When I was young we lived in Brighton. We had a cat called Toby, a tortoise called André after a favourite character in a story on children’s radio and later a dog, a small female Scottish Terrier known as Miffy. Along with these creatures, we had goldfish, tadpoles, newts and Tiger Moths. The goldfish, tadpoles and newts never did well. In fact, their mortality rate bordered on the scandalous. The Tiger Moths, on the other hand, did extremely well.
We had a back garden with poor soil and a lawn which was no doubt a fragment of the original field on which the houses had been built. My mother fought to maintain some semblance of order and beauty in it but this was an uphill struggle. Every year, along with slugs, snails, woodlice, ants, wasps and all sorts of worms and grubs, the garden would host a contingent of brown furry caterpillars. I would collect one (or sometimes more), put it in a jam jar with a perforated lid and keep it well supplied with peony leaves.
Left to their own devices, caterpillars are eating machines. They eat all day long with a wonderful dedication to the task in hand. I would watch as the caterpillar’s head swung rhythmically right and left as it consumed the peony leaves it was resting on. That’s about all it ever did, except produce dark brown droppings and get bigger and bigger, until it suddenly stopped eating.
It would then remain still for some time, perhaps hours or a day, as if lost in thought. More than once, I thought the caterpillar had died. But no, all at once the head movement began again but now the creature was not eating. At first it was hard to see what it was doing, especially if, as often happened, it had betaken itself inside a cluster of leaves. After a while it became apparent that around it were forming very fine silver threads. Over the next few hours, the caterpillar would labour away, producing threads and as it did so, and would gradually disappear from view. At last all movement would cease and the jar could be set aside pending the next exciting development.
That development was, of course the appearance of the Tiger Moth. Tiger Moths are spectacular creatures. The body is is furry and the head and shoulders covered by a dark brown cape of fine brown hair. The front wings are brown with a line pattern of white or beige, hence the “tiger” name. It is the rear wings that startle you with their contrast because they are orangey red with dark blotches. These are intended to protect the moth from birds and other predators who take red as a danger signal.
On one occasion, the moth emerged while we were out. I always left the top off the jar so they could escape but this one had found herself confined within the house. She had glued a set of tiny green eggs to the side of the settee.
Sometimes, the moth would not have emerged before we were due to go on holiday, so the jam jar went with us. One year we went to stay with my sister in a small village in Cardiganshire. My mother fell ill and I attended the village school for a term. I had two jars with me and Mr Griffiths, one of the schoolmasters, heard about them and asked me to bring them to school. One of the moths had emerged, leaving behind its broken pupa case. Mr Griffiths was most interested. For my part, I was amazed to find that I, a townee, knew more about moths than the village children did. It is one of those curious things that those who live surrounded by the wonders of nature are often those who know least about it.