Mothing at “Onchan” Monks Eleigh : Arthur Watchman.

It was at the end of November 1977 that we moved to our present home in Back Lane Monks Eleigh, from Wye Road Ipswich. Moth trapping and recording had been carried out in our Ipswich garden on a fairly regular basis for four years, using a home-made trap.

Back Lane is a narrow thoroughfare more or less parallel to the High Street but approximately half a mile away on the opposite side of the River Brett. The chalet bungalow is situated at the end of an old chalk quarry which extended for over a quarter of a mile beside the lane and from which extraction ceased in the 1920s. However the property sits well above the lane and is approached by a steep drive. At the rear the garden climbs steadily southwards before dropping away quite sharply into a “pit” at the base of the old quarry. The wall then rises steeply to meet an arable field at which point one is well above the top of the house roof. The field continues to climb to the top of Swingleton Hill. Incidentally “Onchan” is in Swingleton Green, one of the four hamlets which make the present Monks Eleigh. The quarry bank is well covered by native trees and shrubs but the large Elms, about twelve in number, unfortunately were affected by Dutch Elm disease and died. There are still some live ones of similar size further along the bank but it is a number of years since we have seen White-letter Hairstreak butterflies which were regularly recorded around the trees or in the garden.

Our Garden and those adjacent are well stocked with trees, shrubs and herbaceous plant many of which are well established. Northwards across the lane and to the rear of some houses, is an extensive area of marshland beside the river. Ponds have been created in this area which are mainly fed by numerous springs which filter down through the chalk of Swingleton Hill. Back Lane was once called Fen Street which gives a clue to another habitat not far away. Willows and Alders are much in evidence along the river valley. Trees and bushes in the hedgerows and along field margins include Oak, Ash, Field Maple, Dogwood, Hazel, Elder and Buckthorn. Grazed and ungrazed meadows with a reasonable flora can also be found in the vicinity.

Naturally it was a busy time “settling in” and apart from a few Agonopterix species which were disturbed in outbuildings, no moths were recorded. However, on 8th December 1978 our first macro was noted, a Plumed Prominent, a moth new to us and not immediately recognised. Since then this species has been recorded every year, sometimes in good numbers.

As has been well documented elsewhere the Plumed Prominent was added to the Suffolk list in 1937 when it was found in Bonny Wood, Barking. However it still appears to be relatively restricted in its distribution in the county despite its known larval foodplant, Field Maple, being quite common and widespread. As far as can be ascertained this moth had only been seen on the wing in November and December so that the one that came to light on 6th February 1997 was a great surprise.

From spring 1978 the moth trap with the M.V. bulb was regularly put out in the evenings, usually at the back of the house and the moth list rapidly grew. At the front of the house is an outside light, well protected by an overhang of the roof, which initially had an ordinary bulb in it. However in due course a mercury\tungsten “blended” bulb was fitted which greatly increased the total number of moths attracted each night. (See Newsletter No. 14 for a good description of the workings of blended and M.V. lights).

The totals of each species of moth in the trap were noted and put onto a yearly chart which means that over the years one can see at a glance the numbers, fluctuations and times of appearance for each species.

It was soon realised that not all the moths attracted to the trap actually went into it but rested on the house wall or in surrounding shrubs. Naturally these were very vulnerable to birds so the solution was to get up at dawn and collect the moths before birds could get them. At certain times of the year this meant being up at 3.30 am. Sometimes in the early Autumn the beautiful call of Whimbrel could be heard as they flew southwards over the garden in the early morning.

With a change of occupation in the early 1980s there was an increasing reluctance to getting up early and the trap was used less and less until the records consisted only of those moths attracted to the blended light and the ordinary lights at the rear of the house.

The pyralid, Nascia cilialis was soon added to the list and has been a regular visitor ever since. It has been known for a number of years that the species is much more common and widespread than suggested by Goater (British Pyralid Moths). Unfortunately it seems that he only repeated what was written by Bierne (British Pyralids and Plumes) and did not bring the matter up to date.

