Wildlife Column with Prof Ian Rotherham

I had a message from reader John Greaves of Hemsworth, Sheffield, accompanied by a super photograph of one of my favourite insects.

Tuesday, 17th September 2019, 10:27 am
Updated Wednesday, 18th September 2019, 3:28 pm
Sheffield weather expert Professor Ian Rotherham.
Sheffield weather expert Professor Ian Rotherham.

John wrote, ‘Dear Ian, when clearing my garden out this morning I found this caterpillar. It is the first time I have found one here. Is this a rarity for this area? Kind regards.’ Well, the picture was of an Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillar and they are really superb creatures. About as big as a man’s middle finger they come complete with a menacing looking hooked tail (actually to ward off parasitic wasps), and huge ‘eyes’ at the front end to frighten predatory birds. The caterpillars are of course completely harmless. Their main food-plant is rosebay willowherb (what used to be called railway flower (from the days of steam engines) or fireweed; in both cases this is an association with burnt ground).

This plant did very well along railway lines and spread rapidly from Victorian times onwards.

It also benefited from the Blitz bomb-sites and 1930s and 1950s slum clearance which created large areas of derelict or ‘waste’ land. Essentially, where you get rosebay then Elephant Hawks soon follow. I was once (as a very young child) petrified by such a caterpillar on ‘spare ground’ as we called it, off Warminster Road, Sheffield. The sun was setting and against the glowing sky on a dead tree-branch, a very large, ominous creature was silhouetted and reached out towards the sun. It twisted, turned and beckoned in the simmering light of dusk. Absolutely terrified, I turned and ran. However, curiosity may have killed the cat, but it drew me back to sheepishly gaze on the frightening spectre; my first Elephant Hawk.

Elephant hawk caterpillar taken by John Greaves.

To return to John’s question, this has not been a great year for the moth; with few adults reported. (They are stunningly showy moths with pinks, reds, golds, and more). However, I do generally get a few enquiries around this time of year and mostly from gardeners. The caterpillars will eat garden fuchsias and then head for convenient plant pots for example in which to safely pupate. Professor Ian D. Rotherham, of Sheffield Hallam University, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues.