Dear Readers, anyone who has ever had access to a moth trap knows the mixture of apprehension and excitement that comes with peering into it early in the morning. Sometimes there are all sorts of jewelled wonders sitting in the egg-trays that you’ve put inside for their comfort. On other occasions, you have a variety of worn, brown creatures that are almost impossible for a novice to identify. But that’s all part of the fun. Will you spot some unusual migrant, or a stunning hawk moth, or a buff-tip that looks for all the world like a broken twig?
My mothy adventures have been limited to my back garden (so far), but James Lowen is on a mission to convert those of us who still think of moths as being the drab relatives of those pretty day-flying butterflies. Personally, I love a quest – I’m thinking about Peter Marren’s wonderful book about finding the rare wildflowers of Britain. Lowen’s quest is a bit looser than Marrens’ but he still manages to travel the length and breadth of Britain in his search for rare and unusual moths -he encounters a man who breeds Death’s Head Hawkmoths at home, longhorn moths that ‘lek’ (perform a mating dance to attract females), moths that were thought to be extinct, moths that are just starting to appear in the UK from mainland Europe, and moths that look like other insects.
Not content with the bigger moths, Lowen takes a shine to micromoths as well. How I love an enthusiast! Even the moths that he admits aren’t particularly brightly coloured or ‘interesting’ are memorably described:
‘Granted, Marsh Moth is never destined to be a pin-up, its hues a greyer beige than a wainscot. Jagged lines across its wings track the share price of a particularly volatile stock. Subtle and understated, it is a moth-er’s moth.’
Lowen describes the highs and lows of being a moth fanatic with great accuracy. The nights sitting in the cold and rain, the stomping up and down hill with heavy equipment, the ones that got away, the ones that turned up without any warning. A friend points him in the direction of a Clifden Nonpareil, the UK’s largest moth, under a strip light at Brockenhurst railway station.
He describes the etiquette of moth-ing – can you count a moth that flew into someone else’s trap, for example, even if you saw it first? If a friend catches a rare moth and holds onto it until you can arrive to see it, does that count? Ethical dilemmas abound. All moths caught are released into a safe spot, and the scientific information collected by monitoring numbers is invaluable, but Lowen is clearly a man who wants to do no harm.
This book has really made me want to get the moth trap out to see what’s happening in my garden, and to do some recording – the picture is changing so rapidly with climate change, and moths are an interesting early indicator of what is happening already, and what might happen in the future. Lowen wears his extensive knowledge lightly, and I learnt so much about this fascinating group of insects. Highly recommended.
You can buy the book here.