Mullein for Moths

I’m still recovering from an awesome weekend at Spurn Bird Observatory for their annual migration festival – tons of amazing birds (wryneck was my fave), plus a chance to hang out with my favourite nature nerds and drink too much ginger wine (no regrets). Go there if you can – it’s wicked.

So this morning I was happy to escape the office and work outside on a project with Fiona Haynes, Conservation Officer from Butterfly Conservation. Our farm is in the South Downs National Park, and due to the surrounding farms restricting their use of pesticides, we have a load of cool species that make their home here. One of these is the rare striped lychnis moth (Shargacucullia lychnitis) which only feeds on the flowers of dark mullein (Verbascum nigrum).

One of the caterpillars found earlier in the year

After posting a photo of a striped lychnis caterpillar we found in the summer, Fiona asked if we wouldn’t mind distributing the mullein plants further to make the farm into a local stronghold for the moth. A nationally scarce species, they are on the UK BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) priority list with declining populations, mainly due to loss of habitat. They can only be found in West Sussex, Hampshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, where dark mullein grows on disturbed, low-nutrient ground.

Dark Mullein.jpg
Dark mullein flowers

We first collected seeds from the mullein flowers that already grow here. Some were still in flower, but the majority could be shaken into a bag to release their tiny children. Most were growing in our pig paddock, where the pigs spend all summer uprooting the ground, spreading seeds and trampling them into the soil to germinate. For this reason, pigs are sometimes used for woodland management, where they remove larger competitive plants and help make room for wildflowers.

Petra collecting dark mullein seeds
Bag o’ seeds

Once the seeds were collected, we found new spaces to plant them around the site. As we’re open to the public and schoolchildren, we do usually strim long patches of grass to keep the place safe and tidy. To combat this, I’ve marked on a map where we’ve planted to ensure we leave these areas longer before cutting back, allowing them time to drop their seeds and regenerate. We used mattocks and trowels to clear little patches in the ground, drizzled the seeds over and stamped them in with our boots.

Clearing scrapes across the farm

Hopefully, this will bring a little boost to the mullein flowers that tend to pop up across the farm! Next spring I’ll be setting up a moth trap to see if we can find a striped lychnis hanging around, although they are extremely rare to find. They are also very brown and I’m terrible at moth ID, but we must all seek to improve ourselves! A lovely morning out of the office in the autumn sunshine… You can find more on the striped lychnis moth at Butterfly Conservation here!

Fiona’s pups Shep, Mist & Woody enjoying the sun
The striped lychnis moth – photo by Butterfly Conservation

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