Bring on the butterflies

Outdoor Living

EYE CANDY A painted lady on candytuft flower. Migrants from north Africa, they lay their summer broods on Irish thistles.

Nature and rewilding
Pat Fahy

The new Garden for Biodiversity booklet, available free from Mayo County Council, has piqued the interest of many with its How to Create a Butterfly Border section. And it’s no wonder when we’re so taken by butterflies.
These delicate, colourful creatures represent so many things to many people, reminding us of the wonder of nature. In the culture of lots of other countries they represent all manner of good things in life, like hope, joy, freedom and new beginnings.
They bring an almost magical enchantment to our gardens each and every year. As carefree and colourful as the flowers are rooted, plant and insect counter balancing each other with the shared characteristic of bringing added interest to our day. It has even been mooted that if you were to imagine and create a creature like the butterfly then the greatest criticism you’d rightly receive is that you’ve lost the run of yourself, such is their flamboyance. Living in a natural world where every single thing is born of tooth and claw, eat or be eaten, they are flamboyant to the point of ridiculousness, some say (ridiculously) .  
Their movement betwixt and between seems undetermined, like they cannot make their minds up as to where they are going, but of course there’s method in all of this. A hungry bird is as confustered as we are, probably why I rarely see one bothered.
Every butterfly that enters our garden or the near horizon seems to garner our attention, and I’ve yet to win the game of guessing its next direction; if it’s something you accomplish someday then your better at this than I am.
This year we were lucky to experience numerous days of life-giving spring sunshine, and day after day, an ever-increasing number of our more colourful butterflies, like the peacock, small tortoiseshell, orange tip and, from far-away lands, the red admiral.
Every Butterfly is associated with the wildflower they use as a food plant for their caterpillars. The huge numbers of orange tips seen this spring has been put down to the fact that at the crucial time when they are emerging and completing their life cycles on the cuckoo flower in the long grass, many if not all councils and gardeners were letting the grass grow like never before. This, along with the good weather, was their making, proving the concept that less is more when you want to help wildlife.Things like raising the height of your mower to its highest setting, and cutting the grass only every six weeks will help, because all sorts of wildflowers are essential to butterflies’ existence in so many different ways. Dandelions, red clover, knapweed, ivy and bramble will satisfy their need for nectar; they will attract butterflies into your garden at various times of the year at no extra cost. Tying up brambles with garden twine and giving them a clip back occasionally is definitely worth the effort, and you’ll have anti-oxidant-rich blackberries in autumn for your troubles.
Butterflies need flower heads that allow them to walk around to each floret individually, it seems to me, which makes the nectar-rich butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) such an attraction. Unfortunately they’ve been found to be invasive along railways and such places. So other recommendations are required, such as the orange ball bush (Buddleia globosa), candytuft, hebe, liattris, grape hyacinth, Michaelmas daisy, Centaurea montana, lavender and sunflower. No doubt there are many more.
We remember those days when there were a lot more butterflies around. The good news is that they can bounce back if we help them through the tough times, and in time they’ll reward us in return with their presence in in greater numbers. Maybe that time is here already, now that we understand the importance of our wildflowers and the places that we find them.

Pat Fahy is Biodiversity Officer with Westport Tidy Towns.