Many lepidoptera are known to fluctuate in numbers from year to year, having “peaks” and “troughs” on a fairly regular cycle. However, allowing for these possibilities, some moths were much more common in Ipswich than at Monks Eleigh including species such as the Nutmeg and Evergestis extimalis, the former regularly approaching one hundred specimens in a night. Another regular in Ipswich, the Autumnal Rustic, has still not found its way on to the Monks Eleigh list! Nevertheless some moths have appeared in very large numbers at “Onchan” and two that come to mind are Common Footman and Common Wainscot.

It is always exciting to see moth species for the first time especially when they are handsome insects. At Monks Eleigh these included Merveille du Jour and the Sprawler. First noted in 1978 they have been regular visitors in very small numbers ever since. Another first-timer albeit now very common and widespread, was Blair’s Shoulder Knot a specimen of which appeared at light here in 1980. Apparently it was the first known record for the Eastern Counties, (Chipperfield 1981 – Suffolk Natural History, Volume 18 Part 3).

Some moths were regularly recorded then suddenly disappeared and have not been noted since. These include the Lappet (not since 1984), V-moth (1985), Pale Shining Brown (1984), Garden Tiger (1989), Emerald (1989) and Acleris emargana (1986). Of course some of these have become scarce generally.

Interestingly others have had spells of absence, such as the Lilac Beauty (not seen from 1983 to 1993), Scarce Umber (1988 to 1998), Bordered Beauty (1988 to 1996) and Brown Silver-lines (1986 to 1995). Some species have been only recorded on one or two occasions, example being Flame Carpet (1991), Scallop Hook-tip (1981), Marbled Coronet (1979), Ruddy Carpet (1996), Scallop Shell (1993) and Marbled White-spot (1986 & 1992). A shaded Fanfoot, came to light in 1987. At that time it was a relatively new addition to the British list.

The Dotted Rustic seems to be something of an enigma. It was first noted in 1983 and became common at light and was regularly flushed from hedgerows etc. from which it dashed in the manner of a Large Yellow Underwing. It was last seen in 1987. 1983 was a good year for migrants at Monks Eleigh with ten species being recorded including Vestal, Gem, Convolvulus Hawk-moth and Humming-bird Hawk-moth. 1987 was the year of the great storm and the Dotted Rustic is not the only species that has not been noted at “Onchan” since then. Others include Pale Eggar, Frosted Green, Chevron and September Thorn. Food for thought maybe!

Some moths have become very erratic in their appearances at Monks Eleigh and these include Blue-bordered Carpet, Small White Wave and Pinion-streaked Snout.

Of those associated with conifers the Bordered White has not been recorded since 1985 and the Barred Red was only seen in 1986 and 1987. The Pine Hawk-moth, which has increased its range considerably over the last few years, was first noted in 1994.

It would appear that some Lepidopterists ignore the “micros”. One such with many years experience with “macros” has rudely referred to them as “trap crap". A good many records must have been lost over the years which is a pity because a lot of “micros” are readily identifiable and common. These include Carcina quercana, Croesia forsskaleana, Olethreutes lacunana, Euzophera pinguis, Epiblema uddmanniana, Eurrhypara hortulata plus many others especially Pyralids and Tortricids. There are also around twice as many “micros” than “macros” on the British list although a number are not attracted to light. Although they have not featured much in this account “micros” are very far from overlooked at Monks Eleigh and as one became more knowledgeable, confident and sometimes wrong, they were added to our list. Having said that, there are still many moths including “macros“ (Pugs) which have not been positively identified.

One “micro”, Galleria mellonella, which is not well thought of by the Bee-keeping fraternity has been a great help to us here at Monks Eleigh. It was instrumental in getting rid of the Honey Bees which had made a nest in the cavity at the end of the house where Pipestrelle Bats had a nursery roost. After our many attempts to get rid of the bees, the Wax moth finished the job.

Obviously as the number of moths recorded increases fewer are available to be added to the list. In 1998 only Calybites auroguttella, albeit an attractive little “micro”, was new. Although as previously mentioned, there are moths still to be identified, the present total recorded at “Onchan” stands at around 530 give or take a few mis-identifications!