If they came out by day, these moths would be famous beauties

There are 15 times as many larger moths in Britain as butterflies

A A A

If you know the bigger bits of British wildlife fairly well, you might long ago have given up on the idea of surprises.

After all, there are only 200 or so breeding bird species here, not many more than 100 mammals and even fewer of some other types of creature – for example, just a pitiful six native reptiles (three lizards and three snakes). Even if you haven’t seen them all in the flesh – and I’m still hoping for a sight of a harvest mouse before I hand in my dinner pail – you can become pretty familiar with most of them, and you’re unlikely to be gobsmacked by anything entirely new to you. But I just have been. Gobsmacked, that is.

The gobsmackers were moths, a trio of them. That means it must be high summer. While normal folk go to the garage, muttering prayers of thankfulness, and get the barbecue out when the warm days finally arrive, some of us of a quainter disposition get out the moth trap. For the warm darkness is full of marvels, and the radiant mercury-vapour bulb of a light trap is a surefire way of attracting them, of making them magically appear (it doesn’t hurt them in any way).

I did my first moth-trapping of the year last Saturday night and was amazed at what turned up. There is the possibility of amazement, because there are so many moths – in fact, there are 15  times as many larger moths in Britain, as there are butterflies. You can, with a lot of effort and travel and luck, see all 58 British butterfly species in a single summer, from the mountain ringlet at 2,000ft up in the Lake District, to the swallowtail at sea level in the Norfolk Broads – I managed it in 2009 and wrote about it for The Independent – but you would be very hard put to see all the British larger moths in a year, because there are 868 of those (never mind the 1500 micro-moths).

I am still a beginner as a moth-er. (That’s the term enthusiasts use. The hyphen is necessary, to avoid unfortunate misunderstandings.) And being a beginner means I am probably familiar with 100 or so of those 868, leaving a vast army of species entirely unknown to me – some of them spectacular.

Three such turned up out of the balmy darkness of last Saturday night. The first was a white item, covered in fur. It was like a thumb-sized fluffy white kitten from a loo paper advert, with wings. It was a puss moth. Incredible thing.

The second was like a large piece of flying orange peel and I had no idea what it was: it turned out to be the simply-named but splendidly attractive, orange moth. New one on me. But another fantastic article.

The third was the best of all: it was like a dazzling, lemon-yellow leaf, and it proved to be the swallowtail moth, of whose existence, of whose very name, I was wholly unaware. Swallowtail butterfly, sure, been to the Broads, seen that; but swallowtail moth? As it flew around in  the light of the trap, and then settled, I could see the reason  for its name: each of its yellow hindwings had a prominent  tail, with two dark spots  just above.

It was exquisite, as big as many butterflies, as were the orange moth and the puss moth before it. Were they creatures which dashed around in the daylight they would be familiar and exciting sights to many of  us, but being nocturnal, you  have to fish them out of the sea  of blackness with a mercury-vapour light. But when they  do arrive, gobsmacking is  what they are. It beats the barbecue for me.

Twitter: @mjpmccarthy

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor