to be used in a future Wildlife Watch, contact me on 045 860133 or email

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