Disappearing Britain: Rare moths bloom in back garden: A biologist is fighting to save endangered species by releasing caterpillars. Oliver Gillie reports

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The Independent Online
THE ONLY surviving specimens of the Essex Emerald moth, once a resident of the saltmarshes of East Anglia, are now living in a back garden in Lincoln Road, Peterborough. In neighbouring cages are caterpillars of two other rarities: the Reddish Buff moth and the Barberry Carpet moth.

Paul Waring, a freelance biologist, is employed by English Nature and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee to save the moths from extinction. The Essex Emerald had sunk to very small numbers in 1987 when Mr Waring rescued it by bringing 11 caterpillars into the moth sanctuary in his garden.

'Technically, the Essex Emerald moth died out last year. But we anticipated that this would happen and have built up a captive stock,' Mr Waring said. 'The draining of marshes, the building of sea defences and the transformation of saltmarsh into grazing land has destroyed its habitat.' The Essex Emerald, Thetidia smaragdaria, which has a wingspan of two centimetres, is brilliant green with fine gold tracery on its wings. In Mr Waring's back garden these creatures are happily laying their eggs on Lad's Love, a garden variety of wormwood closely related to the sea wormwood on which they used to feed in the Essex marshes. Already he has returned 56 full-grown caterpillars of the Essex Emerald to the wild and will release many more later this year. With gentle hands, Mr Waring picked up a caterpillar of the Barberry Carpet moth and transferred it to fresh food in another cage. Anyone who stole or mistreated one of these caterpillars could be fined up to pounds 2,000 under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, he said. Six species of rare moths are protected under Schedule 5 of the Act. The Barberry Carpet moth, Pareulype berberata, used to be common in many parts of Britain until farmers began to rid their hedges of barberry because this shrub harbours the wheat rust fungus which spoils crops. The moth survived only in Suffolk, Gloucestershire and possibly Hampshire. In 1990 and 1991 Mr Waring released caterpillars of the Barberry Carpet moth raised in his back garden and now has evidence of two generations breeding successfully at a site in Suffolk.

He has been even more successful with the Reddish Buff moth, Acosmetia caliginosa, which died out on mainland Britain and was reduced to one colony on the Isle of Wight. It used to live happily in the New Forest until newly planted conifers destroyed the heathland where its caterpillars feed on saw-wort.

In 1989 Mr Waring released 757 caterpillars of the Reddish Buff moth at a site on the Isle of Wight. Each year since he has found Reddish Buffs at the site, showing that they have successfully established themselves. This year he plans to reintroduce Reddish Buffs to a site on the mainland.

Saving these moths is a figurehead project, explained Mr Waring, chosen to make a larger point for the endangered insects of Britain. He hopes that it will be possible to save 506 different species of British insect that are at risk because their habitats are threatened. Among these are two species of butterfly, four species of dragonfly and damselfly, 37 species of bees and wasps, 142 species of beetles, and 270 species of 'true flies', flies of the two-winged type.

(Photograph omitted)