Meet the moths of our wetlands and reedbeds

Beautiful China-mark moth by Les Price

Moths are often overlooked, misunderstood and under-appreciated insects, yet our wetlands and reedbeds are home to some incredibly beautiful and really important moth species.

Moths are often overlooked, misunderstood and under-appreciated insects. Yet they are an incredibly important part of our biodiversity, pollinating plants and providing food for bats, birds, spiders and other wildlife. We think of them casually as night-time butterflies, but over 2,500 species of moths have been recorded in Britain (compared with only 59 species of butterfly) and not all of them fly under cover of darkness. These incredible creatures have carved out homes for themselves in a variety of habitats – from lowland bogs to mountain tops.

Each year Moth Night celebrates these much-maligned creatures, and encourages people to seek them out in their gardens, parks or favourite wild spots of three evenings. Participants then report their findings, helping to improve moth records and our understanding of these creatures. Moth Night is organised by Atropos, Butterfly Conservation and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, and this year, falls from 8 July 2021 - 10 July 2021.

A child running towards a light trap with an insect net to catch a moth

Moth trapping by Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

How to watch moths

If you have never tried moth trapping before it can seem intimidating, especially when some of the more expensive kits look like elaborate spaceships. However, you don't need fancy equipment to get started. In many cases, a simple homemade trap will do the job in a garden and, if you vary the type of trap that you use, you’ll also find you’ll catch a wider variety of species. For example, light traps will attract the greatest variety of moths, but using a ‘wine rope’ (a cloth soaked in sugar and red wine) will attract species like the old lady moth, which is rarely found using light and is instead drawn to feed on the sweet, sugary wine. Traps can be checked at night or early in the morning, depending on the type used.

If you aren’t sure what you have discovered there are many free apps, such as iNaturalist, and books that can help you when identifying moths. You can also get a list of the moths you can expect to see in your area at a given time of year by going to the What's Flying Tonight website.

Like butterflies, moths come in a diverse range of colours, shapes and sizes. Some are large and colourful, like the garishly pink and green elephant hawk-moth, while others, such as the buff-tip, resemble a tiny twig. My favourite is the stylish-looking white ermine. With its white wings and black polka dots, it’s a moth you could imagine Cruella De Vil wanting to make a coat from.

Moths come in a diverse range of colours, shapes and sizes. My favourite is the white ermine, with white wings and black polka dots you could imagine Cruella De Vil wanting to make a coat from

A white ermine moth standing on an egg box

White ermine moth by Vicky Nall

Celebrating our wetland moths

While Moth Night celebrates and welcomes sightings of moths found in all habitats, this year’s theme for the event is wetland and reedbed species. While such habitats are better known for wading birds like lapwings and oystercatchers, a diverse range of moth species are adapted to wetlands and reedbeds too – the most well-known being the wainscots. Most members of this moth family are a beautiful creamy off-white colour, with veins giving the appearance of vertical white stripes down the forewings. Many of their caterpillars spend the day hiding inside reed stems, which are also their foodplant. Other wetland species include the China moths, whose larvae are semi-aquatic, so these moths are often found in gardens with ponds too.

Many wetland and reedbed moth species are only found sporadically across the UK, mostly in East Anglia, because of a lack of suitable habitats. Thankfully, our dedicated conservation team and volunteers are working hard to improve habitats for a variety of wildlife – including specialist moths – and as a result we have some fantastic examples of reedbeds and wetlands in the north west such as Wigan Flashes, Brockholes and Lunt Meadows.

At Lunt Meadows in particular, funding from Biffa Award and the National Lottery Heritage Fund has helped the team install new ponds, plant new wildflower species in the wet meadows and extend the reedbed – all of which will help moths on the site. Moth surveys have shown that there are a few reedbed moth species already on Lunt, but as the site has only been open for five years and is ever-improving, we expect our moth population to increase. We'll be running more moth trapping and identification events over the next five years as part of our Mesolithic and Modern Life Project’s aim of improving the site for wildlife and deepening visitors’ understanding of the reserve.

Here are just some of the moth species found at Lunt Meadows.

A common wainscot moth sitting in someone's hand

Common wainscot moth

Common wainscot

Naturally, the commonest wainscot is… the common wainscot. With a wingspan of 30-35mm, it usually has one or more black dots but very few other markings. Its hind wings are a cleaner white.

A bright-line brown-eye moth resting on the cup of an egg box

Bright-line brown-eye by Charlotte Varela

Bright-line brown-eye

A brown-winged moth that gets its name from the fine white outer cross-line forming a W (the bright-line) and an orange blotch kidney-mark (the brown-eye) on its forewings. It is found in many habitats and is common, as its caterpillars are happy to feed on a variety of plants such as nettles, willowherbs, hazel and St John’s wort.

A worn-looking poplar hawkmoth with ragged wings resting on grass at Lunt Meadows nature reserve

Poplar hawkmoth

Poplar hawk-moth

Found in low heathland and moorland, fens, woodland, parks and gardens, this massive moth will flash its reddish brown underwings when disturbed. Females are a sandier colour than males and, interestingly, adults do not feed. The foodplants for the caterpillars include not only poplars, but also aspen, sallows and willows. For those using a light trap, females come out before midnight and males after midnight, in greater numbers.

A buff ermine moth resting on someone's finger at Lunt Meadows nature reserve

Buff ermine moth

Buff ermine

One of the ermines, easily recognised by their spots, the males of this variety are a buff-yellow colour, while females are whiter. Both sexes have black dots on the wings. You can distinguish it from the white ermine by a distinctive diagonal row of longer spots running from the forewing tip to the trailing edge.

A middle-barred minor moth resting on the lid of an insect pot held in a person's fingers

Middle-barred minor moth

Middle-barred minor

A common species over most of Britain, it is found in marshes, along riverbanks and in damp woodland. Its colour can vary a lot but is usually more reddish brown or sandy-coloured than other minors. It also has a white mark on the back edge of its forewing. Flying in June and July, it visits sugar and light traps.

And here are some less common wetland moths that we'd love to find at Lunt Meadows nature reserve.

Fen wainscot

The fen wainscot’s forewings are cream-coloured, fading into a reddish brown towards the outer edges, and it has a wingspan of 32-36mm. Though mainly found in the south and east of England, we have a local population in the north west of England. It flies in July and August.

A drinker moth perched on a plant stem

Drinker moth by Malcolm Storey

The drinker

A big moth with a wingspan of 45-65mm. It has a diagonal cross-line on the forewing and two small white spots. Males are usually reddish-brown with yellowish patches while females are larger and can vary in colour from deep yellow to very pale buff, whitish, or a darker reddish brown similar to the male. Its foodplants are grasses and reeds, and its name comes from the way its caterpillar like to drink drops of dew.

A beautiful China-mark moth resting on two leaves

Beautiful China-mark moth by Les Price

Beautiful China-mark

Found fairly commonly around lakes, rivers and ponds throughout Britain, this moth is on the wing during July and August. It flies in the evening and at night and comes readily to light traps. Like other China-marks, the larvae are semi-aquatic. It’s wingspan is 18-22mm.

Want to discover the wonderful wildlife of Lunt Meadows for yourself? Come along to the reserve and lose yourself in a wetland wonderland.

Plan your visit to Lunt Meadows