The Cult of Moth Trapping

What kind of crazy folk go out at night and gather round bright lights in the expectation of winged visitors? Stoned party-goers after a particularly heavy session? Die-hard pagan worshippers perhaps? And moth trappers obviously.

It was my delight both to participate in and bear witness to this strange spectacle on an evening with the Surrey Wildlife Trust and assembled experts on Chatley Heath in Surrey last month. It began innocuously enough with a barbecue meal and mildly alcoholic beverage, but then the great orb in the sky descended, the darkness gathered, and things began to get weird.

Moth trappers at Chatley Tower

Moth trappers at Chatley Tower

A white sheet stapled to the side of Chatley Semaphore Tower and illuminated with fluorescent light set the stage for our distinguished guests to arrive, and it wasn’t long before the lure of this burning beacon drew them in.

Moth trap and man with net

Moth trapper with net

At which point all pretence of ceremony evaporated and a man with net in hand, a wild gleam in his eye, pounced with the irresistible speed of a coiled spring released!

Once netted, the moth in question was transferred to an improvised lab bench nearby for inspection, ID and recording.

Identifying and recording moths

Identifying and recording moths

Steadily a queue of nocturnal visitors grew, each enclosed in a cylindrical plastic cell, and each requiring identification. A few of the larger, more striking moths, were familiar to the interested observer, but – to all except the most dedicated experts present – the majority remained strange and new.

Moth trap jars

Moth trap jars with inmates, including the yellow brimstone moth

There are roughly 800 species of ‘macro moth’ in the UK. These are the species you will find illustrated in standard field guides on the subject. But there have been 2,400 species of moth recorded in the UK when ‘micro moths’ are accounted for, and only the high priests of this cult can read the runes of their colouring and patternation with any degree of certainty.

On this particular night 73 separate species of moth were recorded – the list of outlandish guests including:

  • Water Veneer
  • Mother of Pearl
  • Maiden’s Blush
  • The Mocha
  • Lime-speck Pug
  • Coxcomb Prominent
  • Dark Sword Grass
  • Shuttle-shaped Dart
  • True Lovers’ Knot
  • Setaceous Hebrew Character
  • Neglected Rustic

Elsewhere on the heath nearby an even brighter beacon was being kindled: a Skinner Trap, fitted with a blinding electric bulb powered by its own noisy generator.

Skinner moth trap and trappers

Skinner moth trap and trappers

Not only is this contraption very effective at attracting moths, it’s also remarkably photogenic! A portal to another world appears to have opened up on the heath at night. And for all those present at this special event, it undoubtedly had.

Light rays from moth trap on heath

Light rays illuminate the heath

Nobody knows precisely why these creatures of the night are attracted to bright lights amidst the darkness, but it’s fortunate for us that they are.

With thanks to SWT Ranger Gemma.

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