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.