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NORWICH: Not just a small brown moth

(but no, it wasn't an M&S, luxury patterned small brown moth either)

24th February 2016

Working on the third floor of a building in Norwich city centre, I don't tend to get many insects in the room. Occasionally something interesting will land on the window, the best of which came last year when I caught a bug that turned out to be only the second Norfolk record. On Wednesday afternoon I noticed a small ichneumon wasp on the window. I looked at it, and (to the chagrin of some naturalists I'm sure) decided that there was no way I'd be identifying that to species level, so I should open the window and let it out. Whilst doing this, I noticed a small brown moth on the windowsill. I delayed the release of the ichneumon until I had potted* the moth to have a better look.

What followed was a series of ups and downs. To be honest, whilst interesting, it wasn't exciting enough to justify the term 'emotional rollercoaster', but probably a scaled down version would be appropriate. Maybe emotional homemade BMX ramps. I like moths, so finding one was an up. I didn't recognise it, so it was probably a species I hadn't seen before, so that was a bigger up. As I put it into a pot it became evident the moth was dead, which was a down, and so on. I photographed it and retained the pot in case it was something really rare.

Later that evening I transferred my photos onto the computer and set about identifying the moth. My first port of call was the excellent Norfolk Moths website. As well as having a page for every species recorded in Norfolk, it has a section called Flying Tonight? This is really useful, because it uses all of the moth records in the database to display them in order of most seen for a particular period. So if you are new to moth trapping and put a trap out in your garden in May, using the flying tonight option you can bring up a list of the 100 most common species for May, and chances are you will find most of the moths you've just caught. The problem is, in winter not many moths are recorded, particularly micro moths** of which this was one.

My next port of call was the Field Guide to the Micro Moths of Great Britain and Ireland (Sterling & Parsons) with illustrations by renowned wildlife artist Richard Lewington. I couldn't find my moth there either. Was I overlooking something obvious, or was my moth particularly rare? Option three was turn to social media for help. If you are on Twitter and use the hashtag #teammoth, moth experts from around the country come to your aid with ID help. I decided to keep my tweet a bit more local by not using the hashtag, knowing that some of my Norfolk friends are very knowledgeable moth folk. And so it proved, my moth was identified within minutes by Andy & Ian as Duponchelia fovealis, a moth with only around ten Norfolk records.

Duponchelia fovealis

This wsn't quite the end of the story though. I went back on the Norfolk Moths website to report my sighting to the county moth recorder, and noticed that in the species account was the line "The larvae feed on house plants, causing sufficient damage to be a serious pest in some areas, occurrence should be reported to MAFF Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate". Blimey. However, when I thought about it, MAFF no longer exists, having been subsumed into DEFRA, and my specimen wasn't likely to cause sufficient damage to anything, what with it being dead and all. I asked for advice on the Norfolk Moth Survey Facebook page, and was given the contact details for an ecologist at FERA, who has passed my query on to one of their moth specialists. I haven't heard back yet, but I like to think he is sitting at a desk with two large red buttons in front of him, one reading "PANIC" and one "IGNORE". I'll update the post if I hear back!

* Often an insect looks interesting, but flies off before you get a good look, so it pays to keep a small plastic pot nearby.
** Moth books and websites tend to split moths into macro moths and micro moths. This division is somewhat arbitrary, as there are some big micros and small macros, but it is generally understood, and if you can work out which one your specimen is likely to be, it saves searching through the whole lot.

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