The art of loving Moths

The scaly winged insects are often split in two groups: Butterflies and Moths. The common distinction being that moths fly at night, are more drably coloured and possess more feathery antennas. That said, many moths fly during the day and some have incredibly coloured scales… so, as I have only recently discovered and will explain very soon, the difference between the two groups is not as clear cut as it may seem. This said, I must admit I spent the majority of my time in the jungles of South America chasing butterflies; their sheer beauty, variation and abundance seduced me in a way that even the most elegant moth could not. Their teasing flutter and playfulness was to me no less magnetic than the song of the sirens had been for Odysseus, out there on the seas, many centuries before me.  On the other hand, I had always viewed their night time cousins, the moths, more tragically, finding them both pitiful and disturbing at times. Their dusty bodies had no charm, their scatty movements did not possess the gift of grace nor sensuality, and their dresses were often dull and unfitting. Furthermore, they never liked to seduce me, but would usually join me around candle light at night, perform a farewell dance and throw themselves into the flame, bidding a bitter goodbye to me and to the world with loud popping and crackling sounds. How tragic their lives would seem to my eyes! Lived in darkness, in hiding, and ending in what looked to me as a final suicidal act, consumed by the flames, leaving me with just a sense of pity (or even guilt!) and regret.  After observing this behaviour for some time, it became all the more disturbing, as it appeared that they really couldn’t resist the fatal attraction of fire, no matter how hard they tried.  As a result, I often ended up eating in the dark, pondering how they had evolved this way.  Was it the Moon’s fault? Was it the man-made fire’s fault? Or were they trying to tell us something?

Beautiful Macro Moth

Once back in England I found out that there are a lot of people who don’t pander to the overly glamorous butterflies but rather love all things moth.  It turns out that Britain has the largest group of committed persons who engage in moth counting than any other nation. Intrigued, I attended their annual recording meeting.  Moth recording or simply "Mothing" is the activity of catching, identifying and counting moths. Over the course of a night moths are lured into an enclosed area by the irresistible pull of light or sweet nectar. The following morning the moths are inspected and recorded before being safely released back into the environment. The data is then supplied to one of the vast network of county recorders.  These nominated persons verify the data before sharing it with the national moth recording scheme database.  To date, there are over 2400 species of moths recorded in the UK.

So what’s it all about and why should and do people care so much about moths?

Well, like most obsessions the reasons vary from childhood memories to more practical explanations. The most convincing of which is that moths, like butterflies, are incredibly sensitive to changes in their environment, to the extent that they have been described as the modern canaries down the mines.  As such, their study provides vital data on the health of the environment.  Abnormal temperature variations, land management practices and pesticides are all taking their toll on moth populations. Evidence of this can be found in the 2013 "The State of Nature report" which Sir David Attenborough described as a call to arms. Some 60% of species studied have declined over the past 50 years, providing a stark reminder of the environmental consequences of the current economic model.

Aside from these motivations I feel that a lot of people partake in Mothing not just for the value that their data can provide to conservation practitioners and policy makers, but due to a rather more fundamental drive. That is of course, for fun! Whilst some people are scared of moths and others view them as pests that eat through our cloths and lay eggs in our grains, many are in love with the colourfully named and beautifully extravagant insects. Why else would people drive for hours at night to set up these traps and then return in the morning to see what they have caught?

It’s understandable; I mean who wouldn't want to catch a Garden Tiger, Grey Dagger, Mother of Pearl or my personal favourite, the Scarlet Tiger? The names themselves are interesting enough to make you yearn for a glimpse! And given that are approximately 2400 different species of moths just in the UK, who wouldn't be tempted to get into mothing?!

Hawk Moth

Six-Spot Burnet Moth (by Mark Wilson)

For those interested in Mothing check out

by Nick, Oropendola Productions

Martin Mere - Industrialisation, a nymph and a nature reserve.

Following our trip to Martin Mere I looked into its history and thought it was worth sharing; The site has an intriguing history from environmental destruction to protected land and rich folklore. It was once home to the largest freshwater lake in England, with a size of over 19 km2, considerably larger than the 14.5 km2 of today's largest, Lake Windermere. Whilst the idea of draining a  lake would be met with fierce objection today, it was considered a valiant endeavour in the late 1600's, when the first channels were built. In the 19th century, the lake finally succumbed to the might of  steam pumps and the freshly revealed mineral rich land enabled farms and mines to flourish. It also contributed to the construction of the hugely important Leeds to Liverpool canal.  Much of the land, however, remained partly covered in water, and attracted large and diverse groups of migratory and domestic birds, whose natural habitat was under increasing threat. As such, the naturalist and wildfowl expert Peter Gladstone developed Martin Mere as part of the WWT in the early 70's.  Since its public opening in 1975 by the naturalist and founder of the WWT Sir Peter Scott, the site has welcomed thousands of visitors each year, humans and birds alike.

Sir Peter Scott

This is a good example of a common course of events that follows once an area has been plundered of its resources and abandoned. Over time, new eco-systems are established, evolving with the landscape, which in turn attracts more life, making a once desolate area richly bio-diverse. In a short period of time an old quarry can be well hidden by foliage, lakes and all associated wildlife, making it very hard to imagine its former life.  A culmination of these natural systems and good land management by the WWT has resulted in an extremely rich environment for life to flourish. As an avid twitcher informed us on the day "this site is very special, it's a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, Ramsar Site and a Special Protected Area" all of which means that it's recognised for its natural significance and is protected accordingly under national and international laws.

View from the Gladstone hide

Folklore surrounding the area stems from the nearby Park Hall in Chorley, a location which the old lake surpassed at the time of King Arthur in the story of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table.  It is said that when Lancelot was just a young boy, his parents King Ban and Queen Elaine had to quickly flee their enemies in France. They travelled by boat and docked on the shores of Lancashire. As they left the boat King Ban fell and in her haste to help, Elaine placed Lancelot on the shore. It was at this moment that Lancelot was abducted by nymph Vivian who vanished into the muddy waters of  lake with him.  Vivian raised Lancelot whom years later entered King Arthur's court and was knighted "Sir Lancelot of the Lake".  A such Martin Mere has since been known by many as the  'Lost Lake of Sir Lancelot'. Some also claim that the sword Excalibur was thrown into the lake, and to this day remains lost on the mere. If this is this case, chances are that it will be  Grey Heron or Whooper Swan that comes across it before any knight. 

A frenzy of Whooper Swans Cygnus cygnus

There is lots more information on the sites history in "Martin Mere: Lancashire's Lost Lake"  By W. G. Hale, Audrey Coney (2005)

Nick, Oropendola Productions