Monday, 30 November 2015

Diversions while digging

These are quiet times for the moth-trapper. Between now and the middle of February is the time to curl up with a book or a list of records like the hero of a John Buchan novel in a Scottish fishing hotel. (Except, alas for sentiment, the last Scottish fishing hotel I stayed in had a video blaring away in the lounge, a custodian rather of the 'You'll have had your tea' variety and a complete ban on the pipes which Buchan's characters stuffed with shag tobacco before embarking on their tales).

But what matter? Because a much healthier option is to get out and dig the garden; and while doing so, keep a weather eye out for characters such as the caterpillar above. He or she is the larva of that extremely everyday moth, the Large Yellow Underwing. But I have never seen one before, in all my 65 years, and so the encounter gave me pleasure.

Pupae and catties from Richard South's
 famous UK moths book which is now online here thanks to Wikisources
I popped him or her in a box with some leaves and went away for a couple of days, expecting to find a pupa and cocoon when I returned yesterday. Instead, the caterpillar was wandering round and even nibbling the last bits of green and red on one of the less rain-sodden leaves. I had forgotten that these creatures, like many UK moths, need soil to burrow into for their long sleep and silent transformation inside their pupa shell.

Hence the digging tip, which is also the subject of an entire small booklet, 'Pupa Digging', by the Rev Joseph Greene. One of those 18th century vicars who spent much time on natural history, his enthusiasm for this particular branch of entomology has never been publicly equalled, nor his knowledge and mastery of technique.

All I can add is: dig carefully. Remember last year's wonderful discovery in Kirtlington by Chris Powle's family, who unearthed two Death's Head Hawk moth pupae in their spud plot after finding one of the species' vivid yellow caterpillars marching across their lawn.  Good gardening, and good hunting! My cattie, btw, has just been released in a nice patch of crumbly soil, so good luck to it as well.

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