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Coombes Valley: A fantastic place to learn about moths

By Ashbourne News Telegraph  |  Posted: June 02, 2014

Elephant hawk moth

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Our magnificent moths are a sign of a healthy landscape, says Sally Granger, visitor officer at the RSPB's Coombes Valley nature reserve.

THE flashes of colour woven into the landscape by frolicking butterflies are firmly entrenched in our images of spring and summer.

Throughout the long winter, daydreams of warm, lazy days have them tumbling above our picnic blankets.

However, with the warmer weather and the promise of sunshine on the horizon, what of the butterfly's shyer, less celebrated but no less beautiful relative; the moth?

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Their summer presence is much less noted and yet their diversity outstrips the UK's 59 species of butterfly by a staggering number, with at least 2,500 different species in the UK.

They are an important pollinator of trees and flowers and their caterpillars are a staple food source for birds and bats.

This fragile insect feels the impact of any slightest change, even to the point that their population health is a telling indicator of the wider environmental health.

To monitor the populations of these fascinating creatures, there are currently moth traps up and down the country filling up with the abundance of May's and June's species.

The iconic pink and green elephant hawk moth, one of our strangest and yet most beautiful moths, is nearing its peak of activity.

Intriguingly, although moths are known as nocturnal, there are also a great many which fly by day and are as vibrant as our most eye-catching butterflies.

One of the rarest day-flying moths is the argent and sable, a black and white moth whose specific habitat requirements have meant rapid decline. It can now only be found in pockets of the UK.

Some areas of woodland are managed specifically for the benefit of this moth. Argent and sable use birch trees to lay their eggs, feed on caterpillars and to find winter shelter for their cocoons. Unfortunately, their preference for young birch growth means those trees require coppice management. This very particular preference, coupled with declining woodland management practices such as coppicing, has led to a dangerous reduction in available habitat.

The exciting news is that there have already been some sightings this year of the enigmatic argent and sable, just a stone's throw away at RSPB Coombes Valley reserve in north Staffordshire.

Sadly, the vast majority of UK butterflies are also facing decline. It is important that we conserve both moths and butterflies for a wealth of reasons; they play important roles in food chains and as pollinators and their decline will have knock-on effects on the birds, bats and mammals, which depend on them for food.

On a positive note, nearby sightings of the argent and sable are an encouraging sign of our local landscape's future health.

If you would like to give moth trapping a go, it is very easy to do at home. While there is basic equipment available to buy, the easiest and most rudimentary method consists of a sheet hung from a washing line at dusk with a bright light behind.

Moths landing on it are easily observable and it is a great treat for staying up past bed time for all the family!

RSPB Coombes Valley, near Leek, manages areas of woodland for the argent and sable moth. It has resulted in six sightings so far this year. Phone the office on 01538 384017 or online at www.rspb.org.uk/coombesvalley for more information.

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