By Denis O’Connor

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

Now into my eighth year of moth trapping it is always a highlight to encounter a new species, especially one as beautiful as that shown, resting on my hand before release, with a 44mm wingspan and an unusual delta wing shape.

Appearing in my trap on a chilly night in early April, it is called a Herald, a name first given to it in 1782 with the reasons for its name now lost in the mists of time. An article in the Manchester Guardian in 1914 speculated that it could either be due to its early appearance, heralding the spring, or “to its showy colour, just as the goldfinch in some places is called the Sheriff’s Mail on account of its brilliant plumage.”

It appears early because it hibernates as an adult, often in caves and outbuildings so our ramshackle garden shed may have been to its liking.

Hibernating as an adult is a trait shared with the four British butterflies, all of them large and spectacular, which are the first seen in spring. In our garden, a couple of these, small tortoiseshells and brimstones, emerged very early in a false spring of four days of high temperatures in the third week of February. After that a month passed before tortoiseshell and brimstones were seen again, joined by commas and peacocks, all true heralds of spring.

They have since been joined by orangetips and holly blues which emerge later, having overwintered as chrysalises rather than as adults.

On the April night that produced the Herald, it shared the trap with just a few other species: five Common, two Small and a single Twin-spotted Quaker as well as five Hebrew Characters.

Many moths have weird and wonderful English names, often dating back to the eighteenth century, based on their appearance, characteristic markings or the food plants of their caterpillars.

The three species of quaker in my trap apparently owe their name to their plain appearance, the three looking very similar but with sufficient differences in markings to distinguish between them.

The Hebrew Character derives its name from a saddle shaped black mark on the forewing, shaped like one of the letters, nun, of the Hebrew alphabet.

My favourite moths, trapped only occasionally, are large and spectacular with names to match: Tigers and Hawkmoths with the most evocative of all perhaps the Death’s Head Hawkmoth, which carries with it a reputation as a foreteller of death in the family, now a rarity in England which I have seen only once, in France.