Where have Britain's moths gone?

Neil Jones neil at nwjones.demon.co.uk
Tue Feb 21 08:37:57 EST 2006

Butterfly Conservation Press Release 

Where have Britain's moths gone?

20th February 2006

The moth population of Britain is in serious decline, causing concern
for the future of many species of birds, bats and several small mammals
that feed on them.

The decline is revealed in a new report entitled 'The State of Britain's
Larger Moths'. The precise reasons for decline remain to be determined,
though habitat loss and climate change are highly implicated.


Sir David Attenborough, in a foreword to the report, describes its
conclusions "significant and worrying". Sir David, who recently
fascinated the nation with his BBC series 'Life in the Undergrowth',
says: "Moths are valuable indicators of what is happening in our
countryside. Other insects too are almost certainly in decline."


The report's key conclusions are:

The number of larger moths in Britain has decreased by 32 per cent since
Southern Britain - south of York - has seen a decrease in larger moth
numbers of 44 per cent since 1968.
Twice as many moth species have declined as have increased.
In southern Britain 75 per cent of species are in decline.
Sixty-two moth species are believed to have become extinct in Britain
during the twentieth century.

Subsequent analysis shows that the losses in urban areas have been in
the region of 50 per cent. Moth numbers in the northern half of Britain
has remained stable overall. Decreasing populations of some moths in the
north have been counterbalanced by increases in others, particularly of
those found more commonly in the south. This pattern indicates a
response to climate change.


The report, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, has been compiled
by the UK charity Butterfly Conservation. It includes data collected by
the scientific institute Rothamsted Research from a nationwide network
of moth light-traps established in 1968. The traps, run by volunteers,
have been located in all sorts of habitats from the coast to upland
moor, from woodland to private garden. Ian Woiwood, of Rothamsted
Research, says: "This long-running data is unique and has highlighted a
very serious ecological issue - the decline of common insects."


Butterfly Conservation is now seeking funding for a major new National
Moth Recording Scheme in order to be able to target conservation and
reverse the declines.


'The State of Britain's Larger Moths' report will be featured in an
edition of BBC Radio Four's Nature series at 9.00pm on Monday, February


Five facts about moths

Of the 337 common moth species assessed for 'The State of Britain's
Larger Moths' report, the Dusky Thorn has had the highest rate of
decline (98 per cent). If Britain's human population of 55 million in
1968 had undergone a similar decrease to that of the Dusky Thorn we
would be left today with only enough people to populate Birmingham, i.e.
around one million.
Moths are integral to the food chains of Britain's wildlife. For
instance, the four most common garden birds all feed on moths or their
caterpillars. In many cases they are eaten by nestlings as well as by
adult birds. All 16 British species of bat feed on moths to some extent.
However Sir David Attenborough, who is President of Butterfly
Conservation, is anxious that moths are seen as more than just food for
other creatures. He writes: "They are fascinating to study and worthy of
conservation in their own right."
Moths are very closely related to butterflies, but whereas there are
only around 70 species of butterfly seen regularly in the UK there are
some 2,500 species of moths. They are artificially split into two
groups, the so-called larger moths (macro-moths) and the smaller moths
(micro-moths). Around 900 species of larger moth have been recorded in
this country.
Moths are one of the largest insect groups both in Britain and globally.
Estimates of the total number of moth species on earth range from around
115,000 to over 150,000.
Collecting moths was a fashionable pursuit as far back as the early
1700s and many of the vernacular names still in use today were coined at
this time. There has been a significant resurgence of interest in moths
in recent years and the number of people recording moths in Britain has
probably never been higher.


Myths about moths


Moths have always suffered from bad PR. Their first bad press was in the
Bible: "So man wastes away like something rotten, like a garment eaten
by moths," Job13: 28, and "Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten
your clothes," James 27:18.

Myth: All moths eat clothes
Reality: Only about half a dozen of Britain's 2,500 moth species eat
clothes. And the ones that do eat them really prefer dirty clothes that
are hidden away in the dark in places where they are not disturbed.
Myth: Moths are nocturnal and only fly by night
Reality: It is true that most species fly by night but many, such as the
Speckled Yellow, fly by day.
Myth: All moths are drab and hairy compared with butterflies
Reality: Many moth species are very colourful, such as the brightly
patterned tiger moths. Others are less so, but on closer inspection
cryptic patterns can be seen which have evolved to aid camouflage. Again
some species of moth are hairy or furry, but some butterflies have hairy
or furry bodies too.


Notes for Editors

Butterfly Conservation is the UK charity taking action to save
butterflies and moths. Butterfly Conservation staff and volunteers
manage habitats to ensure their survival, with particular attention
being given to threatened species.
Butterfly Conservation has 12,000 members and is the largest
organisation of its kind in Europe: www.butterfly-conservation.org
Butterfly Conservation is a registered charity and non-profit-making
company limited by guarantee. Registered Office: Manor Yard, East
Lulworth, Wareham, Dorset BH20 5QP. Registered in England No 2206468 -
Registered Charity No 254937.
Rothamsted Research is the largest agricultural research institute in
the country and is sponsored by the BBSRC: www.bbsrc.ac.uk


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