I, like many naturalists, have a fondness for books, nature books in particular. They are often filled with wonderful photos and illustrations, offering the reader the opportunity to delve into the fascinating array of life present in the natural world. We are blessed in Britain to have a long and proud history of biological recording and ecological study, which has resulted in books dating back hundreds of years. Old natural history books intrigue me, often published before I was born, transporting me back to a time when nature was more abundant than it is now. Flicking through the pages of an old natural history book offers you a window on a world now gone. Our naturalist forefathers often offer insights into species identification and behaviour that are neglected in newer texts. You also have the added benefit of their flamboyant language brightening up the text.
A group that I have a particularly strong fascination with are moths and over the years I have built up a reasonable collection of books focusing on this amazing group of insects. Flicking through some of my old moth books recently prompted an idea in my mind; I wondered how different the older guides would be to the new ones. Would the newer guides be more accurate and comprehensive? My moth book collection spans a period of 105 years, and I wondered what would have changed in the moth world in this time frame. I decided to pick one species and follow its journey through this 105 year period, via the medium of books. I was intrigued to see what I’d find and to use it as an opportunity to reflect on the knowledge built up over this time and the implications this has for the way field guides/nature books are perceived.
The species I have chosen is the Lappet moth Gastropacha quercifolia. This is one of my favourite species of moth, a marvelously intricate species, it is a chestnut brown in colour, often with a purple sheen to parts of its wing. It has a unique resting posture, its scalloped wings bulging high above its fat, furry body, with its hindwings splayed out to its sides. I have been lucky enough to see this species on two occasions, in Dorset and Cambridgeshire, as it is now sadly rather rare and there are worries about its continued decline.
The Moths of the British Isles by Richard South – published 1907
I bought this book in the fabulous Portland Bird Observatory book shop and I can still recall how excited I was to find it. I still find the etched gold cover beautiful; an illustration of how older books often have much better covers than new ones. This book tells us how the Lappet got its name: its caterpillar has fleshy flaps running along its side, which are named lappets after the decorative flaps or fold of a headdress or garment which share the same name. We learn that the species is found in southern England and is widespread, but it is not found in Ireland or Scotland. It is said to be ‘most plentiful’ in the Cambridge fens.
Eggs laid: July to early August .
Flight period: June to July.
Foodplants: sloe, apple, sallow, hawthorn.
Butterflies and Moths in Great Britain by Vere Temple – published in 1947
I was expecting Richard South’s book above to contain more colourful language and anecdotes, something that old nature books are often famed for. However it was this book, by Vere Temple, which contained the most fascinating insights into this species. She describes the Lappet as a “most curious and striking creature”, something which I can definitely empathise with. We are told that the German name for this moth is “the Brooding Hen”, due to the way its hindwings droop down in a bird-like manner. We’re also given more information on its life cycle, being told how the caterpillar hibernates over the winter moths, clinging to a twig and awakening in April to begin its feeding and eventual pupation. The author tells us about a group of Lappet caterpillars that she was observing, who she admires for surviving the “rigours of the coldest winter for a hundred and fifty years.” These caterpillars were imbedded in ice, “like flies in amber”, something which always amazes me in the natural world, that these small creatures can survive such cold temperatures.
Caterpillar: grows from July to September.
The Observer’s Book of Larger Moths by R.L.E Ford – published in 1974
Contains a much shorter account than the other books, but this is to be expected due to its small size. Despite this it still manages to deliver some useful insights into this species; we learn that the Lappet produces one of the largest moth larvae, similar in size to the ubiquitous Death’s Head Hawkmoth. Its unusual resting posture is again referenced, this time in the context of camouflage as it said to look exactly like a few dead beech leaves. This book was one of the only ones to describe its eggs in any great detail, telling us that they are beautifully ringed and that “there is no other egg like them”.
