Beautiful bounty: encounter precious winged jewels

Discovering the moths that live around us is like stumbling on a haul of hidden treasure, writes Emma Robertshaw

These creatures wouldn't be out of place in a tropical paradise - discovering that they live in your back garden is jaw-dropping

"Wooaaah!" cried the group of six city children in unison when Alan lifted the lid on his haul of treasure.  They couldn't have been more impressed had they discovered jewels, shiny crowns and lavish finery. Instead, what they were confronted with was even more astonishing and every bit as thrilling: Brussels lace, The Coronet, Beautiful Golden Y, Rosy Footman, Heart & Club - amazing moths bearing lyrical names evocative of another era.

Our very own Long John Silver - one of the children later called him Superman - had engineered this Treasure Island moment by setting up a moth trap in a Sussex garden the night before.  We'd been camping out in one of the surrounding fields and had intended to prepare our own moth-attracting wine ropes - but a downpour had us heading for the discomfort of our tent. Fortunately, Alan Batten, a Sussex entomologist had already made plans to repeat the moth recording that he last did in this garden in 2009.

Using specialist equipment - egg trays (for shelter) placed in a large, doughnut-shaped box with an enticing UV light left on overnight - he attracted 64 species, 14 more than the last count, including the spectacularly large and colourful Privet Hawk-moth, Elephant hawk-moth and Eyed Hawk-moth. These creatures wouldn't be out of place in a tropical paradise - discovering that they live in your back garden is jaw-dropping.

Alan carefully picked up the trays which held the sheltering moths and showed the children how to encourage them - with great care - onto their hands.  The kids had spent most of the weekend running wild through woods, play fighting and sharpening spears with penknives.  Now they changed from combative to reverential.  Bewitched, they gently held and marvelled at the moths before helping them to fly into the surrounding hedgerows.

Looking up some of these beauties later, the varieties of nature that moths thrive on becomes apparent.  As gardeners we're told that night-scented flowers such as evening primrose and honeysuckle are good for providing nectar.  Digging deeper, there's more to discover: that lichens and our native trees and the species that thrive in our hedgerows, wild meadows and pastures are all individually vital for different larvae to grow on - Brussels Lace and Rosy Footman need lichens that grow on trees, larvae of Buff Arches feed on bramble, Pebble Hook-tip on birch or alder, The Coronet on ash and so on... countless dependencies hidden in the wild - precious treasures indeed.

You can find out how to encounter moths in your garden too.  Visit Our Garden Wildlife pages for top tips on making the most of your garden at night.