12 Aug 2022

Kildare Wildlife Watch: The tortoiseshell butterfly is a native species in sad decline

With Nuala Madigan of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council

Kildare Wildlife Watch: The tortoiseshell butterfly is a native species in sad decline

The small tortoiseshell butterfly. Picture: Nuala Madigan

As I work away from home Monday to Friday, one positive outcome that the stay at home element of Covid-19 has offered is the opportunity to watch the variety of wildlife that is visiting my garden during the day.

As an environmental education officer, I practice what I suggest others do in their gardens. I rainwater harvest, compost garden waste, and allow wildlfowers bloom — even the dandelions! I choose to plant pollinator-friendly plants such as lavender and I don’t use any chemicals. So far I have witnessed wrens, robins, blackbirds, starlings, bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies, including the holly blue and small tortoiseshell.

April is the start of the butterfly recording season and this week I have decided to focus on the small tortoiseshell butterfly (ruán beag as Gaeilge). This is a very common butterfly at this time of year and can be seen in flight from April through to September. It is easily identifed with its bright orange wings, each wing having black and white markings around their border.

This is a native butterfly and the adults can live more than one year by hibernating in dark sheltered locations over the winter. The female will lay eggs on the leaves of the nettle plant, and each year they can have two cycles.

Although I attempt to be environmentally friendly in my garden, I will be honest — I don’t have a lush crop of nettles so the adults I witnessed were feeding on the nectar of the wildflowers in the garden rather than breeding.

The caterpillars are black and yellow and feed both day and night. The emerging caterpillars live in a communal web before dispersing and then pupating. Although butterfly populations fluctuate each year and this fluctuation is often weather dependent, small tortoiseshell numbers have recorded a decline in recent years. The reason for this decline is not fully understood at this time but could potentially be related to climate change. Will the small tortoiseshell butterfly visit your garden this week?

If you would like help identifying or to learn more about a wildlife species contact me via e-mail

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