Do elephants rampage through your garden at night?


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Do elephants rampage through your garden at night?

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Ever wondered what goes on in your garden at night? Perhaps you sometimes hear an owl, or see a hedgehog shuffling its way across your lawn. If you're lucky, you might see badgers (last year's Make Your Nature Count survey found 10 % of people do!).

I like to think I'm fairly familiar with what goes on within its boundaries during the day.But what goes on under cover of darkness?

To find out, I've been dabbling in the world of moths. Mention moths to many people and they might well say 'Moths? They eat clothes!' Well, yes, the larvae of clothes moths do eat some clothes, but they're much less common these days because we wear less wool and fur. I don't keep my clothes in the garden, so moths are very welcome there.

In fact, a garden with lots of moths shows a healthy environment. And let us not forget that many birds eat moths, and their caterpillars are crucial for feeding young chicks in spring and summer. All those green caterpillars in the beaks of your local blue tits have to come from somewhere.

Using a special bit of kit - a 'moth trap' - I've been able to find out which moths are lurking in and around my garden. The trap is basically a wooden box with a bright light on the top. A sloping lid of clear plastic means that moths which are attracted by the light can't easily find their way out again, and I stack empty eggboxes inside for them to hide under. The bulb is left on overnight and I go and check what's inside it in the morning. Then they're released unharmed.

Onto the moths. This is the aforementioned 'elephant' - an elephant hawkmoth, that is! With that garish colouring, it certainly won't win any prizes for camouflage. Perhaps it doesn't taste very good, so the brightness is to deter predators?

Elephant hawkmoth. Photo by Katie Fuller

This big fella is a privet hawkmoth. One night we had 11 of these big beasts in the trap - it's amazing there was room for anything else! Despite their size - they have a wingspan of up to 12 cm! - all the hawkmoths seem pretty friendly and docile. They perch on your finger quite happily.

Privet hawkmoth. Photo by Katie Fuller

In the moth world, you don't have to be big to be impressive. Though it's much smaller than the hawkmoths, this little beautiful golden y is one of my favourites. I love its intricate markings.

Beautiful golden y. Photo by Katie Fuller

Another small but special moth is the buff-tip. It's spectacular in a different way: it's the moth that looks like a broken twig, to put off would-be predators.

Buff-tip. Photo by Katie Fuller

And here's the burnished brass - very aptly named. It really does look like shiny metal in the sunshine.

Burnished brass. Photo by Katie Fuller

One of the things that fascinates me about these moths is that they're mostly active in the dark! I'm not quite sure of the purpose of all the bright colours, beautiful markings and fancy shapes. I just know I enjoy seeing them. You've got to smile when you see a fluffy, big-nosed creature like this male drinker.

The drinker. Photo by Katie Fuller

I'm starting to love the weird, wonderful world of moths. They have some splendid names: there's the leopard moth, the ruby tiger, the large emerald, the bright-line brown-eye and the brown-line bright-eye. (Hmm. Not sure about those last two)

The good news is that none of these species is rare. Though they look exotic in their different ways, they'll be in many of your gardens too. Why not spend some time looking for them? You don't need a special moth trap; you could try leaving an outside light on. Or put a white sheet on the ground, and place a bright torch on top of it. You can even make wine-based concoctions to attract some moths! Lots of RSPB nature reserves run moth-trapping events too.

We need to find out more about our moth populations, so you can help conserve them by sending in what you've seen to Moths Count.

But as to why moths fly towards light, it seems nobody really knows!

  • We have similar problems to other people with cats and have not found any sure way of controlling them. I think you should know that we bought a Catwatch alarm and it is useless. The cats from next door sit under the bird table along side it!! £50 odd down the drain!

  • Hello! Thanks for all your comments. A few things to go through...

    I'm really chuffed that lots of you think moths are beautiful or interesting, or a combination of the two! I'm finding learning more about them really interesting. And it shows how important the habitats surrounding your garden are - your backyard doesn't exist just in isolation but is part of something much bigger.

    Cats... We know that people on both sides are really passionate about the cats and wildlife issue. Research has shown that cats don't have a measurable effect on the national populations of any of our garden birds, but at the same time, nobody denies that some cats (not all) do kill birds and sometimes other wildlife (including moths).

    Keeping a cat in at night may well stop some moths being eaten, but doesn't make much difference to birds, which are roosting at that time, of course. So, if you have a cat and it's out and about during the day, we'd recommend you give it a safe collar with a bell.

    If you have problems with other people's cats in your garden, we have plenty of advice:

    nuthatch, there's info here about how you can try moth trapping:

    Popsie, could you post some photos of the caterpillars? I don't think they'll be black etced prominents (they're only found in America), but I'm sure we can work out what they are.

    Guthrie: I'll try to sort out a diagram or link to a moth trap plan for you.

  • Katie,

    Just seen all your beautiful photos. I am now inspired to put out the sheet and see what turns up. I've already started to keep track of the butterflies in and around my garden and this year left some of my flower beds unweeded to see what wild flowers would grow. have been thrilled by the result. the only worry I have is that i have a regular ' spine ' of hedgehogs (not sure of the collective noun for them)

    and i would wonder whether this light being left on the sheet might alarm or disorient them. But perhpas i'll give it a go and see what happens

  • Cats are lovely animals but are killers too.  I had four at one time and was appalled at the amount of wildlife deaths they caused. So, when my last one died at age 15 I decided not to have any more.  Every cat owner I know denies that their cats kill wildlife but, it is in their nature to do so.  I garden for nature and feed the birds all year round.  I have noticed a loss of starlings this year as everybody round here has had new roofs and filled in the holes that starlings use.  I have lots of Borage for bees and Evening Primrose for moths in my garden.  I decided that instead of rescuing cats and dogs I would rescue chickens this year!  They are wildlife killers too as I am finding bumble bees dead or dying in my back garden, where they live.  You just can't win!

