Exotic butterflies may spread their wings to Northern Ireland
Rare and exotic species of butterflies could make Northern Ireland their home if they survive the winter in England, experts have said.
Conservationists have revealed that species such as the large tortoiseshell and the scarce tortoiseshell, which were spotted more than 20 times in 2014, could make an appearance here, joining the small tortoiseshell which is one of the most well-known butterflies in Northern Ireland.
Other species such as the continental swallowtail were seen in Britain this year following an unprecedented series of immigration and emergence of exotic butterflies.
Conservationists say that with the help of a cold spell which the insects prefer, they could survive their winter hibernation to emerge in 2015.
This year saw the offspring of swallowtail butterflies, which had arrived last year in the largest numbers since 1945, emerging in late spring as adults along the south coast of England.
If the species manages to survive winter and emerge again next spring it would suggest it is attempting to colonise southern England, Butterfly Conservation said.
In an even more surprising development, the scarce tortoiseshell - which as its name suggests is extremely rare - appeared in the UK for the first time in 60 years. The species is found in central and eastern Europe and far afield as China and Japan.
Unless the UK experiences a colder than average winter the prospects are not good for the butterflies. If it is able to hibernate and emerge in 2015, it would be the first time it has done so in 300 years of butterfly monitoring.
The large tortoiseshell was lost as a breeding species in the UK more than 40 years ago, but this year was regularly seen in southern England during the summer.
There was also a spate of sightings of the clouded yellow butterfly from early to mid-November, and the experts said a mild winter could see it surviving into 2015.
Ian Rippey, who is the butterfly recorder for Butterfly Conservation Northern Ireland, said he was sceptical whether the large or yellow-legged tortoiseshell butterflies would make an appearance.
"There have been several dozen spotted in England but it depends on a number of factors if they come to Northern Ireland," he said. "We have the small tortoiseshell butterflies and they have been common here for years. They hibernate as an adult during winter and come out at spring and produces another generation.
"It depends whether the yellow-legged butterflies survive the winter in England, only time will tell if they are found in Northern Ireland."
While experts are still trying to verify the exact number of confirmed sightings, up until 2014, there has been only one sighting of a female scarce tortoiseshell, also known as yellow-legged tortoiseshell, which was caught in Kent in 1953. Over 60 years later, the ability of this butterfly to reach UK shores was confirmed following an influx from the Netherlands. Generally found in eastern Europe and Asia, these butterflies are slightly larger and paler than the small tortoiseshell and have an upper wing