Why we need to save the moth

Garden tiger moth
Garden tiger moth
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Out of the corner of your eye you catch an ominous flickering of the light.

The next thing you know something is flapping around your head and you’re performing the arm-thrashing dance of the moth-hater.

Emperor moth

Emperor moth

Whether they’re hovering around their beloved illuminations or fluttering too close to terrified humans, moths aren’t the most popular of creatures.

Compared with their spectacular butterfly relatives, they tend to be regarded at best as boring, brown jumper-munching pests.

At worst they have been deemed in the past as harbingers of death and even the spirits of witches.

And it probably didn’t help the fluttery ones when one of their number landed a starring role in serial killer thriller The Silence of the Lambs.

The chillingly-named death’s head hawk moth, with its skull-like marking and reputation as an omen of death, was deemed the perfect species to be collected by the film’s psychopathic slayer Buffalo Bill.

‘It could be that they’re regarded as creatures of the night. They seem to suffer a similar reputation as bats,’ says moth expert Bob Chapman, a Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust reserves officer.

But he has news for the arm-flailing detractors – moths are really rather fabulous.

‘The differences between moths and butterflies are frankly artificial. Moths are regarded as night-flying insects but there are many species that fly in the day. And some moths are bright ly-coloured and pretty spectacular.’

What’s more there are about 2,500 species of moth in the UK to the butterfly’s 50 – and only three of those will nibble on clothes.

And the brown-tail moth – recently targeted by the tabloids for inflicting bouts of itching and respiratory problems on humans – shouldn’t cause too much of a problem for most people.

‘Caterpillars to a greater or lesser extent can be an irritant but most of the time we wouldn’t notice. And people aren’t generally handling them. The brown-tail form a tent and problems can occur if people interfere with it when they’re cutting bushes or something. It does pay to be careful but that’s just one species,’ says Bob.

Experts are keen to replace the bad press with some moth promotion, because these important creatures are suffering a decline and need our support.

Moths are just as affected by habitat loss as butterflies and according to wildlife group Butterfly Conservation, their numbers have dropped by a third since 1968. In the last 100 years, around 60 species of moth have become extinct.

Many caterpillars will only eat certain species of plant and moths suck flower nectar so the decline of these plants and of flower rich meadows is a huge problem.

And Bob says the fragmentation of habitat (where natural habitat is broken up by development) is also a factor.

‘Some species are great flyers, but many won’t fly more than 500m in their lifetime. So when you end up with greater distance between the plants and habitats they need, they can’t survive.’

Looking out for moths is vital as they form a hugely important part of the natural world. Not only are they pollinators of plants but the caterpillars are an important food source for birds.

The good news is that urban gardens are still attracting high levels of moths. Bob says: ‘I’ve caught 50 species in a night, that’s not bad considering you’re only catching moths that fly in a small space.’

Recording numbers is a way of helping conservation charities, and organisations run moth-trapping evenings so people can find out all about the creatures. The moths are freed afterwards.

Another way to help is to create a wildlife-friendly garden. Bob recommends planting phlox, night-scented stocks and tobacco plants.

There’s more good news for moth fans in Hampshire and along the south coast. This area is richer in species than most other parts of the UK.

Bob says: ‘We have a wide mixture of habitats for different species – meadows, woodland, the chalk of Portsdown Hill and salt marshes. The Portsmouth area has generated a lot of interesting moth records over the years.’

One species – the reddish buff – is now thought to be restricted in the wild to one colony on the Isle of Wight.

Another reason for our relatively rich moth stocks is migration. Amazingly some moths can migrate from North Africa and Southern Europe and this is where they reach land from the Channel. Some of the smaller types do this in a kind of breeding relay. But a single member of the bigger species (like hawk moths) can fly thousands of miles.

And there are plenty more amazing facts to learn as this is one of the most diverse animal groups on the planet.

Some spend winter as eggs, some as caterpillars, others as pupae and some species as adults.

Moths tend to rely on camouflage on their wings as they do not close them in an up position like butterflies. But some varieties are brightly coloured. One clever species manages to make itself look like bird droppings to deter feathered predators.

And at the other end of the scale, the humming-bird hawk moth, with its long tongue and ability to hover, has often been mistaken for its avian namesake.

It’s no wonder that moth-ers (as they are known in writing, so as not to be confused with mums) – find a never-ending source of interest. But there is one thing that still puzzles even the most dedicated moth fan and scientist – why they seem to be attracted to light.

‘Nobody really knows,’ says Bob. ‘There have been many theories but none of them really stand up. It’s still a mystery.’

FIND OUT MORE

There are several organisations that collect data and give information about moths and how to find and attract them. They may also organise moth-searching events.

Check out their work and find out more about moths at:

butterfly-conservation.org and the organisation’s recording and conservation project mothscount.org

Hampshire and the Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’s website hwt.org.uk

County group hantsmoths.org.uk

MOTH FACTS

· Studying moths was a fashionable hobby as far back as the early 1700s.

· More species of moth fly during the day than there are butterfly species in the UK.

· Some species of moth and butterfly have furry bodies.

· Some caterpillars live under water.

· Many moths feed on nectar but some short-lived species do not feed at all.

· Bold patterns on caterpillars break up their outline so their shape is less recognisable to predators.

· The death’s-head hawk moth produces a sound like a queen bee so it can feed in hives without being attacked.

· Butterflies and moths form a group of insects called Lepidoptera, meaning ‘scaly-winged’.