Sunday, 26 October 2014


I was talking to Sorrel about my new moth trap. A moth trap? She assumed that we had a Hitchcockian plague of them in our house. She must have been imagining dusty, choking clouds of moths pouring from opened wardrobe doors...

Perhaps that's a reasonable assumption because moths are just about the most overlooked creatures on the wildlife landscape. And why, oh why, would anyone trap moths for any other reason than to kill 'em? They haven't always helped themselves when it comes to image. Clothes moths and those moths whose grubs spoil our apples, pears and plums have spoilt it for the rest.

But come on, there are some amazing moth facts - heres's one:
Up to 800 million Silver Y moths migrate from Britain each year.  They can reach speeds of 80 to 90 km per hour travelling 400 km per night. BBC Autumnwatch 2013. That these fragile creatures migrate thousands of miles is in itself astounding. That they can travel at speeds faster than many cars in the process borders the unbelievable. But they do.

In recent decades, there have been steep declines of moth populations. In Great Britain, moths decreased by 28% between 1968 and 2007. Such declines are expected to have serious effects for those creatures that feed on moths (bats, birds) and those plants that depend on moths for pollination.
Some moth species are so crucial to the way all the species interrelate that they are termed ‘keystone species’. When a keystone species is removed from a habitat, the habitat is dramatically changed. All other species are affected and some may disappear from that ecosystem or even become extinct.

But the majority of moths fly unseen at night and their nocturnal nature lends mystery. There are around 2500 species of them in the UK. But whilst most people can name a species of amphibian, mammal, plant, bird or butterfly, few could name a single species of moth. The huge number of species indicates that they can be highly specialist in their needs in caterpillar (pupae) or adult form. The pupae of the Lead-Coloured Pug rely almost entirely on common cow wheat for food whilst the Sandy Carpet caterpillars specialise on the flowers and seeds of red campion.

six spot burnet moth
The arcane and beguiling naming of moths lends further mystery. Many names were coined by dusty Victorian vicars whose nomenclature remains with us today. A Blackbird is just that, but as we trap Dingy Footman or Neglected Rustic we get few clues. The identification of moths is tricky too, I must be honest. Moths' colouration isn't always diagnostic and one has to become attuned to spotting sometimes subtle wing marks. We pass moths around the group, peering into the plastic tub, shining torches and enlarging photos on our phones to help - but sometimes in vain because some moths can only be identified by dissecting their genitalia poor things! Well, not in this house. I wouldn't wish to revisit my trip to the Worksop Vasectomy Clinic nor impose it on an innocent moth - some moths just have to go unidentified.

And so, it's a-moth-trapping we will go. Our trap has an actinic bulb which gives off a frequency of light that household bulbs don't and which moths love. They're attracted to the light and then flutter down into the box which contains egg boxes. These provide hideyholes where the moths chill out whilst waiting for me. Even in moth trapping there's a hierarchy and the moneyed buy traps with mercury vapour bulbs. Ours is a simple box with a light on top and cost less than £100. Add a field guide to moths; a few plastic pots for the moths to rest in while you identify them; an extension lead from the cupboard so that the trap can reach into the garden - and you're away.

mullein moth caterpillar
So far we've identified 83 different species in the garden. Nothing rare, but even the the most greyscale has a simple beauty. Some moth watchers have garden lists onto the several hundreds so once again, I'm somewhere near the bottom of the food chain. Whenever I'm last I tell myself it's the taking part that counts. I submit my list to the county moth recorder and in doing so help provide a more complete picture of how moths are faring in our troubled times.

It's what they call 'Citizen Science' these days. Moths may be, in some important way, litmus papers for the health of our interconnected natural world. Recording these neglected beauties may help us better understand the living world around us and the pressures it faces.

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