Most fabled and rarest moth of all

The Clifden nonpareil.
The Clifden nonpareil.

KEEP your eyes peeled for this moth at the moment. I have never seen one but I know a man who has: reader David Burrows.

He sent me the photograph of what is probably Britain’s most fabled and rarest moth of all: the magnificent Clifden nonpareil. Occasional singles are seen across the south including Kent and East Sussex.

There are records from the Isle of Wight and West Sussex too. Entomologists dream of seeing one and the successful ones like Mr Burrows do. But, there is hope for the likes of me and you as well.

This moth in the picture just suddenly turned up in somebody’s garden in Sussex. With a wing span of three inches (nine cms) it is almost as big as a small bird.

Even so, it is still not the largest British moth.

The largest are the various hawkmoths which will have been seen here and there in Sussex a month ago. Also the convolvulus hawkmoth will fly into Britain from southern countries of Europe in August and September.

The nonpareil, also called the blue under-wing flies in July and August. Fresh adults show a remarkable pale blue curving stripe set into a chocolate border, a colour scheme of striking appearance when the wings are fully extended.

With the wings folded up and closed in rest, this wonderful display is hidden beneath the forwings to become a camouflaged, grey shadow or lump or bark on the willow or aspen that the moth is likely to be hiding upon.

The specimen there was slightly worn, with the electric blue stripe and rich brown background having the head shows some wear with the pink skin beginning to show.

It is the only photograph I have ever seen and there cannot be many in existence.

Richard South’s monumental 1907 work: “The Moth of the British Isles” still reprinted in recent times in pocket book form by Warne, shows a magnificent specimen probably brighter as a ‘coloured figure’ illustration than you are likely to see in the wild.

Every morning I look in my garage at the remains of the common yellow underwings which bats have eaten overnight at their roost in the rafters. Plenty of those which have been caught in the woods outside. Occasionally there are the wings of red underwings.

Both these are in the same family of Noctuas, the family sometimes called Owlets, in which the blue underwing lives, together with 6,000 species worldwide.

One day, who knows? I might find that colour blue. That would be a thrilling moment. But I’m not sure whether I should be glad or sad.