Monday, June 27, 2011

Mothing in the British Isles

Buff Arches / Photo credit: Donald Hobern
This year the United Kingdom did not have a National Moth Night for the first time the event started in 1999. This was not because of lack of participation. Instead, participation had grown to the point that National Moth Night's organizers lacked the resources to manage such a large event. They plan to restart it next year after they have a chance to reorganize the event along more sustainable lines.

Mothing has become hugely popular in the U.K., with even Buckingham Palace and the House of Commons running light traps for National Moth Night. The popularity of mothing has grown alongside resources to support it.

Today, expert amateurs watch for new arrivals at the UK's ring of seashore moth traps, a chain of powerful, disorienting lights that resembles Churchill's wartime radar ring. The language used to record them is pure Home Office, with moths classified as wandering vagrants, transitory residents, suspected migrants and even colonists. Their website features a live Flight Arrivals icon – yellow and black with flashing arrows like those on airport websites, except that instead of the Ryanair service to Venice or Faro you have the dark sword-grass landing on the Lizard peninsula or the bird-cherry ermine checking in at Spurn.

At the end of last year, a 454-page atlas was published by Butterfly Conservation and the National Moth Recording Scheme, with details of 11.3m moth records dating to 1769. The very first recorded in the UK was also one of the most dramatic: the extremely rare death's-head hawk-moth, with a skull shape on its back and a unique ability to squeak. Uh-oh. A shudder-making moth indeed – it even plays a part in the film of The Silence of the Lambs. But when pupils at Husthwaite primary raised captive death's-head hawk-moths in 2006 at Shandy Hall, the North Yorkshire home of Laurence Sterne, as a Tristram Shandy project, they loved them. It's a project they are keen to repeat.

The Provisional Atlas of the UK's Larger Moths is one of two bibles which are revolutionising moth recording. The other is the Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Paul Waring and Martin Townsend, whose meticulous paintings by Richard Lewington have at last brought species identification within amateurs' reach. (Moth antennae vary from feathery to wandlike, antlerish to TV aerialesque – contrasting with the simple club shape common to all UK butterflies.) Add the unprecedented availability of light traps, now costing from £78, and the power of digital photography, and a once-elusive prey is no longer hard to find and record.
British birders have a reputation for being a bit... intense, so in a way it is not surprising that mothing would catch on there once someone got the ball rolling and developed some resources to make catching and identifying them easier. Could this happen in North America? The growing participation in the Great Backyard Bird Count and the enthusiasm of attendees at East Brunswick's moth nights make me think that there may be a base of support for something like a National Moth Night, or even some longer-term projects.