Nature’s witch on the wing...

First published in Comment

IF you want to experience the legacy of a 16th century Yorkshire witch there is no need to travel to Knaresborough.

At Knaresborough you will get to see the delights of Mother Shipton’s cave and the Petrifying Well – after paying an entrance fee, of course.

Something much closer at hand, and that is entirely free to access, is the Mother Shipton moth (callistege mi). Easier to spot than many other moths as it is a day-flying species, the Mother Shipton is mottled brown, cream and grey and found on grasslands.

On the wing at this time of year, Mother Shiptons are likely to be seen by people walking through an area that has plants such as clover, black medick and bird’s-foot trefoil, the larval food plants.

When disturbed, this species lifts and flies low for a short distance before settling again. As you walk along, it can seem as though you are herding the poor insect as it lifts, settles and lifts again – like following a pheasant in a car; stop, start, stop, start.

The caterpillars are slender, up to 40mm long with vaguely beige colouring and a whitish stripe down the side. This species over-winters as a pupa cocooned on the ground ready to emerge as an adult moth at this time of year.

All the above is very interesting, but what has it got to do with the witch? Well, if you can get close enough without the moth taking flight, you will see that on the forewings the pattern of markings resembles the profile of a stereotypical hag.

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