Major new project will collaborate to help the Marsh Fritillary across borders

CB Project

Work is underway in the border counties of Ireland to improve Marsh Fritillary habitats as part of a ground-breaking conservation initiative spanning three countries.

The five-year, European funded ‘Co-operation Across Borders for Biodiversity’ (CABB) project spans Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland and will work to improve habitats for birds, butterflies and other species.

The £4.9m initiative is supported by the European Union’s INTERREG VA Programme and managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB).  CABB will be delivered through a unique partnership between RSPB NI, RSPB Scotland, BirdWatch Ireland, Butterfly Conservation, Northern Ireland Water and Moors for the Future.

Butterfly Conservation’s role in the project is to develop partnerships with landowners and volunteers to improve the habitat and breeding conditions for the Marsh Fritillary across the north counties of the island of Ireland.  CABB operates on both the north and south of the Irish border, and this presents a unique opportunity for cross border collaboration and action.

Head of Conservation for Butterfly Conservation in Northern Ireland, Catherine Bertrand explains, “CABB presents our first practical project to actively conserve the Marsh Fritillary on the island of Ireland.  The butterfly doesn’t know about borders, and many of the networks of sites where this species are found have land in the jurisdictions of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  As the butterfly must have a well-connected network of sites in good habitat condition in order to survive, it’s always been important to look at the landmass as a single entity rather than only working on one side or the other.  We will only save this species for the future if we work together.”

The Marsh Fritillary has been in severe decline across its range for decades, going extinct in many European countries where once it was a common, wider countryside species.  The island of Ireland is a stronghold for Marsh Fritillary and CABB is a significant project in working to ensure no more sites or populations are lost.

CABB launched officially on the 11th December 2017 and work will continue until 2021.  Our CABB Invertebrate Field Officer, Butterfly Conservation’s Rose Cremin, has already got her hands dirty trialing habitat conservation at one of the project’s core sites, Montiaghs Moss in County Antrim.  (Montiaghs is pronounced ‘Munchies’ which is how the site is referred to locally.)

Rose writes, “Our first CABB practical conservation activity for the Marsh Fritillary took place in November at Montiaghs Moss Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The Montiaghs is an important site for the Marsh Fritillary in Northern Ireland, with the presence of the butterfly a key feature of its SAC status, but in recent years we thought the butterfly had been lost.  Only a couple of patches of the Marsh Fritillary caterpillars food-plant, Devil’s-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis), were found across the site, with many areas where the plant used to thrive becoming very overgrown.  In the heavy rains storms in the winter of 2015, we saw our last known webs spend two months under 80cm of water from which the caterpillars never emerged. You can imagine our delight when we discovered two larval webs during our first training workshop for CABB staff back in September 2017.  It was a really positive surprise for us and a boost for both the project, and the butterfly.”

The habitat where the larval webs were found was in serious need of management. Rose decided to pilot some practical conservation work, pressing into service local partners and stakeholders, and also getting to put the Butterfly Conservation Northern Ireland scythe through its paces.  She continues, “Management of the Montiaghs is sporadic and many areas suffer from a lack of grazing. As an emergency measure to try and improve the immediate future of the Marsh Fritillary, we decided to organise a work party with CABB project partners RSPB Northern Ireland and the local Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership.”

“Lack of grazing has meant that the food plant is being out-competed by more vigorous grasses and plants, so that only a few scattered patches remain. To improve the chances of seed germination, we needed to remove some of the ‘thatch’ and were also able to directly sow Devil’s-bit Scabious seed. The Montiaghs Warden had collected seed during September with the intention of sowing in situ and growing on some plugs for later planting.”

Patches of vegetation were cut and removed which broke up the sward structure to make it more suitable for the butterfly, as well as exposing bare soil beneath the thatch. Seeds were sown in these bare soil patches. The hope is that the combination of removing thatch, creating the germination conditions needed for the seeds, and also better conditions for seed dispersal next season will increase the amount of food-plant and suitable habitat for this fragile Marsh Fritillary population.

A positive day, but there is a long way to go yet before the future of the March Fritillary is secured at the Montiaghs.  The site is a complex terrain of cut-over bog, wet woodland and small fen meadows which present a patchwork of both habitats and also land ownership.  The Northern Ireland Environment Agency own and manage around a third of the site in fragmented chunks, with the rest in private ownership to a range of local residents and farmers.  Rose hopes to work with those interested in helping to secure a future for the Marsh Fritillary and other important wildlife residents of the Montiaghs, such as the rare and threatened Irish Damselfly. 

For the next four years over the life of CABB, Rose will be working on the Montiaghs and many other sites in both the north and south of Ireland.  It is very much a project of collaboration, sharing knowledge and expertise, but most importantly developing management agreements with local landowners to get the practical conservation work implemented on the ground which will ultimately help to conserve the Marsh Fritillary into the future.

At the official launch of the CABB project on the 11th December, Gina McIntyre, CEO of the SEUPB said: “This innovative cross-border project will make a significant contribution to the protection of the precious natural habitats of vulnerable wildlife found across Northern Ireland, the border region of Ireland and Western Scotland.”

“In doing so it will help to deliver the environmental protection objectives of the INTERREG VA Programme and also make a real contribution towards the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives.”

There is currently much discussion of alignment or not between the north and south of Ireland in the coming years.  Whatever Brexit decisions may or may not be taken and adhered to, CABB will be working throughout this time with a spirit of positive conservation collaboration and partnership.  Butterfly Conservation are immensely proud to be part of this unique partnership at this pivotal time, and we look forward to updating you further as the project progresses.