How moths bring look of win­ter to sum­mer sand dunes

Midweek Visiter - - The Sefton Coast -

AT this time of year, it’s not un­usual to see clus­ters of folk in sun­hats hunched over tripods and im­pres­sive cam­eras at favoured sites in the dunes.

No need to be alarmed, it’s per­fectly nor­mal be­hav­iour.

The pho­tog­ra­phers that stare so in­tently into the veg­e­ta­tion are look­ing to cap­ture one of the Sefton coast’s strangest spec­ta­cles – snow in sum­mer. Warm June days sees an emer­gence of the stun­ning White Satin Moth, which flut­ters over shel­tered ar­eas of Creep­ing Wil­low, some­times in their thou­sands.

These beau­ti­ful day-fly­ing moths, with strik­ing black and white barred legs, are closely tied to the Creep­ing Wil­low, one of the most im­por­tant plants in the dune sys­tem.

Later in the sum­mer, Dune Helle­borines will bloom in the shelter of the Creep­ing Wil­low, but for now it is the do­main of the White Satin Moth as they emerge to lay eggs in frothy clus­ters on stems.

Feed­ing dark cater­pil­lars with big white spots can also be found amongst the Creep­ing Wil­low, as can the pu­pae the moths emerge from, so, with a bit of pa­tience, it is pos­si­ble to watch the whole life-cycle of the White Satin Moth un­fold be­fore your very eyes.

Per­haps the ac­tiv­ity of the moths around the Creep­ing Wil­low is ben­e­fi­cial to the plant in a sym­bi­otic sense – as leaves are stripped by hun­gry cater­pil­lars it may pro­mote fresh shoots to grow, main­tain­ing healthy banks of the plant. One for the proper sci­en­tists to look at, I think.

But at the peak of the ac­tiv­ity, the air is filled with the white moths, so it’s like a bl­iz­zard in June and a joy to watch for any spec­ta­tor, sci­en­tist or not. One of the best places to en­joy the White Satin Moths is just a short walk south down the dune path from Ains­dale Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre.

Go through the kiss­ing gate near the build­ing, then bear right and go through the large wooden gate and fol­low the path south.

As the ter­rain opens out, the moths should be ob­vi­ous at the top of the large open area (Slack 170) fringed with reeds.

This flat open area was the re­sult of sand extraction in times past, but is now a haven for flora and fauna, like the rest of the dune sys­tem.

In fine con­di­tions, they can be quite a sight, but their ap­pear­ance is fleet­ing and, by the end of June, the moths will be­come harder to find as the adults die off and the life cycle of eggs, cater­pil­lar, pu­pae, moth be­gins again.

There are still a few places left on our “Dunes in June” walks on Fri­day, June 15 at Ains­dale; Satur­day, June 16 at Hightown, and again at Ains­dale on Thurs­day, June 21. The walks set off from Ains­dale and Hightown Sta­tions re­spec­tively at 10am – for more de­tails, please email john.dempsey@sefton.gov.uk.

A bank of Creep­ing Wil­low - clas­sic White Satin Moth habitat

Adult moths emerge from pu­pae in the Creep­ing Wil­low (above), lead­ing to a spec­tac­u­lar show of strik­ing White Satin Moths, with their un­der­side re­veal­ing its black and white legs (right)

The Sefton Coast Land­scape Part­ner­ship pro­motes the cultural and nat­u­ral her­itage of the Sefton coast and is sup­ported by Sefton Coun­cil, Nat­u­ral Eng­land, the Na­tional Trust, Lan­cashire Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and the Mersey Forest. This col­umn looks at the flora, fauna and his­tory of the coast­line, and the work the various part­ners carry out to pro­tect it.

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