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Why gardeners should protect caterpillars

Mullein moth caterpillar
‘Verbascums are essential food for the mullein moth caterpillar.’ Photograph: Alamy

Caterpillars are not pests. I know the cabbage white will make light work of your tea, the clothes moth will leave your finery in tatters and the tomato moth will munch through your ripening tomatoes, but for every one that is after your crops or clothes, there is another that brings beauty to your garden. And not just in the obvious fluttering way: those fat teenaged blue tits ganging around your garden right now are almost pure caterpillar. They are an essential part of the food chain.

If you must squash, identify carefully first – which may mean looking at the parents. There are hundreds of small brown moths, for example, but the one whose larvae make holes in your clothes has an orange-yellow head.

Both butterflies and moths are in decline, with 76% of resident and regular migrant butterfly species in the UK reduced in numbers or range or both over the past four decades. Butterflies that specialise in a particular habitat are having the hardest time; land-use changes, habitat loss, pesticides and intensive agriculture are all to blame. Your garden may be tiny, but together we make a vast landscape. Gardeners can be the positive change.

Growing a few plants for caterpillars will make a huge difference. Hops growing over a fence or up a tree will feed comma butterflies and currant pug, buttoned snout, buff ermine and pale tussock moths; ivy will encourage holly blue butterflies and double-striped pug and old lady moths (aren’t moth names fantastic?); mint will feed mint moths and beautiful plume moths; and fuchsias will encourage the elephant hawk moth, perhaps the most striking of all the moths – it’s huge. If you can’t bear to sacrifice a much-loved fuchsia, elephant hawk moth caterpillars can be rehoused on rosebay willowherb and will do just as well.

Similarly, verbascums are essential food for the mullein moth caterpillar, which is a striking black, yellow and white thing. I allow a couple of plants to grow on my allotment wholly for the hungry caterpillars. They end up in shreds, but this method allows you to carefully transport any munchers off your prized garden verbascums.

Finally, if you have nettles, particularly nettles growing in the sun, please don’t cut them down or pull them up until the end of September. They feed red admiral, peacock and tortoiseshell butterfly and mother of pearl, burnished brass, jersey tiger, beautiful golden Y and snout moth caterpillars. I realise that many people don’t want to grow nettles in their sunniest spots (shade’s no good), but we could accommodate them on public verges or communal spaces on allotments, in community gardens, behind the backs of sports halls and in car parks. Seen this way, nettles take on a new beauty, for those spiky hearts of leaves truly feed the flight of fancy, the magic that is a butterfly or moth on the wing.

This article titled "Why gardeners should protect caterpillars" was written by Alys Fowler, for The Guardian on Saturday 12 August 2017 10.00am

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