Misunderstood moths are little marvels

MOTHS get a bit of a bad press, it seems, at least in comparison with their colourful butterfly cousins.

But that’s more based on myths and misunderstandings than any hard facts.

Drab, furry and stupid, they fly at candles, eat your clothes and lack the apparent grace, colour and beauty that we associate with butterflies. Or at least, that’s the perception.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: the six-spot burnet moth PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But what about the delicate pale yellow colouring of the swallow-tailed moth, the gaudy attire of tiger moths, the unmistakeable markings of the cinnabar moth, or the six-spot burnet moth?

Some moths do have subtle colourings, but there are plenty which are every bit as beautiful as butterflies. There are some which fly by day and, of the 2,500 moths that live in Britain, only a few species eat clothes.

Some even have secret talents – like the death’s-head hawk-moth, which can squeak like a mouse or the Mother Shipton moth, which has a witch’s face on its wing. Spooky.

SHOW OF STRENGTH: an elephant hawk-moth in flight PICTURE: Roy Battell

One man with more than a passing interest in moths is Mark Scott, whose naturalistweekly.com website was launched in April 2021.

Based in America, the site seeks to build a community focused around engaging and connecting with the natural world through prose and poetry.

Says Mark: “From paranormal podcasts to poems by Virginia Woolf, the site seeks to blend research with personal observation in order to create opportunities for the reader to connect with the natural world.”

His starting point for a series of four blog posts about moths was a celebration of National Moth Week, which began in 2012 in New Jersey and stemmed from an initiative in New Jersey that has grown into a global event that seeks “to promote the understanding and enjoyment of moths and to raise awareness about biodiversity.”

There are some 11,000 moth species in America, and they are important pollinators and provide food for many animals, birds, bats and spiders.

ON THE WING: a barred sallow moth PICTURE: Roy Battell

Mark goes on to examine The Poetry of Moths in a separate blog post, before focusing in more detail on The Death of a Moth, a 1942 essay in which the author observes a moth as it moves about her window.

As she ponders the moth’s movements, she begins to draw parallels between the moth’s life and the human experience – a little moth who is the embodiment of life, can “show us the true nature of life”, but at the same time help us also to contemplate the prospect of death.

DUSK DELIGHT: a clouded silver moth on cherry leaves PICTURE: Roy Battell

Mark’s final post takes us to the role of moths at the movies, from the sinister Silence of the Lambs to The Mothman Prophecies.

In the UK, moth species outnumber butterflies by more than 40 to 1. They are closely related and, despite those myths, some moths are every bit as large and colourful as butterflies, the most dramatic being the hawk-moths: large, slow and fabulously patterned.

Some moths fly by day, some by night, and many use mimicry to protect themselves – around the world, moths resemble everything from wood slivers and broken twigs to bird droppings.

MELLOW YELLOW: a brimstone moth in flight PICTURE: Roy Battell

Their imaginative names, coined by Victorian naturalists, conjure up images of life in the ‘big house’, from satins, ermines and brocades to footmen and wainscots. But their numbers have been in sharp decline in some areas, sparking fears about collapsing eco-systems.

Back in 2013, Patrick Barkham highlighted concerns about declining numbers in southern England, with broadcaster Chris Packham, the vice-president of Butterfly Conservation, voicing concerns about habitat loss, light pollution and agricultural practices.

For more information about moths, see Butterfly Conservation’s website.

Rare attractions on the reserve

WEST of Marlow is prime walking country, with the Chiltern Way leading out through Bovingdon Green towards Rotten Row and picturesque Hambleden.

Enticing footpaths split off in every direction, and those favouring a circular loop can take a four-mile circuit from the Royal Oak that takes in both a section of the Chiltern Way and Marlow Common.

One highlight along the route is Homefield Wood, a site of special scientific interest owned by the Forestry Commission and managed by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust.

LIGHT AND SHADE: fern fronds lit by the sun PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Here, the chalk grassland of the small but peaceful nature reserve makes it one of just three sites in the country where rare military orchids can be found – not to mention offering a perfect habitat for birds, butterflies, moths and other insects.

WELCOME GUEST: bees are vital for pollination PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The nature reserve may be small, at about 15 acres, but the herb-rich grassland offers a chance to see Chiltern gentians and upright brome grass, as well as a variety of orchids, though visitors need to be careful to avoid trampling rare plants that may not yet be in flower when the reserve is at its busiest towards the end of May and in early June.

As reserves manager Mark Vallance explains, the military orchid is so called because its dense spikes of pinkish-violet flowers have petals and sepals folded in such a way that they resemble a knight’s helmet, with the lower petal shaped like a human form with ‘arms’ and ‘legs’, and spots which resemble buttons on a jacket.

IN THE PINK: foxgloves flourish in late spring, bringing a splash of colour to the woods

Ferns and foxgloves make Homefield a delight in the late spring, and the wood has a mixture of young beech plantations, with some conifers and many native trees.

Resident and visiting species of birds include chiffchaff, cuckoo and blackcap. Tawny owls can often be heard calling during the day.

PARTRIDGE FAMILY: a variety of birds can be found in the woods PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

It’s only a couple of miles west of Marlow but parking is very limited, so getting there on foot is an environmentally kinder and more enjoyable way to travel.

MORNING LIGHT: Homefield features a variety of different trees PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

There’s been woodland on this warm slope for at least 200 years, though forestry work has created many changes. Nowadays the reserve is made up of beech, ash, sycamore and whitebeam with glades and open grassland.

CAUGHT ON CAMERA: deer browse woodland shrubs and herbs PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The rides and glades are home to a range of mammals too, from inquisitive squirrels to shy fallow and roe deer. But for sheer variety, the prize has to go to the huge population of butterflies and moths.

WOODLAND CHOIR: a robin strikes up a song PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Butterfly species range from the marbled white and white-letter hairstreak to the silver-washed fritillary and some 400 species of moth have been recorded, including blotched emerald and striped lychnis.

SUMMER DANCE: butterflies and moths flourish at Homefield PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Visit the BBOWT website for more information about Homefield Wood and how to get there.