As darkness falls, a group of mainly middle-aged men set up traps of various shapes and sizes — some sophisticated and expensive-looking, others more Heath Robinson-like — in gardens and fields across the country. These are moth enthusiasts: a largely unknown and, by their very nature, unseen group of hobbyists. They are mostly fanatical birdwatchers too, and from backgrounds that include journalism, the civil service, the Royal Mail and the NHS.
They lay their traps, some of which cost £500 or more, throughout most of the year. In the mornings they count, identify and list their catch in minute detail. The moths are then carefully released, away from prowling blackbirds who turn up when they think there’s a chance of an easy meal.
Most traps use actinic bulbs, which emit bright UV light to attract the moths. The moths then flutter into a plastic or wooden container beneath and crawl, dazed but unharmed, into empty egg boxes until the morning.
My local group is the Eel’s Footmen, a play on words combining the name of the local pub — The Eel’s Foot — with the footman family of moths that includes dusky, scarce, dingy and four-dotted. And if you think those are names to conjure with, just wait till you get to the wainscots, old lady, dark arches and, my favourite, the setaceous Hebrew character — if ever I write an autobiography, that’s my title right there.
There is an overwhelming desire among moth lovers to compile as long a list as possible, including names in both English and Latin, as well as dates, times, locations, habitat and weather conditions. When the moth-catchers came to my garden and enquired about habitat, I said it was a former country cottage with some modernisation. They didn’t laugh. Mothing is a serious business. What I apparently should have said, though, was ‘acid grassland with nearby reedbeds’.
As with twitchers, some moth--catchers travel vast distances to clap eyes on a rare specimen or anything officially ‘notifiable’ — meaning that it goes into the county record as a rare example or first for the area.
Lists are vital in keeping a record of whether numbers are going up or down. This is important in an area such as ours on the Suffolk coast where habitats are threatened by the proposed new Sizewell C nuclear power station. It is also eye-opening for those of us who previously thought of moths only as pests that ate clothes or fluttered round our light bulbs when the windows were left open.
The colours and markings are remarkable, from the delicate patterns on the tiniest micro moths which make up most of the 2,500 species in the UK, to the bright green of the emerald moth — a beauty wasted on most of us by coming out in the dark.
The Eel’s Footmen have put their traps in my garden three times in the past six months and netted 138 different species: among them, the red underwing, lobster, spectacle, elephant hawk-moth and the twig-like buff tip — not to mention the less romantically named turnip moth. The best find was, I’m told, a Dichomeris alacella. It wasn’t much to look at compared with some of the others, but it was notifiable.