Moths at Little Sparta
From any hill top in South Lanarkshire, such as Tinto the distant vista of rolling hills and valleys is a charming sight especially on a day of good weather. Take a closer look and you will find that for much of the landscape this is an illusion. Large swathes of non-native conifer forest cover much of the lower hillsides or are planted on raised peat bogs, while a lot of the rest is given over to sheep farming, where there is little opportunity for anything but grass to grow.
These features have developed in this moorland landscape over the last fifty years when Little Sparta was conceived, designed and created. Has this oasis surrounded by upland sheep farms created its own biodiverse ecology in the meantime?
I was invited to join a bioblitz at the site last year to see what animals, birds, insects and plants lived there. A day long event to study the ecology was carried out by group of specialists and enthusiasts. I and a couple of others set up moth traps around the varied gardens in the seven acre site. These traps are special light sources that attract moths overnight into a special chamber below. The moths can then be examined in the morning, identified and counted before being released. We were delighted with what we found that we have been back at different times throughout the last year to get a fuller picture of the variety of moths found there.
From previous experience moth trapping on upland farmland in Lanarkshire 20 or 30 species of moths may be recorded on a good night. However, our experience for one night in June 2022 at Little Sparta we recorded 67 species of moths with over 160 individual moths. Several were micromoths that are generally insects less than 1.5cms in length and often only half this size.
The most spectacular were two Hawkmoth species, both common in Scotland the Elephant Hawkmoth and the Poplar Hawkmoth, neither being associated with upland farming areas. Being large and powerful it is not surprising that they would have colonised this site in the 50 or so years it has been developed and enriched. The nearest unspoiled habitat is many miles away so it is impressive that many of the smaller or micromoths have made it so far and established themselves at Little Sparta. Insects do have a remarkable ability to disperse and some moths find their way to Scotland from Scandinavia every year across the North Sea, even some micro moth species carried over by favourable winds. Many of these creatures having been recorded on oil rigs. All these species having dispersed as far as Little Sparta have found it a suitable habitat to breed and establish a colony. This is testimony to the health of the garden with its great diversity of habitats and a rich flora including many native plants, lichens and mosses all necessary food for the caterpillars of the moths that now live there. The moths themselves either don’t feed during their short lives or look for nectar on the abundance of flowering plants found in the garden. It is not generally appreciated how important moths are as pollinators doing the work of bees except during the night-time.
We have been back three more times since that first visit in June 2022 and now have a tally of 124 moth species recorded including some less common species such as the Saxon moth, the Figure of Eighty moth and the Gothic. Many are truly beautiful like the Burnished Brass or Beautiful Golden Y, the larva of both species feeding on the common Nettle. Over time with more visits, it is likely we will double this number, as moths not only have their habitat niches, but also fly at times of the year specific to a particular species. Therefore, moths that fly in April won’t be seen again till the next year. Some moths do have the ability to breed twice a year, but Scotland generally has too short a summer for this to be true for most of our moths. With a warming planet this may change of course.
It is credit to the inspiration of Ian Hamilton Finlay, the Trust and its team who continue to maintain this marvellous seven acre garden, sculpture park and biodiverse hot spot. An example of the potential ecosystem that Scotland’s landscape could offer on a wider scale.