Quantock Hills Blog

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

- The mottled umber moth caterpillar has been munching through the Quantock combes

Rebekah West

Posted by Rebekah West on 30 June 2015

The Very Hungry Caterpillar A couple of weeks ago, a lady sent some pictures through Facebook of the woodland at Shepard’s Combe and Lady’s Edge in the Northern Common. The lady described a worrying amount of defoliation of the oak trees that was being caused by a caterpillar.

When I saw her photos, I was very surprised at the extent of the damage.  The next day I headed for Hodders Combe to take a closer look.  Walking up the combe, you wouldn’t have noticed anything was amiss, but as I took the right fork leading up Lady’s Edge it all became quite apparent.  Most of the leaves on the oak trees had been nibbled away, with some of the silver birch also being targeted.  As I stopped, I noticed that you could actually hear the many caterpillars tucking into the leaves!  Some of them were descending on silken lines from their lofty dinners and landing on the bilberry below.  Here, they were eating some of the bilberry leaves also.
Looking at the caterpillar, it wasn’t a species that I recognised, so I decided to take a few specimen for a couple of ecologists to look at and identify.  After a bit of research, we had a positive identification of the Mottled Umber Moth Caterpillar, Latin name: Erannis defoliaria.  Note the species name- it gives you a bit of a clue as to the nature of this caterpillar!  Interestingly, the female moth of this species is wingless and the male, like the caterpillar is very variable in colour.  The male is a late flyer, taking to the wing around October to December each year.

This type of defoliation is not uncommon, last year it occurred at Watersmeet in Exmoor and the trees have recovered very well this year.  The only time this might be a real cause for concern is if it happens year on year, thus weakening the tree more significantly.  There is a strong possibility that this outbreak will also benefit the wildlife of the combe, providing more food for certain birds like pied flycatchers and tits. 
I will certainly be keeping a close eye on this area to monitor how it recovers.  If you see anything like this in other areas, do let us know.  We would be interested to find out if it has occurred at other sites nearby.  Email us at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

This photo shows the extent of the defoliation from Longstone Hill



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