Moths in the garden

Posted: Tuesday 12 February 2013
by Kate Bradbury

There are quite a few moths in my garden. I love seeing them feeding on plants at night, and finding their caterpillars amongst the foliage.

Garden tiger moth, Arctia caja - photograph courtesy of Mark Parsons, Butterfly Conservation

Last week, Butterfly Conservation published a report called The State of Britain's Larger Moths 2013. It makes a depressing read, demonstrating a marked decline in the number of our larger moths over the last 40 years. The survey, conducted in association with Rothamstead Research, shows that some species have declined by up to 99 per cent. Three species – the orange upperwing, bordered gothic and Brighton wainscot – have become extinct.

A number of reasons are suggested for the decline. One is habitat loss in urban areas, caused by the paving of front gardens and the building over of back gardens. Changes in farming practices, such as the widespread use of pesticides, are also cited.

There are quite a few moths in my garden. I love seeing them feeding on plants at night, and finding their caterpillars amongst the foliage. Just four years ago my garden was paved over, so finding moths here feels like real progress.

Sadly, few gardeners welcome moths as warmly as they do butterflies. This is probably because many moths are brown, can be difficult to identify and most are nocturnal. But some are easy to identify and many are exceptionally beautiful, such as the garden tiger (Arctia caja), pictured above, which has declined by 92 per cent, and the almost iridescent six-spot burnet (Zygaena filipendulae).

Moths are also incredibly important in the garden ecosystem, because they provide food for so many species, including birds, hedgehogs and bats (which eat the adults).

The best way to help moths (and therefore the species that rely on them) is to provide them with breeding habitats. Unlike butterflies, which have quite specific breeding requirements, moths seem less fussy. I've found caterpillars on my foxgloves, primroses and valerian, and I once watched a great tit dive into a clump of forget-me-not to retrieve a fat caterpillar.

I also grow native shrubs such as holly, guelder rose and dog rose. A native hedge can also help moths – a mix of species including hawthorn, hazel, dog rose, wild pear and buckthorn should cater for a wide range of species. A patch of long grass may encourage some species to breed, while a more relaxed attitude to 'pests' will go a long way to boosting caterpillar numbers in your garden.

Moths, like bees, butterflies, beetles and some birds, urgently need our help. If there aren't sufficient habitats for them in our cities and countryside, we can help them in our gardens.

Thanks to Mark Parsons at Butterfly Conservation for his beautiful image of the garden tiger moth, Arctia caja.

Discuss this blog post

Talkback: Moths in the garden
Your comment will appear after a quick registration step

Andrew Astle 12/02/2013 at 18:35

Butterflies and moths can be welcome in all gardens. Check all cabbage family members for eggs or protect them with nets. more wildlife friendly gardening techniques at