Butterflies In Ireland
Butterflies are members of the large insect order known as Lepidoptera, which is a word made up of the Greek words lepis which means ‘scale’ and pteron which means ‘wing’.
There are roughly 440 butterfly species in Europe, however, in Ireland there are only 32 year-round resident species with 3 common migrant species.
Status of Butterflies in Ireland
Butterflies are important for monitoring the health status of an ecosystem and, because of their short generation time and their high sensitivity to environmental alterations, they have a lot of potential for monitoring changes in the environment. Ireland has a very low butterfly species richness, in fact, it has the lowest species richness of any other EU country. Threat of extinction is faced by 18% of the native Irish butterfly fauna, while a further 15% is near threatened. Across Europe, there has been a 33% decline in butterflies between 2000-2010 alone. However, not all the trends seen have been negative.
In 2019, 17% more butterflies were recorded in Ireland than in 2008. In the same year, a whopping 590% increase in the painted lady compared to 2008 figures was recorded. The peacock, Inachis io, experienced a 250% increase, based on 2019 figures, and 191% increase in brimstones, Gonepteryx rhamni. These figures are collected by annual butterfly monitoring schemes run by the The National Biodiversity Data Centre.
The number of sites each species was recorded in 2015 (Source: National Biodiversity Data Centre).
What butterflies are found in Ireland?
There are 14 species that make up two-thirds of the butterflies seen in Ireland.
Butterfly species in Ireland can be identified in two ways:
1) Grouped by colour.
These colours are browns, blue, and white and yellow butterflies.
2) Grouped by relatedness.
These are vanessids and fritillaries, hairstreaks, coppers, and skippers.
The meadow brown, ringlet, and speckled wood are the most common of the browns found in Ireland. The meadow brown, M. jurtina, can be found in a wide number of habitat types, some of which shared with ringlets, A. hyperantus. Speckled wood, or P. aegeria, is a species common of woodland and shady hedgerows. The other brown species have been categorised as endangered or in danger of being threatened.
The common blue, P. icarus, is the most colourful of the blues found in Ireland. If it’s flying at eye level or you have to look down, it’s a common blue, if it’s flying above eye level, it’s probably a holly blue, C. argiolus. Holly and ivy are the host plant for holly blues so they can be found in dense areas of the plant species.
White and Yellow Butterflies
Green-veined whites, P. napi, is the most common of the whites. The orange-tips, A. cardamines, can be distinguished from the other whites by the distinct green marbling on the underwing. The small white and large white species can be distinguished from each other by the size of the dark spot on the tip of the wings.
Brimstones aren’t common in Ireland, but it is said that their butter colour is responsible for the name ‘butterfly’. Clouded yellows are common migrants with vibrant yellow, black tipped upper wings.
Vanessid and Fritillary Butterflies
Vanessids are easy to become familiar with because of how large and distinctive they are. Red admirals, peacocks, and small tortoiseshells are commonly found with a widespread distribution. They can all be found in your back garden! The painted lady is mainly found in eastern and southern coastal areas.
Three of the four fritillary species, the dark-green, marsh, and pearl-bordered fritillary, are vulnerable to extinction. These species are uncommonly found in Ireland, and are present in very few locations. The silver-washed fritillary are common in the south and are found in woods and wooded hedgerows.
Hairstreak and Copper Butterflies
The small copper is fairly common throughout Ireland, and can be occasionally found in gardens! The three hairstreak species are uncommon and restricted to very specific areas. The brown hairstreaks are only found in the surrounding Burren area. The green and purple hairstreaks have a scattered distribution, with the purple hairstreak restricted to certain wooded areas.
The dingy skipper was previously thought to be the only skipper in Ireland, and is uncommonly found outside the midwest. The Essex skipper was only recently discovered in Ireland, and is currently only found in the southeast.
If you spot a butterfly and are able to confidently identify the species, make sure to submit the record to the National Biodiversity Data Centre!
By Aoife Cahill
Judge, M and Lysaght, L. (2020) ‘2019, the year of the Painted Lady’, The Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme Newsletter, Issue 13.
Tomas Murray (2015) ‘Crash Course in Butterfly Identification’ [Powerpoint presentation]. Available at: https://www.biodiversityireland.ie/projects/monitoring-scheme-initiatives/butterfly-monitoring-scheme/ (Accessed 16 May 2021).