Butterflies and Moths

by John Spivey

Do you remember butterflies and moths? There used to be lots of them everywhere. Wherever you were, city, garden or countryside, butterflies were abundant in the daytime and moths at night.

I remember in 1944, aged six close to Trafford park in Manchester finding brimstones in the spring and red admirals during the summer and at night my grandfather’s small urban garden was visited by poplar hawk moths and other species of spectacular moth I never identified. Since then I have always been enthusiastic about these spectacular insects.

After the war, my family moved to Fleetwood. There the sea wall protected the inland countryside. This consisted of fields and hedges with some freshwater ponds (all covered with houses now). The fields extending inland for half a mile before reaching our houses. The whole area was prolific with wild life - skylarks, lapwings and other itinerant waders. The ponds had roach and tench in them with numerous eels and the insect life, particularly butterflies, was numerous and diverse.

The regulars I remember were meadow brown, small copper, small blue and small tortoiseshell with the usual assortment of whites and others. Daytime moths included the six spot burnet and hidden in the leaves of the weeping willow I met the extraordinary caterpillar of the puss moth. Some years we would get visitors - migratory painted ladies, but one year in the mid 1950s we had a migratory influx of clouded yellows and for about three weeks they were everywhere, then they left and we never saw them again whilst I lived there.

On subsequent regular holidays in Swaledale and the Lake District the countryside always swarmed with insect life. Sometimes unpleasant in the form of suffocating clouds of midges but at other times exhilarating moments with hairstreaks, peacocks and ringlets - possibly even the rare mountain ringlet though I didn’t recognize it as such at the time.

Autumn tended to bring a glut of peacocks and red admirals with the occasional ‘funny’ red one which with hindsight I think may have been a comma. You didn’t need a buddleia bush to see them.

That is my memory of the distant past covering from the late war years to the end of the 1960s but I then moved from the North of England to work further south until retirement in 1998. Since retirement, I have mainly lived up here by Ullswater and though aware of the changes brought about by mankind, I still enjoy this exciting countryside and the opportunities it gives for a rewarding lifestyle. Sadly however, I am aware of what we have lost.

Over the years, the seasons have not been kind to many species and with manmade change, they have contributed to a sad decline in our population of butterflies and moths. Even twenty years ago, the buddleia coincided with the hatching of red admirals and peacocks but now, the earlier season has made it flower too soon and visible numbers of butterflies have fallen. Changes in agricultural practice, chemical pollution, climate change and population indifference can all be blamed but they are problems we have to resolve over a prolonged period, for immediate purposes it is no use railing against them when they will only be changed slowly.

It is here that I put in a plea for the humble nettle. I have two fields which are farmed for sheep and hay. Around the margin by nearby houses a barrier of nettles has proved invaluable to prevent trespass but that aside, the nettle margin has satisfied the needs of peacocks and red admirals and resulted in a noticeable improvement. All I ask is that you think twice before you cut back nettles, They are a sole food supply for caterpillars of some species - respect that.

The message is simple, I rest my case.