The acidic grasslands and oak woodlands around The Ercall make it a natural destination for butterflies and moths. Yet, when it comes to Lepidoptera, it’s easy to overlook the latter in favour of the former, particularly as this stunning local nature reserve is home to at least 26 of Britain’s 70 butterfly species. That, though, would be very shortsighted indeed…
Moths are far more numerous than butterflies and can be seen at any time of the year, with many on the wing during daylight hours. Aside from being significant pollinators, moths and their caterpillars are an important food source for many birds, small mammals, insects and amphibians. Their specific lifestyle requirements also make them very sensitive to change and they are excellent indicators of the health of our landscape. Still think moths are a poor relation to butterflies? Think again!
There are over 2400 moth species in the UK, making the task of identifying them a bewildering and, frankly, impossible assignment for all but the most accomplished expert! To make matters slightly (and only slightly) less daunting, they are divided into two groups: micro- and macro-moths, the latter comprising around 900 species of larger insects that are generally easier to name than their typically smaller counterparts (some of which begin life as larvae within the dermis layer of leaves).
Moths and butterflies tend to flourish in places with lots of plantlife and, with a range of contrasting but closely linked habitat features typical of a good brownfield site, The Ercall certainly fits the bill. Over 200 moth species have been recorded in the vicinity of the quarries alone, and while no failsafe method exists to tell them apart from their butterfly cousins, useful information can often be gleaned by looking at the tips of the antennae (are they clubbed?) or the way the insect holds its wings at rest (eg. are they open or shut? Do the forewings overlap the underwings?).
The overwhelming majority of moths recorded in the Ercall Quarries belong to two large moth families: Noctuids and Geometrids. Typically stout of body, and united by a kidney-shaped spot on the outer part of the forewing (known as a ‘reniform-stigma’), the former comprises many of the grey and brown moths that congregate around lit windows after dark. With a literal flourish typical of the Victorians whose mania for collecting first provided a reason to christen them, the common names of many Noctuids reference their wing markings (daggers, brocades, knots), or lack of them (clays, drabs or quakers). Geometrid moths, on the other hand, are typified by a flimsy, slender-bodied appearance with a butterfly-like flight. Many of the most common day-flying species (which we’ll come to in a moment) belong to this family, and possess feathery antennae that, unlike those of butterflies, are not clubbed.
A Brief Recap:
* Noctuids: stout bodied, often grey or brown in colour, united by kidney-shaped marking on the forewings, which normally overlap and, at rest, are held tent-like or flat over the body. Larvae are plump and worm-like, rarely possessing much hair. Around 400 UK species
* Geometrids: flimsy and slender-bodied (although by no means true of all geometrids), feathery antennae are not clubbed, rest with wings spread and pressed against an underlying surface. Around 300 UK species.
Moths are generally nocturnal in their habits but over 100 species regularly take to the wing during daylight hours, which is a time when many night-flyers can readily be disturbed from their slumber, too. Fence posts, tree trunks and rocks are all typical locations for some moth ‘r&r’, and gently tapping the leaves and stems of the local flora could also rouse a dozing individual! Take care, however, not to touch the insects directly — moth wings are covered in thousands of fine scales that can very easily be dislodged, creating the characteristic plume of powdery dust all too familiar to anyone that has ever tried to retrieve one from a wet sink!
Here, then, are some species to look out for round The Ercall:
* Six-spot Burnet (Zygaena filipendulae): brightly coloured, with a slow buzzing flight that belies a generally sluggish nature, day-flying burnet moths are easy to observe because they spend most of their time resting on flowers. Of the ten species in the UK the six-spot is the most common but beware! The distinctive spots that lend this insect its name sometimes fuse and can easily be mistaken for those of its cousin the Narrow-bordered Five-Spot Burnet, which shares similar red-on-black forewing markings. Look out, too for the Cinnabar, which also possesses the same colour scheme (albeit with a very different shaped pattern). Its striking yellow and black caterpillars are a familiar occupant of ragwort in late summer, a plant they can envelop in large numbers.
Field Notes: Six-spot Burnets are on the wing between June and August, inhabiting flowery grassland and woodland rides. Nectar plants include knapweeds, thistles and scabious species; caterpillars feed on Bird’s-foot Trefoil (which once grew prolifically in the grasslands of the Ercall quarries but no longer).
* Mother Shipton (Euclidia mi): like many Noctuids, this creamy-brown moth is named for its distinctive forewing pattern — which bears an uncanny resemblance to the profile of 16th Century Yorkshire witch Mother Shipton (who lived in a cave near Knaresborough). If you discover one in the Ercall grasslands, look out for its cousin the Burnet Companion, a more richly brown coloured day-flyer that, despite its name, enjoys spending time with Mother Shipton, too!
