RICHARD WILLIAMSON Nature Trails...Fly-by-day moths can be a truly colourful spectacle

I was amused to watch pundits on a well-known national TV wildlife programme struggling with the identification of a large skipper butterfly on to which the camera zoomed as the insect sat obediently in the long Dorset grass.

“One of the day-flying moths,” declared the presenter. “There are quite a lot of moths that fly around in the daytime.”

There are indeed. Here in my picture is one of them, the six-spot burnet moth. With the cinnabar moth which is also greenish black and red, the burnets represent the oddest day-time spectacle of them all with that eccentric colour scheme.

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I am glad to have seen quite a good few this season as they had started to decline over the past 40 years I have been observing them on the West Sussex Downs.

Decades ago you would see their cocoons almost on every long grass stem. These straw-coloured capsules looked a bit like small bow defenders that sailing boats carry.

From them the crimson and darkest green insects would struggle into the July summer days and cause amazement among the parties of school children from the inner cities, who used to visit on day trips. The kids were thrilled to see something so extreme and mad as they thought, so unlike anything they had ever seen before.

I wish I had been able to photograph the enraptured expressions of whole groups of urban city dwellers for whom Zygaena filipendulae outclassed curb-side drugs, screaming idols and soft-cushion lifestyles even for a short while. Magic.

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Casually the Vatican-coloured mini-monster moths wandered over clumps of frothy pink marjoram blossoms as did the one here last month. In those days photography was fairly cumbersome and erratic unless things stood still, but with these modern palm-size digitals I find even I can sometimes get a decent picture of insects.

There are seven different species of burnets in the UK and 40 in Europe. I was hoping the TV programme mentioned earlier would have found one to show the world, but the large skipper stood in.

I can understand how a skipper can be confused with a moth since it does look like one with its large head and thorax and droopy wings and relaxed, shall we say confused attitude as it waits for its photo to be taken. Always a good subject for a harassed TV crew, but nothing to the Mikado look-alike here in my picture.

Had they found a burnet moth and filled the screen with its crimson colours, the tantalising thought of young urban minds becoming engaged again with the natural world as I used to see so vividly became for me a palpable miss instead. Better luck next year.

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