30 Nov 2021

Wild About Wildlife: March of the hairy mollies

Wild About Wildlife: March of the hairy mollies

The tiger moth caterpillar has decrease dramatically in numbers over the last few decades

I was chatting to a neighbour about swallows. Over the last few weeks they have left the skies above my house in the village and moved up onto higher ground.

This is for purely practical reasons as the fields around his hilly farm are only now being cut.

The swallows are following the insects and this will be their last stop before heading off for Africa. Another farmer also informed me that his last brood of swallows have just fledged. The young will need all of September’s fine weather and insects to fatten up for their long migration. Judging by the amount of tractors trudging up and down the roads there should be plenty of insects for them.

My friend also mentioned that he had seen lots of “hairy mollies”. This refers to the hairy caterpillars of mainly moths that appear at the end of summer. The unusual name comes from the Irish word “mala” for eyelashes. The caterpillars do bear a resemblance to a walking eyelash.

I have seen two hairy mollies over the last few weeks marching across the road. They used to be a lot more common and I remember as kids playing with my friends in our neighbourhood. At this time of the year we entertained ourselves by gathering up the caterpillars. We never made a dent in their population as each day brought new waves from the grassy verges.

They were carefully placed in a biscuit tin with some dock leaves and grass as in our innocence this is what we thought they ate. I did not realize that they were on the way to pupate and make a snug cocoon for the winter. Their eating days were behind them.

Most escaped through a loose fitting lid or where released when we were at school and out of our parents’ hair. Very occasionally when I opened the lid I would find a cocoon stuck onto the top of the lid. I can never remember if they reached adulthood but it certainly helped foster a curiosity around insects that I still have to this day.

Most of the hairy mollies belong to moth families like the garden tiger moth. When I first ran a moth trap in my garden over 20 years ago the tiger moths were common. I have not seen one in years and their population is crashing. Some sources also include the caterpillars of the small tortoiseshell butterflies as hairy mollies.

While it might appear dangerous for caterpillars to move during the day especially with so many hungry birds around, they are very well protected by their coarse stiff hairs that make them inedible to most birds. The cuckoo is the exception, and it can feast on the hairy caterpillars.

Like many insects, populations are falling and we can help by conserving native hedgerows, planting native trees and leaving patches for nature to sort and sow native flowers and grasses.

Upcoming events

Limerick Birdwatch: Saturday, September 21 - Outing to Tarbert and Blackrock visiting other sites. View waders, gulls and many other species in the various habitats. Covering many types of terrain so good footwear and warm clothing essential. Bring packed lunch if visiting all sites, as this is a day-long event but people can opt out at any stage. Meet at Tarbert Visitor Centre at 9.30am. Leader: Davey Farrar

Loop Head outing: On Saturday, October 5 - Joint outing with Clare Branch to Kilbaha and Loop Head. View migrants and vagrants along the gardens in Kilbaha and Loop Head. Meet at Keating’s Bar area 9am. Anyone arriving later will find people along the road towards Loop Head.

Lunch available in Keating’s Bar or bring packed lunch. Leaders: Clodagh Glasgow and John Murphy

For More or 089 4230502. Albert is also available to do walk/talks with schools, tidy towns, youth and community groups

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