Beautiful Moths at Smallicombe Farm

This week, we have a wonderful blog post from a recent guest at one of our farms. You can read all about his experience here.

My wife Caroline and I drove down from Scotland to stay at Smallicombe Farm for 5 days from 19-23 July.  In the back of the car was the familiar moth trap plus lots of blue extension cables, an essential element of any holiday! As you will see from this story, the trap provides a special window on Nature. After all, we need to know just how serious is the decline in butterflies and moths, and how we might help.

At the Farm, Karen Todd looked rather surprised when asked ‘may I put out the light trap in the fields’.  All around were sheep, chickens and pigs, and the lovely view of the combe with high hedges and trees, and lots of wild flowers. This looks like the perfect place for a Moth Person. ‘Yes of course – but please be careful, there are many children playing all around. My husband will sort out a power supply’.

It was a very successful few days. Each area explored produced a different spectrum of moths and in abundance, with 52 species of larger moths in the trap on the first night – 475 individuals.

Devon Farms moth 1

These sit quietly sleeping in the moth trap under egg boxes placed for cover, and are all released unharmed back from where they came.  Beneath the trees near the river the catch included 8 Large Emerald moths – a deep delicate green – rivaling any butterfly for beauty. Near the pond in the water meadow was the best spot revealing lots of lovely Footman and Wainscots, and the high meadow produced the more familiar garden types like Poplar and Elephant Hawkmoth, Buff-tip, Burnish Brass and Scalloped Oak.

For the Farm, there were two very special moth species.  The first was Four-spotted Footman, Lithosia quadra ( length 20-25mm – food plant Lichens). Only males came to the light trap. These have an orange/yellow head that glows under UV, contrasting black legs and silver/grey wings. The females have the ‘4 dots’ – I missed out on seeing this remarkable creature. Why are the two sexes different is an obvious question? – no body knows. I expect the males dance in groups to gain the attention of the female, and they adore those unique black spots. The Four-spotted Footman is classified as Nationally Scarce with a local distribution along the south coast – immigrants arrive from the Europe in the good years.

Devon farms moth 2 small

The second was the Scallop Shell, Rhumaptera undulata  – note the lovely Latin names; (width 30mm – food plants Sallows, Aspen and Bilberry) with dense scalloped markings across the wings. This species has a Southern distribution and appears to be declining. I will submit the full data set to the National Moth Recording Scheme and perhaps one new dot will appear on the Atlas of UK’s Larger Moths due to be published in 2018.

Overall, having identified 100+ species of moths in our 5 days, I can say with confidence that Smallicombe Farm is a haven for wildlife. The small farm, with its traditional values is an ‘oasis’ in a desert.


Gerald Lincoln, Emeritus Professor of Biological Timing, University of Edinburgh.

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