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4 May 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 3:11pm

That’s no moth, it’s a wisp of delight on the wing

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors.

By John Burnside

Many years ago, I was a volunteer moth-hunter. I wasn’t a collector (I’ve always been puzzled by the impulse to capture a live creature, gas it and then pin its motionless corpse to a board); I was just another helping hand for a number of surveys aimed at estimating the variety and size of local populations. At the same time, I was working at one of Cambridge University’s zoology field stations, an idyllic smallholding just off the Huntingdon Road, where my boss, Gerry, bred cockroaches, locusts, tobacco moths and other insects for study purposes.

I was the merest factotum at that facility, a rather feckless boy taken on to tend the gardens and glasshouses, but Gerry did his best to include me in the more interesting work, including his daily, highly security-conscious visits to the tobacco moths, which were kept under dark netting in a double-walled building within the complex.

At that time, as I recall, you needed a letter from the head of zoology to hold a key to the tobacco moth house, and government documentation was required by anyone seeking  to transport the creatures – because tobacco moths are potentially devastating pests of any commercial crop that belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshades) family; and because these include potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, we had to be extremely careful not to release these insects into the wild. For me, however, they were a source of wonder and a dark, almost Gothic pleasure.

An even greater source of wonder was to set up a moth trap and count the various species that drifted into the light – necessary work to estimate loss of species, changes in distribution and migration patterns. (Some moths – the hummingbird hawk-moth, for instance – can travel very long distances.) Moth losses rarely get the column inches reserved for birds or butterflies, but 62 British species in total became extinct during the 20th century and a further 81 are gravely endangered.

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths – gorgeous creatures such as the orange upperwing, the bordered Gothic, the Brighton wainscot and the stout dart – have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors. At the same time, species that have never been recorded before in these islands are taking up residence in parts of southern England – a sign of climate change, perhaps.

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I am not an entomologist, nor have I ever been one. Nevertheless, insects – especially the larger moths – have brought me a great deal of pleasure over the years. Even the names are cause for delight. “Garden tiger” and “snout” are self-explanatory, but who came up with “Brighton wainscot” for an exquisitely beautiful creature that looks like nothing so much as a tiny bride in her wedding gown, or “Clifden nonpareil” for that astonishing specimen whose underwing – a very dark blue, fringed with silvery white and streaked all the way across with a sky-blue stripe – is actually a defence mechanism, startling any predator that might descend upon it with a riot of unexpected colour?

Meanwhile, even though many of the nocturnal moths are subtler in hue, there is a delicacy to them when in flight – the faint, sometimes tiny wisps of what might easily be myrrh or chrism on the wing – that makes a night in the woods all the more enchanting. Back in my surveying days, they seemed so abundant that I didn’t mind watching the one bat that would circle the street lamp outside my window, picking the papery morsels from the warm glow of it.

Now, though, I worry: the losses of these magical creatures have come to seem too much to bear, especially as the reasons for their extinction – loss of habitat being the main culprit – could be so easily avoided.

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This article appears in the 27 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism