Living the Wild Life


Colin starts the new series on an organic farm in Roscommon. He meets up with Tommy Earley who has set about trying to discover every living thing that shares his family farm. Tommy has a passion for one butterfly in particular, one of our rare butterflies, the Marsh Fritillary and is determined to give them the best home possible. Together they film some extraordinary footage of spiders catching dragonflies in their massive webs. Norma Shortall is a local teacher and a neighbour who is taking part in a National Butterfly Survey on Tommy's farm - this is something anyone can do and they are looking for volunteers. Colin then leaves Tommy and visits a really special garden in Maynooth.

Jesmond Harding is the author of the butterfly book that Colin has been using for the past year. Jesmond is going to explain what plants are needed to encourage butterflies to live in gardens.

"Try and leave a wild patch in your garden if you can. Jesmond has written a great book about butterflies. There is a great chapter in it dedicated to how you go about creating your very own wild patch."

Tommy Earley & Jesmond Harding

Creating a butterfly and moth garden, by Jesmond Harding
At the age of 4 I was walking in a park with my father, and carrying a box from a new pair of shoes. Suddenly, a Holly Blue butterfly fluttered past, its lilac blue wings flashing in the sunshine. Seeing that I was entranced my rather staid and be suited father asked did I want him to catch it. Delighted, I urged him on. Armed with shoebox my dad pursued the butterfly, dived and missed. So delighted was I by the beauty, drama and fun I was hooked.

This incident spawned a desire to study and learn all I could about butterflies. The more I learned the deeper my fascination grew. This became a desire to share the happiness I derive from the natural world with others and this is one reason for my book. I also felt a growing anxiety for the loss of butterfly habitats and populations together with a hope that bringing out the book will inspire people to protect what we still enjoy. Finally I wanted to produce a beautiful book as a tribute to my father whose difficult life gave him much hardship. I hope he approves.

"Text taken from his book "Discovering Irish Butterflies & their Habitats."

Jesmond's book is wonderful, I've been using it as a reference for the past year. It's really well written and packed full of great photographs and information. One of my missions in life is to get people to leave a wild patch for nature in their gardens. And Jesmond has very kindly allowed us to use the part of his book that shows how to create a butterfly and moth garden.

Colin Stafford Johnson

Many of us can do a great deal to conserve butterflies and other wildlife in our gardens. With our butterfly and moth species in decline active conservation in our private gardens and in our public spaces can make a real difference to a number of species. Instead of seeing our gardens as places where we have to keep the grass cut why not see them as habitats for butterflies? Most of our general countryside butterflies and moths are mobile and you stand a good chance of attracting them if you change the management of your garden.

Flowers for butterflies
Plant nectar-rich flowering plants and shrubs in a sunny, sheltered part of your garden. Shrubs that are especially attractive include Butterfly Bush [buddleja davidii] and hebes [Hebe ssp], while Lavender [Lavandula angustifolia], Verbena [Verbena bonariensis], Ice Plant [choose Sedum spectabile], Marjoram [Origanum vulgare], Chives [Allium schoenoprasum], Wild Thyme [Thymus praecox], Michelmas Daisy [Aster novae-belgii) and Grape Hyacinth [Muscari neglectum] will attract butterflies, sometimes in remarkable numbers. These flowers can be planted in a dedicated butterfly border with taller plants like the Butterfly Bush at the back of the border with low growing plants like Thyme and Grape Hyacinth at the front.

Create a wetland associated with a pond by covering part of the pond liner with soil and planting this area with wetland wild flowers such as Lady's Smock [Cardamine pratensis], Water-mint [Mentha aquatica], Fleabane [Pulicaria dysenterica], Water-cress [Nasturtium offinale] and Purple Loosestrife [Lythrum salicaria] will be of great benefit to wildlife including butterflies and moths.

Wildflower meadow
A wildflower meadow is a more ambitious but highly rewarding undertaking that can produce a rich habitat in which butterflies and moths can feed and breed

Before deciding to create a wildflower meadow from the beginning, allow a sunny part of your lawn bordering a hedge to grow long and see what happens. Some old lawns are rich in wild flowers but these never have the chance to flower if lawns are mowed regularly. You may be surprised to see clover [Trifolium ssp], Field Buttercup [Rununculus acris] and Ox-eye Daisy [Leucanthemum vulgare] appear. These will attract butterflies, moths, bees and hoverflies. A range of wild creatures will be enticed in especially if you allow your wild flowers to set seed. However some lawns are sown with Perennial Rye-grass, a plant that eliminates wild flowers. Application of fertiliser also reduces the chances of wild flowers being present and encourages vigorous grasses that soon crowd out flowers. The best way to create a wildflower meadow when your lawn lacks wild flowers and when your garden soil is too fertile is to create conditions in which wild flowers can thrive. This can be done by removing the top 15cm [six inches] of top soil and using it elsewhere in the garden - for example to build up a bank on which to plant your native hedgerow. Having removed the topsoil, rotovate the soil that was beneath it. If it is stony and sandy, this is good news. Native wild flowers do best in gritty, free-draining soil (although some wild flowers require damp conditions). The best time to do this work is August - early October.

