“Don’t’ worry, the wind is definitely going to die down by this evening.” I am unsure how many times I said this on the Saturday of the moth trapping event!

60mph gusts swept across the fen. The trees rattled a hail of deadwood down throughout the woodland, dodgy looking Ash trees suffering from the die-back disease swayed precariously, and the vertical fen vegetation took a lie-down as the winds hammered it flat. No moth would fly in these conditions tonight. But, the wind would definitely die down by the evening, 9pm in fact, bang on the time when the moth traps would be switched on.

Moth trapping by Colin Littlewood

Moth trapping © Colin Littlewood

To summarise moth trapping, for those who have not witnessed it before, a high-powered light bulb is illuminated during the hours of darkness, luring moths in from many hundreds of meters away, where they either get trapped in a box below the bulb or are just identified as they land nearby.  The moths are then released, unscathed, to carry on with their nocturnal business. Why they are attracted to light is much debated, with multiple theories proposed (the likes of which I shall not fascinate you with today).

As the winds died down (perhaps not as dramatically as prophesised, but to a reasonable degree) a cluster of moth enthusiasts descended upon the reserve in the wake of the setting sun. Although I personally enjoy moth trapping, I am still very much a novice in this field. It is definitely one of those activities that could be misconstrued as bizarre by those not in-the-know; a group of people aggregating of a night, staring at a bulb in the middle of nowhere, gesticulating excitedly as small winged insects hum around.

At the fen, under its night-time cloak, our quiet anticipation was rudely intruded upon by the noise of a distant disco. Screams, cheers and shouting occasionally punctured the air as these dance enthusiasts enjoyed their evening. Staring at a bulb for half the night is definitely the better option, in my opinion. I remember running a moth trapping session in a woodland carpark in North Norfolk, a few years back. As darkness descended the moth trap was switched on, and soon we were enjoying a range of species coming into the light. Unfortunately, our enjoyment was soon to be disrupted, as a police car whizzed brashly into the carpark towards us. A couple of officers jumped out of the car and declared that a complaint had been made about some “suspicious” activity in the carpark, with assumptions that a rave must be about to begin. Nope, just a few naturalists looking at moths, we went on to explain. The policemen were actually very interested in the moth trap and spent a while looking at what species were turning up.

Poplar Hawk Moth - Will Fitch

A striking Poplar Hawk Moth

Back at Wheatfen and the moths certainly did not disappoint on the night of the event. Despite lower numbers of visitors than originally hoped for (perhaps the weather warnings deterring some people) the moths performed well. As always, there were the visually stunning “big ones”; a striking Elephant Hawk moth landed on my t-shirt, perhaps attracted by the smell (it had been a hard day’s reed cutting). A Poplar Hawk moth also put in an appearance, another beauty.

The Victorians gave many of our moth species their common names, at times being incredibly poetic and descriptive. Mother of Pearl, Small Phoenix and Flame Shoulder are but a few that were caught on the Saturday. Having said that, some names were perhaps not as inventive, like the Small Grey – fairly self-explanatory when you see the moth.

The grand total amounted to 73 different species identified over 3 hours; a total greater than the overall number of butterfly species that cover the entire United Kingdom throughout the seasons, but still only a small percentage of the number of moths that inhabit the reserve throughout the year. Two species of particular interest were the Tree Lichen Beauty and the White Point, both immigrating from the continent in their thousands during successful breeding years, a bit like the Painted Lady butterflies we are seeing in such high numbers this year. The unusual looking Vagrant Piercer, another species from the continent and somewhat of a rare visitor to the UK, was also identified.

Vagrant Piercer © Stewart Wright

The rare Vagrant Piercer © Stewart Wright

We are lucky enough to have nearly 100 years’ worth of moth records for the reserve, dating back to the 1930s when Ted Ellis was regularly recording moth species around Wheatfen. By continuing on with the moth surveys as regularly as possible we can use this wealth of data to highlight changes in habitats and the environment, including climate, as all moth species have their own specialist niches, from specific food plants to temperature tolerances.

I would like to thank our moth experts, many of whom are members of the Norfolk Moth Group, for providing their knowledge and enthusiasm for the evening.

Words by Will Fitch, cover photo by Ann Kerridge

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