A Field Guide in Colour to Butterflies and Moths by Ivo Novak – published in 1980
The Lappet’s size is referenced in this guide, and we are told it is one of the largest species in the whole of Europe. For the first time we are given some information as to its global distribution, as we are told that it is found throughout Asia to the Far East and Japan. I find that this is something that is often neglected by British field guides, perhaps understandably so, however I do find it useful to have some knowledge of a species global range. This is the first book from my collection to mention the Lappet’s decline, which I referenced at the start of this post. We are told that pesticides and other factors (not cited) have contributed to its disappearance from orchards and to it “becoming a rather rare species in many places”. It has taken 73 years for this to appear in a book on moths. Heartening to see it being referenced but sad to witness, another victim of the intensification of our agriculture and the sterilisation of our countryside. We learn more about the species across its global range, discovering that the dark colour form we see in Europe is called alnifolia, and that there are lighter forms found elsewhere. We are also told that it spends 10 days as a pupa before emerging as an adult moth.
Flight period: July to August – different to the South guide.
A Complete Guide to British Moths by Margaret Brooks – published in 1991
The Lappet barely features in this guide, which is odd considering it labels itself as ‘A Complete Guide’! This serves as a useful warning, that guides often claiming to cover all species, sometimes fail to live up to their own billing. It is always worth checking to see how ‘complete’ a guide actually is. Whilst there is no individual species account for the Lappet in this book, there is a mention of it in reference to its fantastic camouflage. There is also a very short section at the back of the book, giving details of distribution, habitat and foodplants. We learn that it is found in the south-east of England and also in Wales, but not in Ireland or Scotland and that it is a species of hedgerows and open woodland.
Flight period: June to August
Foodplants: Hawthorn, blackthorn and sallow
The Larger Moths of Warwickshire by David C. G. Brown – published in 2006
This is the only county-specific book on moths that I own as I used to live in Warwickshire and knew the author, who is one of the most friendly and knowledgeable people I know. I don’t think every county has one for moths, but many do, so it is worth checking as they provide a fascinating insight into which moths are found near to where you live. The rarity and declining population of the Lappet is again referenced, with it being described as “very local and becoming scarce”. This book contains excellent historical information of the Lappet within Warwickshire, delving back in time through the records. It was rare in 1904, but increased from the 1950s through to the 1980s. It began to decline during the 1990s and is has not been seen in Warwickshire since 1995. A tragic set of circumstances for a county to lose such a special moth.
Flight period: late June to mid-August
Foodplants: Hawthorn, blackthorn, crab apples and cultivated apple
Concise Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Martin Townsend and Paul Waring – published in 2007
This guide, along with its more comprehensive Field Guide, are often considered to be the ‘Moth Bible’ among moth recorders in the UK. This is due to the fantastically clear and accurate paintings/drawings by Richard Lewington that are used to illustrate the moths. I do not have the full Field Guide as I prefer using the Concise Guide to identify species, so I am afraid I cannot provide details on the text content. The Lappet is listed as common in the south and east of England, which means that it has been recorded from more than 300 10km squares since 1960. This description masks the declines experienced (and referenced in the guides above) by the species and I think many moth recorders would testify that this is not a common species anymore.
Flight period: late June to mid-August
Colour Identification Guide to Moths of the British Isles (3rd revised edition) by Bernard Skinner – published in 2009
Another integral book for any moth recorders library is this brilliant book by Skinner, of which I have the most recent and updated version. Here the moth is said to be widespread and locally common in the southern half of Britain. It is also said to come to light in small numbers, which hints that it might be one of those species which is less attracted to light. We are told about its larvae that hibernate through the winter and that the larvae can be feeding anytime from September right through to May.
Flight period: Late June to mid-August
Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Sean Clancy, Morten Top-Jensen and Michael Fibiger – published in 2012
The newest book in my collection, which came highly recommended but I have yet to use it much. The description of the species mentions its ‘purple sheen’, which I can attest to, having seen the species first hand. We are given a bit more detail on its habitat requirements, with scrubby downland and wetland being added to the list. We are told that it is ‘very local’ in Wales. Its decline is referenced and the author states that it is absent from large areas of apparently suitable habitat.
If you have stuck with me to this point then I thank you! I am aware this appears on the face of it a bit of a disorganised article, however it does serve a purpose. As outlined at the start, I wanted to explore how accounts of a species have changed over a 100 year period, and draw out what that might mean for species guides in general. Here is what I have taken from this:
I hope you found this as interesting as I did and I hope it inspires you to get some of your old books out and have a look at what observations and knowledge they contain!