A riot of colour - and there's not a butterfly in sight

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The Independent Online

Many of us love a red admiral, or a painted lady, or a small tortoiseshell, some of Britain's loveliest butterflies. But how many of us are charmed by the sight of a garden tiger, an oak eggar, or a six-spot burnet?

These are some of Britain's most beautiful moths, every bit as attractive as their butterfly cousins, but very much less familiar. Even natural history enthusiasts could be hard put to identify them.

But a remarkable new field guide aims to change that, and open widespread interest in Britain's fascinating moth fauna. It is called The Concise Guide to The Moths of Great Britain and Ireland and is one of those books that come along every now and then and cause a revolution.

Such a revolution happened for birdwatching in 1954 with the publication of a book every British birder knows simply as "Peterson". This was The Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe and it was revolutionary in that it covered every species you were likely to encounter, illustrated them with lifelike pictures, and could be carried in your pocket.

It was a key factor in the explosion of interest in birdwatching, and it has spawned a myriad of imitations. Indeed, nowadays you may think bird books were always like this. But before Peterson, they were big and cumbersome, or had most unlifelike illustrations, or were not comprehensive, or all three.

The Concise Guide does for Britain's moths what Peterson did for birds. First, it is comprehensive: it features all the larger moths of Britain and Ireland, nearly 900 species (compared to our 60 butterfly species).

Second, it shows them as they appear in nature, with their wings folded over their back. Previous moth guides showed specimens with their wings pinned out, as in a collector's cabinet, more striking, but unrealistic, and unhelpful for identification. And third, it will fit in your pocket.

It is a ring-bound, slimmed-down version of a majestic moth encyclopaedia published four years ago, the Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland. The text is by two of Britain's leading entomologists, Paul Waring and Martin Town-send, but as with Peterson, the reward was the more than 1,500 exquisite illustrations by Europe's leading insect painter, Richard Lewington.

The pocket-sized handbook costs less than a third of the original, and is clearly aimed at a mass market. The publisher, Andrew Branson of British Wildlife Publishing, said: "It seems to be bringing in people who maybe were birdwatchers, or those who just had an interest in butterflies. They're now able to move on to moths. The interest is going up quite rapidly. We've had people saying to us that, before the book, identifying moths was very difficult, but now they're finding it much easier."

Mr Branson is an enthusiast. "Moths are much more colourful than people believe.

"They represent a much wider range of habitats than butterflies, particularly woodland and grasslands, so they're telling you all sorts of things about the nature of where you are, and the health of the landscape."

Nocturnal moths can be observed by setting a moth trap in your garden. This attracts the insects by a light, but does not harm them, and they can be released after identification.

The Concise Guide to The Moths of Great Britain and Ireland, by Martin Townsend and Paul Waring, illustrated by Richard Lewington, 160 pages, price £12.95.