Country matters: speed of fluttering friends that will give you butterflies

Butterflies or birds would be impossible to see on a slow-rolling YouTube fragment of an urban coastal scene in the 1950s. There are sloping ecclesiastical roofs of monastery buildings (with pinhead-sized nuns on the premises), an accordion-roofed factory with a tall chimney, and below is a coastline, a harbor, and the sea.

I came unannounced on an iPhone and yes I remembered butterflies. Why? They always seemed to be numerous in this area and included attractive species such as painted lady, red admiral and peacock, as well as common white, little blue and tortoiseshell. Back then, some schoolboys with pink nets were chasing them with bamboo poles, similar to how Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov was photographed years later.

I went back there about 10 years ago and instead of a factory I found a cleared place, a wilderness of nettles, thistles, ragwort, hawkweed, dandelions and plantains, and sprouting from the tall, wild grass. The red brick chimney remained, but there were few butterflies except for a fluttering white one or two.

Butterfly hunting of the past was an exciting activity, with valuable specimens occasionally being traded between hunters who would have pinned their prey onto sheets of cardboard.

This cruel aspect of plundering wildlife was akin to taking a colored egg from a bird’s nest to add to others collected in scallop shells – all in those times an almost unconscious theft from nature’s bounty,

On a higher level of the factory were fields showing clusters of flying insects that had mysteriously arrived from across the Irish Sea below. And, if noticed, can disappear just as quickly without a trace. Butterflies are migrants, reproducing multiple times on their journeys, descendants returning to their places of origin when the fall weather casts the leaves in shade.

The insects fly at remarkable heights and propel at amazing speeds. Butterfly expert and author Jesmond Harding (Discover Irish butterflies and their habitats and currently The Irish Butterfly Book) indicates that painted lady butterflies returning south in autumn can fly at nearly 50 km/h at altitudes of up to 500 m. He mentions a sighting at Lullybeg, Co. Kildare, of a bird feeding and then suddenly flying “at high speed” vertically upwards and climbing to find a headwind on its southward journey.

A study of painted ladies found a round-trip journey of 14,500 km from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle, with the insects reproducing in a series of up to six generations on their journey, beginning in Morocco and the Middle East and eventually working their way through moving to mainland Europe land in Ireland in early summer. They were thought to have died when the cold weather hit here, until a scientific project proved otherwise.

In the months to come, such ladies will be seen along the southern coasts, along with red admirals, feeding on ivy and garden flowers, stocking up on nectar for their long journey into the blue yonder, and traveling on and on.

Jesmond Harding manages Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s website, Country matters: speed of fluttering friends that will give you butterflies

Fry Electronics Team

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