Country diary: the magical variety of moths

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It’s a bright clear morning at Castle Howard when we meet artist-in-residence Sarah Gillespie with moth enthusiasts Jan Smith and Claire Burton from the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. Two big light traps have been running all night in the walled garden, and our guides waste no time sharing the contents, providing each small wondrous creature with the enlarging magic of a name.

Murmured repetitions run around the group as pots and boxes are passed or moths crawl from finger to sanitised finger. They have an incantatory quality: “Heart and dart, blotched emerald, silver Y, flame shoulder, brimstone, straw dot, wainscot, pale prominent, ingrailed clay…” The words echo and overlap, interspersed with exclamations and bursts of laughter “Turnip moth! Honestly? Flirtatious Hebrew character?” “Haha, no, not flirtatious, setaceous, it means hairy.”

Thumb-print: an elephant hawk-moth.

A young voice pipes up. “Oh, I know! A peppered moth!” and he relays a story, heard in school, about light and sooty forms of Biston betularia, before, during and after the Industrial Revolution. We admire the gremlin antennae of a pale tussock, the wing-shimmer of a burnished brass, the comical goggles of the spectacle and the exquisite pink trim of a blood-vein. Eyes widen at the scarce-believable broken-twig camouflage of buff-tips. White ermines are adored for their luxuriant pelts and the way they play dead when gently nudged. Two elephant hawk-moths in a jar prompt more than one child to ask if they are really real.

One pot has been held back, and the expectation when Jan uncaps it is palpable. There are gasps as something huge and swarthy emerges slowly, theatrically. An eyed hawk-moth: dark angel, Bram Stokerish, unsettling even before the lurid jump-scare flash of glaring false eyes on its underwings.

It’s a grand finale, but no one wants to leave just yet, except the moths, which begin flickering away in ones and twos. The children have moths clinging to their fingers like animated jewellery, and my son’s palm has become an aircraft carrier “It’s like a Harrier jump jet revving up!” he exclaims of the fuchsia-and-bronze-liveried elephant hawk-moth perched there, swept-back wings vibrating. When it does take off, we watch until it disappears against the hectic background of a distant flowering border. “That,” he says, “was sooo cool.”

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