Unusual moth found in Sandwell

An unusual moth has been found in Sandwell during lockdown

A species of moth usually more at home in great swathes of heather heathland in large national parks has been found alive and well for the first time in the Sandwell Valley Country Park.

The Emperor Moth was found this month on a site the Sandwell Rangers team have been working to improve over a number of years. It is now hoped the moths will become a permanent fixture within the Borough along with a host of other new and important species. 

Sandwell employs three rangers who are specialists in creating and preserving wildlife habitats and have an incredibly rich knowledge of a variety of flora and fauna. The find this month came thanks to the beady eyes and hard work of ranger Matt Hadlington. 

Read Matt’s account of his sighting here:

“On 20th June 2019, whilst walking around Swan Pool in Sandwell Valley Country Park, I happened upon a very distinctive caterpillar on the tarmac path.  It looked familiar from photographs I’d seen  so I decided to photograph it and send to Mike Bloxham, insect specialist and member of the local natural history society SANDNATS, for confirmation.

Emperor Moth Saturnia pavonia caterpillar, Sandwell Valley CP 20/06/2019

I was delighted when it was confirmed as an Emperor Moth but also a little puzzled. The caterpillar had been found under a willow (Salix sp) shrub adjacent to an area of rough grassland and scrub, I’d always thought of it as a heathland species.  Subsequent research told me that these species can be an alternative food plant.

Having never seen a live adult Emperor Moth and surmising that they must be in the area, I decided to purchase a pheromone lure with the intention of using it on what I thought would be a more suitable area. The site in question is another part of the country park which was historically heathland and since 2008 is now under restoration. Bales of suitable heathland vegetation were brought in from a donor site on Cannock Chase in various stages, the oldest part being around twenty years old. Obviously by the time I had acquired the lure the season was over and so it was kept in the freezer over winter.

Pheromone lure (the small red bung ) in place in the hawthorn

After seeing several posts on social media from people
reporting sightings of adult Emperor Moths, I decided to try it out on the
heathland in the ‘Pylon Ride’. The 15th April 2020 was the first
opportunity to use it in suitable weather conditions (warm and sunny with
little or no wind) and at the right time of day (early afternoon) as per the
guidelines suggested by the supplier. The lure was placed in a voile bag and
hung from a small shrub and Ieft to take effect. Having no previous experience
of how quickly results could be expected, I watched the area for 30 – 40
minutes, allowing what I hoped was plenty of time. I had no luck on the first
day but as the next day (16th) saw similar weather conditions I
tried once more; disappointingly, again, no luck. Unsure as to whether it was
still a little too early in the season for the geographical location, I decided
to put the lure back into storage and try again in a few days. 

The 23rd April was the next suitable opportunity to present itself and having allowed another few days for emergence I returned to the ‘Pylon Ride to try my luck again. Sadly, the result was as before: plenty of butterflies and other flying insects but no sign of the target species. Having a little spare time I thought I’d chance it and try the scrubby area where I’d found the caterpillar. More in hope than expectation I put the lure in a small hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) bush and waited. Within about ten minutes I was aware of two large insects flying around each other in a similar manner to which I’ve often seen male butterflies duelling. On closer inspection through binoculars they proved to be two splendid male Emperors! As they neared the bush they separated with one coming to settle very close to me in the grass, allowing me opportunity to take several photographs and generally study and enjoy the beautiful creature. Having done so, I quickly removed the lure to prevent any further and unnecessary disturbance, the object of the exercise having been accomplished.  

Heathland area on the ‘Pylon Ride’, Sandwell Valley Country Park

I reported the sighting to Mike Bloxham and the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust’s EcoRecord scheme, knowing it was quite a significant record for the Sandwell Valley recording area. To my surprise it turned out to be only the third confirmed record. The first was a cocoon found in hawthorn scrub at the nearby RSPB nature reserve in 2004 and the other being the caterpillar I had found in 2019. Hopefully the presence of these males will indicate a small but stable population within the Sandwell Valley, the species being quite possibly under-recorded.

Matt Hadlington

With thanks to:

Mike Bloxham (SANDNATS)

Mike Poulton (SANDNATS, Butterfly Conservation)

Andy Slater (BBCWT, EcoRecord)

Sandwell MBC ”  

The star of the show - one of two male Emperor Moths (Saturnia pavonia) attracted to the lure 23/04/2020. It did have both antennae, the right hand one being obscured by the grass blade

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