Night-time moth spotting

One of Britain's most beautiful wildlife spectacles occurs tantalisingly out of reach, unless you have a special trap. Mark Cocker reveals how to seek out those secret stunners of summer nights - moths. 

Gloucestershire floods
Eyed Hawk-moth (Smerinthus ocellatus)

I remember the moment I developed a fascination with moths. I’d found a dead one in our village and as I examined it in my palm, it seemed one of the weirdest creatures I’d ever seen. The body was covered in grey fur, but it was heavily curved as if a tiny banana had mated with a mouse. The swept-back wings were scimitar-shaped and ragged and while there was a gorgeous patch of plum on the hind wing, the whole thing was exquisitely patterned in greys and browns like a great splash of molten alloy metal.

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The poplar hawkmoth is now a routine part of my weekly catch. At the time, however, it was as if I’d found indisputable proof of another world or time: a dinosaur’s tooth, perhaps, or rock from outer space. I immediately bought a trap – which costs £100-£300 from a range of specialist dealers – and began a journey with these insects. Their cardinal pleasure is writ large in that first encounter: moths are completely unpredictable. There is no way of knowing what might turn up. I liken it to coming downstairs on Christmas morning to the joy of those mysteriously wrapped presents.

Your nocturnal ark

There are more than 2,000 species in Britain and in the morning my trap – essentially a bright light suspended over
a holding container where the insects are caught harmlessly and pass the night nestled among cardboard egg boxes – could include almost any of them. Sometimes there are hundreds of individuals and occasionally as many as 100 species. It is the only form of natural history where the wildlife comes to you. Our small garden has attracted 360 species – more wildlife diversity than the entire list of breeding birds and mammals in Britain.

One aspect frequently overlooked is moth beauty. The hawkmoths – which can be quite common, including the eyed, privet and elephant hawkwmoths – are hugely striking insects. The privet hawkmoth is one of Britain’s largest species and almost the size of a tiny bird. Yet it is another form of aesthetic that truly distinguishes moths. Unlike their day-flying relatives the butterflies, they are delicate earth shades. Theirs is the strange beauty, not of brightness or colour, but of camouflage, impersonation and deceit.

To this subtle allure can be added the genuine pleasure of teasing out their identities. Working out a moth’s name is
rather like the satisfaction of solving a crossword puzzle. It is a case of aligning the various small clues – and, once you have a basic foothold in the recognition process, many moths can be relatively straightforward.

Finally comes the most unexpected fulfilment. Many moths were named by 18th-century craftsmen who used the language of their trades to create what is surely the most poetic nomenclature in all British nature. Sometimes in my trap the ‘mottled beauty’ lies with the ‘buff tip’, the ‘setaceous Hebrew character’, the ‘common wainscot’, ‘flounced rustic’, ‘small clouded brindle’ and the ‘old lady’. This wonderful vocabulary describes animals that are no less delightful. 

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Mark Cocker is an author and naturalist who lives in the Norfolk countryside. His books include Claxton, Birds and People, Bird Britannica and Crow Country.