When the soil is fine and crumbly sow native wildflower seed. Seed can be sourced from suppliers or you can gather your own. Try gathering fresh local seed as this is more likely to thrive in your garden. The majority of the seed sown should be wild flower seed; sow native grass seed in smaller proportions. Mix the seed with dry sand and sow by the 'broadcast' method, that is, throw handfuls here and there as you judge best. Next, walk over the area and this will push the seed into contact with the soil.

Cut the meadow at no lower than a 10cm (4 inch) setting on the lawn mower until May and then allow some of the meadow to flower all summer long. Continue to cut some areas on a 10cm setting to provide a variety of sward heights to cater for a range of species. Mow a path through the meadow for access and enjoyment. At the end of the season in September, mow or strim the meadow and remove all the cuttings to a compost heap. Do not allow the cuttings to lie on the meadow as these will hold fertility and promote vigorous grass growth. Leave some patches uncut, as they will provide refuge for insects, butterfly larvae and eggs.

Woodland edge/hedgerow habitat
Native hedgerow featuring Guelder Rose, Hazel and Irish Whitebeam

Planting a hedgerow, consisting of native plants such as Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Common Holly [Ilex aquifolium], Privet [Ligustrum vulgare], Guelder Rose [Viburnum opulus], Alder Buckthorn [Frangula alnus], Common Buckthorn [Rhamnus catharticus], Ivy [Hedera helix] and Hazel is an attractive feature for butterflies, especially if bordered by native grasses and wild flowers. A native hedgerow provides places for basking, feeding, resting, roosting, mating and egg laying.

These tips can make a huge difference to butterflies that visit your garden.

Water flowering plants in hot weather. This will increase their nectar content, which may be in short supply during drought.

If you have a bare patch of soil spray this with water in the early morning during hot weather. Male Holly Blues, wood whites and Green-veined Whites will drink the dissolved mineral salts.

Keep some pots of female holly plants, either the native Ilex aquifolium or variegated varieties, and place in full sun against a wall or hedge. Holly Blues will lay on them, with you centimetres away.

If you have some Ice Plants in pots move these around in early September so they are always in the sun. Butterflies need their flowers to be in sunny conditions.

Allow over-ripe plums to lie on the ground when they drop from a tree; Red Admirals will feast on them.

The golden rule when planting a hedgerow, meadow or developing a wetland is to "think native". Most native butterflies breed only on native, trees, shrubs, herbs and grasses. Adult butterflies are not particular about whether their nectar is derived from native sources but they are very specific about larval food plants.

Butterfly benefits from habitat creation
There is no doubt that gardens can play a role in providing a place for butterflies to feed and breed if the right habitats and food are provided. In my garden there is a flowering herb bed, a woodland edge, a pond/wetland, native hedgerows and wildflower meadow - all crammed in to about one third of an acre. I have a nettle patch in a sunny, sheltered corner for the Vanessid family (like the Red Admiral) many of which breed on nettles.

The results were dramatic. In 2006 my garden, which I developed from scratch, was eight years old. I saw 17 butterfly species in my garden that summer. The number of individual butterflies seen can be enormous. On one hot day in late June there were 49 butterflies in the meadow feeding chiefly on Rayed Knapweed (Centaurea nigra nemoralis). By replicating a woodland clearing consisting of a wildflower meadow sheltered by a copse on the north facing side of the garden and hedges facing south and east, a sheltered, warm microclimate has been created- ideal conditions for most native butterflies. The butterflies that graced the garden in the summer of 2006 were Réal's Wood White, Orange-tip, Small White, Large White, Clouded Yellow, Green-veined White, Holly Blue, Common Blue, Small Copper, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Painted Lady, Silver-washed Fritillary, Speckled Wood, Ringlet and Meadow Brown. The total of seventeen included two surprises, Réal's Wood White and Silver-washed Fritillary. The former usually frequents tussocky grassland with plenty of trefoils and vetches, its larval food plants. Was it attracted to the tussocky meadow in the garden that had plenty of Common Bird's-foot-trefoil, or was it just a wanderer, stimulated to move by a colonising instinct or the hot weather?

If you want to find out more about the Butterfly Monitoring Scheme check out this link:

Butterflies, Bogs & Spiders:



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