Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Of the dingy footman, and other such creatures

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With a thump, a thick tome lands on my desk: it is the Provisional Atlas of the UK's Larger Moths. Two adjectives in that title, provisional and larger, may well deter some people as they give off a definite whiff of nerdiness, but having by now been infected with the nerd germ I am immune to such concerns, open the volume eagerly and at once find myself immersed in the world of the oblique carpet, the dark spinach, the smoky wainscot, the brindled pug, the snout, the beautiful snout, the Bloxworth snout and the true lover's knot.

Is there anything with such unexpected charm in all of natural history as the English names of moths? These are a few more: the lace border, the dusky brocade, the mottled umber, the satin lutestring, the scarce forester, the Hebrew character and the powdered rustic. Or what about the conformist, the lackey, the exile, the gothic, the drinker and the dingy footman – these are all insects we're talking about here – not to mention the ghost moth, the goat moth, the fox moth, the mouse moth, the lobster moth and the Clifden nonpareil.

There are 868 of them in all, that is, 868 species of larger moths which breed in or regularly visit Britain, and which have English names (our 1,500 or so smaller, or micromoths, are nearly all named only scientifically, in Latin). It is some catalogue – compare it to the mere 58 British butterfly species – yet few people seem to be familiar with the true extent of this verbal treasure trove, because few are familiar with moths; as creatures of the night (on the whole) they are largely unseen, and to some they are faintly sinister, whereas butterflies seem to exude sunshine and everybody loves them.

It's a misapprehension. Many of our moths are quite as spectacularly beautiful as any butterfly, as anyone who has caught sight of a Jersey tiger or an eyed hawkmoth will tell you. It's just that they are more difficult to see, and much less common than they once were, and to become familiar with them nowadays you have to use a moth trap, basically a box housing a strong light which you place in the garden on summer nights.

(Moths are attracted and fly inside, where they are not harmed, but they can't get out until you release them; in the morning you find them asleep on the cardboard egg boxes which most moth enthusiasts put inside to create extra surface space. If you like Lepidoptera, opening a moth trap is like opening a terrific Christmas present.)

I was lucky. I grew up in an age when moths were far commoner than they are now and small boys enthused about them, like we did (the shame of it!) about collecting birds' eggs. Magpie moths, six-spot burnets, cinnabars, oak eggars, were all familiar to me when I was in short pants. But now when we have increasingly lost touch with the natural world and young people are fearful of the nerd accusation – loser! – not many of us will ever encounter a moth trap, so moths remain unknown, along with their resonant, reverberating, echoing labels... the angle shades, the smoky wave, the stranger, the argent and sable, the silver Y, the red-line quaker, the handmaid, the burnished brass... it's hard to stop quoting them.

In fact, the list of names has a fascination all its own, as something apart from the insects themselves. I think I am so drawn to it because it taps into a vanished age. Peter Marren, perhaps Britain's most perceptive writer on the natural world, elucidated this in a fascinating essay he wrote on The English Names of Moths in the October 1998 issue of that estimable journal British Wildlife (unfortunately not available over the counter, but if you Google it you can find out how to subscribe).

People assume, Marren wrote, that the names "were coined by Victorian clergymen after a glass or two of Madeira." In fact, he said, his researches had shown him that they were considerably older: they were early Georgian, and most had been created between about 1700 and 1760. What they were drawn from, by the lepidopterists of the time (who called themselves Aurelians), was the substance and fabric of everyday middle-class Georgian life.

For example, the wainscots (11 species) reminded them in their markings of the wood panelling prevalent in Georgian town houses; the pugs (more than 50 species) brought to mind the little dogs then fashionable; the footmen (17 species) held their wings close about them with the stiffness of contemporary servants.

Marren wrote: "These men of cultivated aesthetic tastes [the Aurelians] named their charges after everyday 18th-century objects – quakers and rustics in their subfusc attire; satins and silks, which were worn by men as well as women; the Gothic arches of church naves; or the colours worn by contemporary foresters."

Dipping into the atlas, then (published by the charity Butterfly Conservation) gives me a double pleasure. One is ecological, for this is the first proper atlas of Britain's moths – there have been three atlases of our butterflies – and it is fascinating to check out where I might catch sight of the legendary death's-head hawkmoth (not many places, for it's a continental visitor). The other is cultural, for browsing through the names I am back in the world of Georgian drawing rooms, of wainscot and patterned carpet, of silks and satins, of lace and brocades, of lackeys and footmen, of pugs and quakers, with perhaps a lute on a nearby chair, needing a string.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

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