|Hawkmoths and Honeysuckle. Top to bottom: Privet Hawk-moth, Elephant Hawk-moth and Poplar Hawk-moth.|
And then the conversation may go something like ‘They’re small and boring (and brown) or big, furry and scary (and brown). They eat your clothes, carpets and garden plants, bash into lights and crash into your face. And they fly at night and anyway, butterflies are nicer to look at. Do you really like moths?’
Yes, I do. It’s true, many are brown. Some do destroy fabrics, others damage plants and many are attracted to lights, crashing madly around the room. But they are important, and more interesting than you’d think.
Moths are divided into two main groups – macro-moths and micro-moths. As the names suggest, macro-moths are generally the larger moths, although in fact some micro-moths are larger than macros and vice versa. Almost all of the macro-moths have English names. The names generally describe some aspect of their appearance, such as their wing colours or markings. Some have intriguing names – the Exile, Delicate, Conformist and Non-Conformist, Suspected, Uncertain, and Confused (referring to the recorders being confused, not the moths!). Even the brown moths may be intricately marked, with all shades of brown, but many moths have patterns containing shades of red, orange, yellow, green, pink, purple or grey, splashed with gold, silver, copper or brass.
Moth recording is fascinating – you don’t know what you might find, and there is the possibility of finding an uncommon moth. Records add to our knowledge of moth species and help to assess the impact we’re having on the environment.
Moths form a vital part of our wildlife and ecosystems. They pollinate many plants (yes, even at night!). Although the caterpillars damage leaves, they also recycle nutrients back into the soil. Moths and their caterpillars are part of the food chain, being eaten by birds, bats and other mammals, insects and spiders, lizards and amphibians.
Moths add significantly to our biodiversity, with around 2500 species in the UK, found in all habitats from the sea shore to the tops of mountains. Moth caterpillars mostly rely on plants for food and many require somewhere undisturbed to overwinter.
Moth numbers are affected directly and very rapidly by our influence on their habitats and by climate change. Differences in moth numbers have been found between organic or extensive farms and intensive farms, with reduced numbers recorded where herbicides and pesticides have been used. The reduction in moths, as well as other insects, has a knock-on effect to other plants and animals. Moths are therefore an important indicator of the state of our environment.
62 moth species became extinct in Britain during the 20th Century and many more species are now considered to be nationally threatened or scarce. The UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) lists 53 moths as national priority species for conservation. Recent research suggests that two thirds – 66%!- of common moth species are in decline.
So the next time you see a moth, why not take a closer look? A really good field guide to macro-moths is Waring, Townsend & Lewington ‘Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland’.