Help map moth species affected by climate change

Help map moth species affected by climate change: hunt for red underwings this Moth Night

Red Underwing by David Green

While humans slept badly in their beds during the hot ‘tropical’ nights of early August, the record-breaking weather provided ideal conditions for our native moths to thrive and encouraged rare visitors from continental Europe. And this year’s Moth Night, the annual event that celebrates moths on 27-29 August, could not come at a more perfect time.

Organised by Atropos, Butterfly Conservation and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, this public event is to raise awareness of the important roles moths play in our environment. The event encourages everyone to get out into their gardens, parks and the countryside to spot these incredible insects.

There are hundreds of different species of moths on the wing in late summer and Moth Night wants to receive as many public sightings as possible - a perfect outdoor activity for the garden or those ‘staycationing’. In particular this year Moth Night is celebrating four types of ‘red underwing’, large, brilliantly coloured moths that are each undergoing dramatic changes in their UK distributions.

With a wingspan of up to 9cm, the Red Underwing is one of the biggest moths likely to be encountered in gardens. A few decades ago it was largely restricted to southern and central England, but the moth has spread rapidly northwards, likely in response to climate change, and has even been recorded in Scotland. It has also moved westwards into Wales and south-west England, with sightings recently for the first time in Ireland and the Isle of Man.

Richard Fox, Associate Director of Recording and Research at charity Butterfly Conservation said: “Moths are on the move in the UK, with many species in decline but others, such as the Red Underwing, are increasing and spreading to new areas. We need people’s help to find out how far the Red Underwing has got; has it now colonised Scotland, for example? We need more sightings of this distinctive species to get an up-to-date picture and by taking part in Moth Night, everyone can help.”

The Dark Crimson and Light Crimson Underwings are equally spectacular but much rarer species, largely confined to the New Forest in Hampshire and nearby woodlands, where there are some signs of recent spread into new sites. Rarer still is the Rosy Underwing, which is a recent colonist of the Channel Islands. However, all three also occur as scarce immigrants. The Dark Crimson Underwing, in particular, is having an amazing August, appearing in many new places.

Editor of Atropos and founder of Moth Night, Mark Tunmore said “Already we have been receiving widespread reports of Dark and Light Crimson Underwing moths in southern England, indicating that the range expansion of these species is continuing, induced by climate change. Particularly exciting has been a recent sighting of Dark Crimson Underwing in Gwent, which represents the first ever record for Wales, and just a few days ago we received a report of a Rosy Underwing in Dorset. So we can’t wait to see what happens with so much interest focused on these stunning species over the Moth Night event.”

While COVID-19 has prevented this year’s Moth Night public events from taking place, it’s still easy to take part from your own home. There’s a whole host of wonderful moths out there to discover and you don’t need any special equipment to be able to do it. While using light to lure nocturnal moths is the standard method, and all four of the red underwing species are attracted to light, ‘sugaring’ will greatly increase your chances of spotting them. Painting a ‘sugar’ mixture of treacle, brown sugar and brown ale onto tree trunks or fence posts draws in moths for a feast at dusk. Details of all these techniques are on the Moth Night website.

Dr David Roy, Head of the Biological Records Centre based at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said “Although there is much to learn about the red underwings, Moth Night is about all of the UK’s moth species, which are a vital part of the food chain for many other animals and important pollinators of native wildflowers such as orchids. So whichever moths you spot on the three nights, please submit your sightings through the Moth Night website to help with the conservation of these important insects.”

To identify and record your red underwing sighting or any other moth sightings during the Moth Night event between 27 – 29 August go to the website Mothnight.info or get in touch via the Moth Night Facebook page.

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