How moths bring look of winter to summer sand dunes
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.