It’s easy to dismiss moths as dull and uninteresting, but this underestimates the important role they play in nature. Sadly, though, like so many insect species their numbers are in decline through loss of habitat. The good news, however, is that the Heart of England Forest aims to offer a fertile breeding ground for these much-maligned creatures.
An essential job
Studies across the UK have shown that moth numbers have decreased by up to 48% since 1968, particularly in the southern half of the country, with many individual species declining dramatically or even becoming extinct. While the loss of some beautifully marked moths that were previously widespread in gardens across the land is in itself a tragedy, the losses have wider implications for wildlife.
Moths and their caterpillars are important food for many other species, including amphibians, small mammals, bats and numerous bird species. Moth caterpillars are especially important for feeding young chicks, including those of familiar garden birds such as the blue tit, the great tit, robin, wren and blackbird. A serious decline in moth numbers could have disastrous effects for these species and others such as the cuckoo, which feeds on hairy moth caterpillars that other birds often avoid. A decline in the number of bats found over farmland is thought to have been caused as a result of declining moth numbers, ironically due in no small part to more intensive agricultural practices. Other reasons for the drop-off of moth numbers include commercial forestry, industrial and urban development and overuse of harmful pesticides in gardens. Add to these the additional problems associated with temperature extremes caused by worldwide climate change, and the lot of the moth is becoming increasingly fraught.
Perhaps one of the lesser known tasks performed by moths is that of pollination. Invariably nocturnal insects, although some are active during the day and some prefer dusk, they also benefit plants by pollinating night-blooming flowers while feeding on their nectar, and so help in seed production. This also means that they are not only essential to wild plants but also many of our food crops which depend on them, along with other insects, to ensure a good harvest.
Mapping our moths
There are over 250,000 different species of moths worldwide and they make up around one quarter of all named species. There is an incredible assortment to be found across the Heart of England Forest and, as a vital indicator of the health of the planet, it is critical to record the numbers and types under our auspices.
Early last month and with the help of local moth group BBC Ndeavour (they’re not affiliated to ‘auntie’- the initials are those of the group’s founders!), the Forest played host to its first ever Moth Night Live, with a band of 14 hardy ‘moth-ers’ spending the hours of darkness helping to record some of the myriad of species to be found in the woodland. Despite heavy rainfall during the day, the late afternoon saw the sun break through at Spernal Park – the designated location for the moth hunt. As many are nocturnal, moths have evolved using the moon to navigate by night. Artificial lights, such as electric bulbs, confuse this navigation system and attract them, so, using light traps to draw them in, the group,which included local micro moth expert Lee Taylor Wheel,then set about recording the different species of macro (larger) and micro (small) moths. Craig Earl of the BBC Ndeavour Moth Group tells us about just a few examples from the incredible 42 different types that the ‘moth hunters’ turned up – in just one night session!
Not a rare moth, but a real beauty, and unmistakable! The shades of green vary across its wings to create a mottling that renders it near invisible against a mossy or lichen encrusted tree trunk. The larva (caterpillar) feeds on a range of herbaceous and woody plants, and makes this a ‘must-see’ moth in broadleaf woodland during the summer.
The first moth species seen on the night, in the grassland before we entered the wood. Also one of the first to evolve! It belongs to a family of moths called the swifts which are among the most primitive. It is the male of the species that gives it their name. Their white wings, spectral in the gloom, draw the eye as they hover in a gentle rise and fall directly above their tiny territory of grass. This mesmerising behaviour is known as ‘lekking’, to which the females are drawn.
This was recorded on a previous visit to Spernal Park in April, but worth a mention due to the surprise it represented. White marked moths are a scarce and very localised species in Warwickshire but appear to be slowly increasing their distribution. This was the first time one had been recorded in this area of Warwickshire. It was noted that the habitat is ideal, but it was an unexpected pleasure to actually record it! Interestingly we still do not know what its larval food plant is in the wild.
This is one of the micro moths, most of which lack common names. We were fortunate to have a micromoth-recording friend along with us on the night (Lee Taylor-Wheel), who is more proficient on these tricky species. Little did we know how noteworthy a record it was! This species was last recorded in Warwickshire in 1907! It should be noted that at the time of writing we await definitive verification of the species, but it looks promising.”
The group really turned up a remarkable array of fascinating species, and afterwards BBC Ndeavour’s Bob Cox paid tribute to the Heart of England Forest, saying ‘the scale of the work being undertaken is truly breath-taking and so incredibly important.”
So, a memorable night, giving those taking part a key part in recording our natural history.
Moth hunting is just one of the many events organised throughout the Heart of England Forest. With just a few short weeks until the summer holidays arrive, be sure to check out all the exciting events planned through July and August. Highlights include an afternoon butterfly walk,
a macro photography workshop, a family camp out, open days at the Garden of Heroes and Villains and much more….see heartofenglandforest.com/eventsfor details.