Absence of butterflies attributable to hedgerow cutting

Last week, I wrote about butterflies, their notable absence this year, and expressed the hope that by the time you read the column, on the August bank holiday weekend, favourable winds might have brought in the migrant red admirals and painted ladys, while a rise in temperature might have woken up or led to a hatch of small tortoiseshells and other species.
Absence of butterflies attributable to hedgerow cutting

Not so. Unfortunately. On the glorious Sunday, the only decent day, we walked and drove around the beautiful villages of Glandore and Union Hall in West Cork (crammed with traffic, everybody ‘out for the day’ to enjoy a lengthy spell of sunshine, unique this summer) and saw three colourful butterflies in all, and three whites.

The best viewing I got was of a male gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus), an orange-brown butterfly, smaller than the (usually common) tortoiseshell, with distinctive black spots near the tip of the forewing. Gatekeepers obligingly roost with wings wide open on flowers and shrubs in hedgerows, laying their eggs on grasses in midsummer.

Gatekeepers are common in southern England and Wales but in Ireland are confined to the deep south, a corridor paralleling the coast from the Beara Peninsula to Wexford town.

Their eggs are laid on the typical wild grasses of the road verges.

The adults food is the nectar of bramble flowers, thistle heads, devil’s bit, scabious, fleabane, hemp agrimony and red clover, typical plants of the same verges.

Where ditches are stripped, the larvae and adults cannot survive.

Despite the ban on hedgecutting before the end of August — illegal and subject to fines — in my area, long stretches are scalped in July, so that not a grass stem is available to gatekeepers and other butterflies for egg-laying, and not a bramble or wild flower is available for food. And we ask where have all the butterflies gone?

What is the matter with the people who authorise this or do this independently? Do they think they should ‘neaten’ the road?

Improving visibility might be a reason but often stretches are straight, with no encroaching vegetation.

Do they see nature as untidy, something to be attacked and killed?

Are they entirely unobservant?

They are people of the countryside: can’t they see that the world around them, the natural world, becomes less luxuriant, colourful, interesting and useful every year?

Don’t they know that the creatures that live in hedges and on wild plants are invaluable for the pollination of crops, that trillions of euro could not buy services that would replace them?

Do they think, “Ah, sure, the few hundreds yards that I mow flat is only a few hundred yards out of millions?” However, this is the argument of a child or a fool. And these people are adults.

I read articles urging that anyone seeing shorn edges outside of the legal cutting period should contact the gardaí or the local National Parks and Wildlife ranger.

I can, and will, report a long swathe of straight road where vegetation could not impede visibility but ditches on both sides are cropped so low that not a bush or a plant is left standing.

It is an outrage.

Not a bug, bee or bird’s nest can have survived the onslaught. It is the duty of the Wildlife Service to prosecute perpetrators.

Meanwhile, I must give Cork County Council credit for attacking the knotweed on roadsides. It is taking this invader seriously, and has mounted a robust campaign.

However, back to the hedges. ‘Gatekeepers’ would seem an appropriate name if these butterflies achieved emblematic —or, to use a cliché, ‘iconic’ — status in raising awareness of the role these self-serving barbarians play in the destruction of landscape that belongs to all.

Presently, cutting is banned from March 1 to August 31 but some environmentalists fear that Heather Humphreys TD, the minister responsible, may allow cutting from August 1 next year.

Endangered-list birds, yellowhammer, greenfinch and linnet, nest into September. I hope the minister makes a responsible decision.

Meanwhile, let us remember that half of every roadside hedge is ours, the wildflowers and berry bearing bushes in it, food for the birds and ourselves, blackberries, bilberries, haws, sloes, wild plums, crab apples.

They belong to the pollinating insects too, which we must protect for their sake and our own.

So, I urge my reader to report such destruction.

August may be a big cutting month; if cutting is seen, please report it to the local IWF officer.

Sign up to the campaign by BirdWatch Ireland and An Taisce, against future August cutting on my.uplift.ie/petitions/no-to-more-slash-and-burn

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