Hants & IOW Wildlife Trust – Magical Moths

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Magical Moths

Moths are often described as the dull cousins of colour butterflies, but nothing could be further from the truth. The UK has about 2,500 moth species and their sheer diversity, in terms of their colour, size, form, pattern and intricacy of markings, and their varied and often remarkable ecology, is nothing short of astonishing.

Take the bizarrely named goat moth for example. Like all moths and butterflies, it has egg, larval and pupal stages. However, amazingly its caterpillar, or larva, overwinters for several years before emerging to spend a comparatively brief couple of months as an adult. Locally, this nationally scarce species is found in the New Forest. But why goat moth? Well, the caterpillars are said to smell of goats!

Interestingly, several of our moths are named after their caterpillars: the lobster moth and the elephant hawk-moth are good examples. They are reminders of a time before modern light traps made it easier to find the adults and searching out larvae was the main means of recording moths.

Night Flyers

Not all moths are night flyers. Several species are diurnal and fly mainly during the day. One of the most common day flying moths is the stunning Six-Spot Burnet. These are beautiful insects but are poisonous to anything wanting to eat it. Like butterflies a lot of moths drink the sugary nectar from flowers and feed on sweet tree sap.

Hummingbird Hawkmoth © Derek Moore

Hummingbird Hawkmoth © Derek Moore

Surprisingly for such small insects, some moths migrate here, travelling from Europe or further afield. One migrant that is commonly seen in southern England every year is the Humming-bird hawk moth, coming all the way from the Mediterranean or even north Africa. With numbers peaking in August and September now is the perfect to time to spot this visitor in Hampshire.

Unfortunately, like butterflies, moths have suffered a widespread decline. Ultimately this highlights wider environmental damage caused by our impact on the natural world. Moths play vital roles within food chains, being food for birds, bats and mammals and being an important pollinator of plants. Habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation caused by urbanisation and intensive agriculture are linked closely to the decline. But while we have lost around 40% of our total moths, since 2000 we have gained several dozen new moth species, colonising over from the continent.

Reddish Buff Moth © Tracy Dove

Reddish Buff Moth © Tracy Dove

But there is hope!

During National Moth Week (22nd – 30th August), conservationists from Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT) are pleased to announce that the Reddish buff Moth (Acosmetia caliginosa), a rare moth species which is only found on one site in the UK, has been recorded for the first time in four years.

Two Reddish buff moths were found during the Trust’s annual moth survey programme at a sanctuary site on the Isle of Wight. The last adult moth was found in 2019, and the new finds help raise hopes for the future of this endangered moth.

Jamie Marsh, Director of Nature Recovery, Wilder Wight & Wilder Seas, for Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust said: “This is a significant and reassuring find as we were concerned about the status of this endangered species. Covid massively impacted our survey efforts in 2020 and 2021, when only one single larvae was found, so to discover that the Reddish buff moth is still persisting is very exciting.

Reddish buff moth © Iain Outlaw

Reddish buff moth © Iain Outlaw

“It is a difficult moth to survey for and requires a lot of time and effort. It doesn’t readily come to light traps and can easily hide away, so it is very fulfilling to discover two individuals. We were getting nervous that the species had been lost so to find it this year, and have it verified by the UK’s leading expert, is a big relief.”

The Moths last remaining stronghold, which is within a closed sanctuary site for wildlife, contains an ideal mix of its most favoured habitat along with saw-wort (Serratula tinchoria), the sole larval food plant.

As Jamie explains: “The Reddish buff moth has a particular habitat requirement in order to survive and flourish. Our intensive management of the reserve has increased pockets of suitable habitat and the required microclimate for this species to thrive. This is composed of a mosaic of open heathy shrub and short grassland, with important blocks of scrub to provide shelter and create the desired microclimate.”

The Reddish buff moth is in the family noctuidae, which are also referred as Owlet Moths, and its flight period is from April through to July. Its copper-coloured forewings and pale red hindwings helps it to blend in with its surroundings and attract potential mates. The Reddish Buff is a medium sized moth with a typical wingspan of up to 15mm and weighs just 23mg.

Jamie concludes: “The Reddish buff moth epitomises the challenges many of our rare species face. Restricted to a single site with specific habitat requirements and a single food plant, it seems to have everything against it, yet it is still persevering, thanks to the hard work of the team, a dedicated group of volunteers and site partners Isle of Wight AONB, Butterfly Conservation, Amazon World and Wildheart Animal Sanctuary.”

The Trust’s remaining focus for the site is to continue to restore and improve the habitat for the moth and other species.

To learn more about local wildlife, visit the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust at website https://www.hiwwt.org.uk

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