The Wonder of Wildlife - Moths in the garden

  • Last updated: 16 September 2022

I’ve always been a lark, not an owl. These early summer days I wake before 6, and I'm out running shortly after. Nothing beats the champagne effervescence of an early May morning!

This could be why I’ve never really been excited by moths. They bang around my lamp when I’m reading in bed at night, and the tiny house moth, Tineola bisselliella, will munch on my favourite jumpers.

But then last summer I was visited by a Red Underwing (Catocala nupta). A stunning moth had blundered in my kitchen window. Its large grey-backed speckled wings provide the perfect camouflage when hiding in woody undergrowth during the day, hiding the shock of the bright scarlet red underwings. And it was huge.

Often overlooked by their gaudy butterfly cousins, moths are a rich delight in the garden. I turned to Dave Goulson’s book ‘The Garden Jungle’, to find out more. They are pollinators, a major food source for bats, owls and nightjars, and nocturnal small mammals, and their caterpillars a vital food for chicks in spring. It appears the cuckoo in particular feeds on moth caterpillars. And, as Goulson explains, it is the serious decline in moth numbers which might account for the sad fall in cuckoo numbers.

As with bees and butterflies, the decline in moth populations can be attributed to many things: habitat loss, urbanisation, light pollution, intensive farming, insecticides and herbicides. The latter kills weeds which moths feed on, and light pollution may well confuse moths – both in their nocturnal habits as well as their migratory patterns.

It set me thinking about what my garden can offer moths.

They will love my night-scented flowers, such as evening primrose, sweet rocket, jasmine and honeysuckle. I also have a hedge running around the hen run, which I planted myself. Guelder rose, hawthorn, dogwood, and bramble scramble together with field maple and wild cherry trees in their midst. This, Goulson tells me, is a fine mix of shrubby plants that will help feed moth caterpillars and provide shelter. I even have a small willow – which is probably why the gorgeous Red Underwing paid me a visit. He had most likely been raised there as a caterpillar.

I’ll stay a lark – you can’t change the habits of a lifetime – but I regret that I’m not awake in the dark. I’d love to give the moths a virtual hug.

More about Sarah...
Sarah has been growing organically for over 30 years. Gardening has always run alongside her career in museums and climate change studies, whether it was growing salad leaves in pots on a London windowsill, tomatoes in a tiny flat in Hong Kong, or her present plot in rural Oxfordshire. She shares this space with hens, two (very fat) sheep, two cats, a husband and any wildlife which wanders in. Foxes, badgers, kites, owls, moles and buzzards are regular visitors – as are bats, butterflies and bees. She readily admits that being outside, helping things to grow, keeps her sane and completely content.

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