The first time I found a Scarlet Tiger moth caterpillar was Spring 2012. It was on Evergreen Alkanet, quite a pretty blue flower. The area I spotted was along Roman Road (aka Sandy Lane) in Wollaston/Norton. It’s a route I regularly take from my home, along the bridleway connecting Roman Road to Norton Covert and Bunkers Hill Wood.
I didn’t immediately recognize the caterpillar but a quick web search revealed that it was a Scarlet Tiger – “unmistakable” according to the reference. Almost like back-to-front Cinnabar moth caterpillars. Still yellow and black and stripy, but the stripes run vertically, rather than horizontally, if you catch my drift. The Scarlet Tiger is one of our most spectacular moths – how exciting – right on my doorstep – that was just before the council ripped the bank to shreds.
No adult moths that year but the following spring there were more caterpillars so I knew some must have survived the previous year and bred. But again I took no action and the Council cut back the Alkanet as part of routine road verge maintenance. However, I found a single adult on a hot July morning – good omen – the day Andy Murray won Wimbledon. It’s still one of my favourite photos.
The following spring saw lots of caterpillars and that’s when I put together my letter to Dudley Council urging them not to flail the bank (the Alkanet) housing the moth larvae. I added an extra request that they plant wildflowers on the island instead of the bedding plants they usually use and consider designating the bridle path a green corridor. I had an immediate response and it turned out I was just in time as they were due to carry out the bank flailing. Detailed knowledge about the Scarlet Tiger and the best way of enhancing conditions to assist, was surprisingly hard to find. Reading the description on the Butterfly Conservation website, you can imagine the surprise at finding them in the West Midlands!
The eventual consensus was to cut back the Alkanet but to wait until the autumn when we could be sure that the new caterpillars would be hibernating somewhere safe in the undergrowth and/or underground. Understandably, the council has to balance conservation with required maintenance to avoid complaints from the public (about untidiness, safety, etc) plus it does the plants no harm to cut them back. They also left a large area by the pathway between Roman Road and Swallowfall Avenue completely uncut. This was the area where the Scarlet Tigers did best this year but it may have been related to the fact that this area also gets most sunshine! So the jury is out – perhaps do nothing and leave the Alkanet to flourish?
Since then we’ve been working with Dudley Council and Butterfly Conservation to improve, not only the original small patch, but also the habitat further along Roman Road. We’ve planted wildflowers along the footpath, cleared invasive species, put up a new fence and those wildflower seeds have just been sown on the South Road/High Park Avenue island. We’ve received a Community Award from Stourbridge in Bloom, a shiny noticeboard from Natural England and funding from Stourbridge Waitrose Community Matters, Blakey’s Eastern Promise restaurant in Lye and a very kind legacy. We’re really just getting started and we’d love to hear from anyone who’d like to get involved. Please see our About page for more information on how you can get in touch.
It still surprises me how little was known about the moth and its presence here is rather puzzling. Local Butterfly Conservation member and Scarlet Tiger Project volunteer, Patrick sent me an informative link to an article in the Amateur Entomologist from someone who had made a study of them, including raising them, and he concluded that they liked damp conditions and have a wide range of food plants, thus they are very adaptable and better able to deal with changes. However, they are usually in woods and coastal regions. I know I thought the first caterpillar I found might have been dropped by a bird! They obviously have a liking for the Alkanet and the only other reason I can come up with is that they found me!
Joy, Scarlet Tiger Project Head Honcho.