Earthly extremes you would never see even on Mars

Six-spot burnet moth.
Six-spot burnet moth.

YEARS ago I used to host Inner-city kids by the coach-load as part of my job managing Downland sites like Kingley Vale.

Once they had stopped squealing and shouting, pointing at trees and barbed wire, muddy tracks and wooden gates as though these were objects only ever seen before on a Mars probe I began talking about moving objects. Snakes and foxes were the first species about which I had to answer questions.

No, these did not coil in gigantic loops around the branches on the nature reserve, and no, they would not run out of the bushes and snatch a victim to eat in their dens.

All this settling down took about five minutes before we were able to move off on a safari walk into what they thought was unbelievable terrain.

Slowly they adapted to looking and talking sensibly about much smaller objects and signs such as footprints of deer in the mud, browse-lines made by deer under the trees, wood pigeons carrying food in their crops back to their young in the woods.

It wasn’t possible in the time-slot available to go into too much detail such as the role played by yellow hill ants in nurturing the caterpillars of common blue butterflies.

But at least their eye saw detail which many country school children ignored as part of the everyday scene.

One July day which thankfully was warm and sunny, we came across one of these (pictured) on the downland slopes of flowers.

It was a six spot burnet moth. 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 these city dwellers for whom Zygaena filipendulae outclassed (for the while) kerb-side drugs, screaming idols plonking their guitars and soft cushion lifestyles.

Casually this Vatican-coloured mini monster moth wandered over frothy pink marjoram just as the one in my photo did recently.

It was wonderful to see how receptive the kids were to the natural world.

The burnet must be one of the most eccentric colour schemes available in nature, a Mikado lookalike that invests the mind of anything seeing it with wonder and even disbelief. To predators it is warning of course that crimson and verdi-black are distasteful, so don’t bother.

The cinnabar moth and caterpillar have the same warnings.

The more an object is camouflaged the more tasty it is.

I was even able to interest the London hordes in where these burnets came from and I imagine most downland walkers know the answer too.

Their crèche is a papoose atop the long grasses of the hills, which look a bit like boat fenders.

From these the beautiful moth bursts in late July, to have a few days delighting itself and all the world around it in the sort of earthly extremes you would never see even on Mars.

Richard Williamson