Field Notes: on the wing from May to July, inhabiting flower-rich grasslands, heath and woodland rides. Feeds on clovers and legumes; its caterpillars feed on Bird’s-foot Trefoil and various grasses, including Cock’s-foot.
* Green Carpet (Colostygia pectinataria): Carpet moths are so named for their supposed resemblance to 18th Century flooring patterns. However, with a blotchy, bright-green appearance (fringed by dark triangular markings on the edge of the forewings), it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting a carpet like this! Like many nocturnal species, it is readily disturbed in daytime and at home in heath and woodland.
Field Notes: on the wing between June and July (and again in August and early September) flying from dusk and into the night. Feeds on plants of the Bedstraw (Galium) family, where you may also find its cousin the Silver-ground Carpet, a brownish-white moth with a dark central band across its forewings.
* Six-belted Clearwing (Bembecia ichneumoniformis): Clearwing moths are so named for a tendency to lose their wing scales upon flying for the first time, resulting in a characteristically transparent appearance. This species ‘six belts’ consist of half-a-dozen abdominal bands, which lend this day-flyer the superficial appearance of a wasp (a perception reinforced by its buzzing flight).
Field Notes: on the wing in rough grassland between June and August, this moth is right at the edge of its UK range in east Shropshire. Feeds on Bird’s-foot Trefoil and Kidney Vetch.
* Oak Hook Tip (Watsonella binaria): not all moths are named for their markings. Prominents, for example, take theirs from a small tuft of shark-like scales that protrude from the forewings when at rest, while Eggars are so-called for their ‘egg-shaped’ cocoons. And so it is for the Oak Hook Tip, a term that accurately describes the concluding point of its forewing! That is far from the only distinctive feature of this small, orangey-brown moth, which always rests with its wings pressed flat against a surface (where you should look out for two tell-tale pairs of centrally-located black spots on the forewings).
Field Notes: mainly nocturnal but occasionally day-flying moth of Pedunculate and Sessile Oak woodland. Double-brooded, it is on the wing in May and June and again in August. Caterpillars feed on and pupate in oak leaves, resting with their front and rear ends raised.
* Poplar Hawk-moth (Laothoe populi): competing with the Tiger moths for the title of most charismatic species recorded around The Ercall, the rapid flying Hawk moth family are surely among the most thrilling Lepidopteron sights to be had in the Wrekin Forest. At rest, the Poplar Hawk-moth exhibits a noteworthy tendency for curving its abdomen and holding its pink tinged, grey-brown hind wings in front of its delta-shaped forewings, looking for all the world like a dead leaf!
Field Notes: On the wing between May and June, with a second brood in late summer. Adult moths do not feed but caterpillars can be found on poplars and willows. Look out too for the pinkish-green, scallop-winged Lime Hawk-moth, which flies in The Ercall reserve from May to July.
By far the best way to search for moths is to simply walk around some likely habitat on a warm, still day. In The Ercall reserve, inspecting heathland plants, including Bilberry, Heather and Bracken, or grassland flora, such as the perennial favourite Bird’s-foot Trefoil (aka. ‘Eggs and bacon’), should yield results. However, the area’s woodlands are by far the most attractive feature for moths, with Pedunculate and Sessile Oak, and Silver Birch (a classic tree of brownfield land) all harbouring large numbers of species.
If you’d like a list of Ercall species by foodplant (and the types of habitat they can be found in), click on the link below:
For a more comprehensive (but by no means complete) list of moths found in the Ercall reserve:
Despite their overwhelming favouritism in the popular conscience, we couldn’t go without mentioning the Ercall’s butterfly population. The reserve was once noteworthy for Dingy Skipper and Green Hairstreak but the local decline of Bird’s-foot trefoil (their foodplant) means these species are no longer common here. Despite the ravages of Dutch Elm disease, Wych Elm still suckers well in the reserve, which is now more renowned as a haven for the highflying White Letter Hairstreak. Like its equally lofty cousin the Purple Hairstreak (which has a strong association with Oak), it has a penchant for aphid honeydew. When that substance is in short supply in the treetops, both species will descend from the canopy to feed nearer ground level. However, they are but a few of many species recorded here, which include:
Brimstone, Gatekeeper, Small Skipper, Meadow Brown, Orange-tip, Green Hairstreak, Comma, Ringlet, Small Tortoiseshell, White Letter Hairstreak, Green-veined White, Speckled Wood, Purple Hairstreak, Small White, Small Copper, Large Skipper, Holly Blue, Wall Brown, Common Blue, Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Large White, Peacock, Small Heath, Large White, Dinghy Skipper.