  • Hi Katie Wow what wonderful pic's, we too have been lucky to see and elephant hawk moth it flew into our kitchen one night. We trapped it and was amazed how lovely it was, we have never seen one before and felt very lucky to be able to see one at such close quarters.

    Agedone - what a wonderful idea to have a curfew for cats. I love them also but have to admit the one side of their nature that is not so nice....


    Regards to all

  • Diver. Hi Katie

    I have a long privet hedge which is about four yrs old and have several of the privet hawkmoth.

    I am both a cat and dog lover I have no cats now just a rascal of a dog however much as I like cats the one that lives next door to me is a horror, she is not fed properly which is I suppose some excuse but she has killed several sparrows by jumping up at one of my cage feeders and pulling their legs off!!!  This only happens whilst I am walking the dog and of course by the time I get home the damage is done.

    Any suggestions anyone? I dont want to get rid of the feeder as lots of other small birds use this feeder and it keeps them safe from the bully birds.

    Sorry got to stop waffling the CATS back. tatty bye.

  • Mr ED. hi Katie.

    love the picture of your moths . here at Blacktoft Sands Mike  has been catching moths for the last couple of years and has shown them on view in reception to see by visitors.

    I had no idea until he started doing this just how many moths there were and  have managed 77 species to photo the last year and so far this year including your elephant hawkmoth, lime hawkmoth, poplar hawkmoth and eyed hawkmoth

    amazing insects and add further interest when visiting this reserve. Keep sending more pictures.

    all the best.

  • My cat is now 16 year old and she has never been outside after 10pm.  She is my fourth cat and my last cat was nearly 20 when he died.  Unfortunately she does catch mice but brings them in the house alive and unhurt.  I then have to catch them and let them out again.

    I like the frogs and toads which frequent my garden nightly.  

    3 years ago I had a hawk moth in the garden in the daytime.  

    There are an abundance of butterflies this year and lots of moths.

  • Katie,

    I have discovered at least 5 Black Etched Prominent caterpillars on a Willow tree in my garden.  I can't find any U.K. website that mentions them, they are all North American.  Is this a rarity?  They are the most incredible looking & red, perfectly camoflagued on the willow, with a kind of eyed hood & a swallow type tail that extrudes red feelers when disturbed! Approx 6-7cms long & very fat.

    Have you ever trapped any of these moths here?  Or does anyone know anything more about them?


  • Katie,

    Great work, and great photos.

    Although you describe in words the 'moth trap', I can't quite picture how to make one (specifically how the plastic cover is orientated).

    Can you post a picture / sketch of the design. I'd love to do this in my area.

  • Dear Katie, I have been trapping and recording moths in Devon for a few years now and I'm very pleased that you have brought them to the attention of more people .They are beautiful creatures and if more people saw and understood them I'm sure they would discover an amazing amont of beauty and have perhaps more time for, and might be inclined to help preserve such lovely creatures all the best mothman

  • Dear oh dear, dont get all defensive Poly's slave. He admitted he was not a cat hater, but you have to be realistic. Cats, as we know, unless they are not fed well, kill without ever intending to eat the "prey". No one sensible should hate them for that, its our fault for domesticating them so the numbers are too much of a strain on nature. If people want to keep cats, and they always will, they need to be responsible and keep them in when most destructive.

    I'm sure being the founder member of these organisations is very concientious, but that doesnt balance out a lack of responsibilty in this case.

    And as for attacks on children by dogs; who is to blame for again. And thats another thing. These recent apparent attacks by the fox; we have habituated foxes by our domestic habits, leaving rubbish out, destroying their natural environment etc, so bringing them closer to our everyday lives. Bl***dy fantastic I say, but as a species we have had such an effect on the environment and its other inhabitants that we need to keep foxes out of our homes by increasing basic security, not blaming and destroying the foxes as I am sure some will call for. Hopefully no-one on this site!

  • The moth photos are absolutely beautiful; shall be setting a moth 'trap' with my grandchildren when they stay.  Sadly, very few butterflies this summer in my garden so far and no eggs/caterpillars on the stinging nettles as yet.  Elephant hawk caterpillars appear in my neighbour's fuchsia bush!

    I am NOT a cat hater, but as an allottment holder, there is a worrying decline in shrews/slow worms/frogs/mice and small birds since the arrival of cats in newly built houses nearby.  PLEASE, cat owners, try to keep your cats in at dusk and nighttime - however, I know from experience this is not easy.  In australian states now, there is legislation to keep cats indoors and a curfew because of the drastic decline in their small marsupial population.  There are many factors contributing to our dwindling wildlife beyond our personal control, but keeping the feline population under control is our responsibility.


  • Haven`t seen any hawkmoths recently but have seen some of the big fat caterpillars though!

  • Haven`t seen any hawkmoths recently,but found some hawkmoth caterillars on or around my willow tree in my back garden the other week, so theres still hope! got all sorts of othr caterpillars though, the big hairy ones you daren`t touch!