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July 27, 2007

Save the date: August 11, 2007 is National Moth Night in the UK

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The last such event occurred in 2001 and Harry Eyres, in his July 21, 2007 Financial Times "The Slow Lane" column, tells us everything he thinks we ought to know going forward; his piece follows.

    Moth smitten

    I like to think of myself as a champion of biodiversity but I don't always harbour friendly feelings towards moths. There was the infest-ation of clothes moths a couple of summers ago that munched through some of my favourite woolly jumpers and a beautiful old Daks suit inherited from my father. Still less forgivable are the leaf-miner moths that for the second year running are prematurely withering the leaves of the horse-chestnuts in the south of England. Hard to see these particular examples of the order lepidoptera as anything other than pests.

    Yet moths are some of our most underrated creatures. For a start, there are just so many of them, such a mind-boggling diversity of species. Even in benighted Britain, more than 2,400 species of moth have been recorded (compare that with about 280 species of commonly occurring birds). There are more than 800 of the larger species called macro-moths, which is 13 or 14 times our tally of butterflies.

    Maybe because they tend to be secretive and nocturnal and flutter rather than fly, moths get none of the positive publicity garnered by butterflies. The French word papillon can mean moth as well as butterfly, but I'm sure it was butterflies Robert Schumann had in mind when he wrote his opus 2 piano piece (it's difficult to imagine a piano piece imitating the flight of moths, unless written by György Ligeti). And I can't offhand think of a moth poem to set against Robert Graves's "Flying Crooked" about the errant aerobatics of the cabbage white.

    Moths are not just secretive and nocturnal but also mysterious and occasionally sinister. The largest moth occurring in Britain is the Death's-Head Hawk moth (measuring a truly astonishing 12-13cm across the wings, half as big again as our largest butterfly), with its Hammer horror skull pattern on the thorax.

    If butterflies tend naturally towards the elegant and conventionally beautiful, moths (when they are not masters of camouflage) are the macabre Britartists and Vivienne Westwoods of the insect world — surrealists, punks and anarchists. If the gorgeously spotted Leopard moth is like a creation by Schiaparelli, then no fashion designer would dare go as far as the Elephant Hawk moth's combination of pink and olive green.

    A newcomer to moth appreciation, my ears pricked up the other day I heard an extract from the latest and, sadly, the last and post-humous book by the nature writer Roger Deakin. Wildwood is I think even better than Waterlog, Deakin's cult classic about swimming in moats, ponds, lakes, rivers and seas all around the British Isles. Deakin's connection with wood ran just as deep as his love of swimming: he came from a line of Woods, one of whom ran a timber yard, and was himself a carpenter and joiner who lovingly restored all the beams in his 16th-century Suffolk farmhouse.

    In the chapter 'The Moth Wood' Deakin most beautifully celebrates the symbiosis between moths and trees (overwhelmingly a positive phenomenon, despite the depradations of the leaf-miner). He goes moth-hunting at Slough Grove near Little Horkesley with the Essex Moth Group, whose chairman Joe Firmin expects to see from 80 to 100 species on an average summer night's expedition.

    As well as being a delightful vignette of a kind of benevolent English eccentricity (moths, drawn to white sheets by lights, are humanely inspected and identified thenreleased) one might have thought almost extinct in the era of Sabre-Toothed Landcruisers, the chapter succinctly encapsulates the poetry of entomology.

    Just the names of moths are a kind of poetry, stranger by far than the names of any other creatures I can think of. In what other order of creatures can you find a species called the Uncertain, the Anomalous, or the Clifden Nonpareil? Moths, Deakin finely puts it, "are the small print of natural history, something you come to in good time". He recalls a friend's cottage in the Dordogne where at night the moths and crickets used to arrange themselves on the walls "like brooches". It made me remember the dank backyard in Brixton where I used to hang my washing and sometimes find a large Old Lady moth resting in the folds of my swimming towel.

    But moths, as you may have guessed by now, are threatened. Butterfly Conservation (you see, poor moths get left out of the title) reckon that total numbers of moths have declined by one-third in the past 35 years, and are down by a half in some urban areas. When you consider that the bluetit chick population in the UK is reckoned to eat 35bn moth caterpillars a year, you can see how vital moths are to the ecosystem.

    This makes the first National Moth Night since 2001 an event of real importance. On August 11 moth enthusiasts all over the country are invited to record and photograph species. Singled out for special attention are the Chalk Carpet, the Four-Spotted Footman, the Cousin German (rare and confined to the Scottish Highlands) and most beautiful of all, the bright red, black and white striped Jersey Tiger. Lepidopterists, unite and observe!

July 27, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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