Why Whittingehame?

This blog will document my efforts to record moths in and around Whittingehame Estate in 2019. But first some background: why have I chosen to focus some of this year’s moth-trapping efforts on this small valley in East Lothian?

For some time I have been aware of Alice Blanche Balfour (1850-1936), a woman who was born at Whittingehame Estate in East Lothian and spent much of her adult life there. She was, amongst other things, an accomplished entomologist with a particular interest moths. More details of her life and times can be found here. To me, as an active moth recorder based in East Lothian and living not that far away from Whittingehame, some of her moth discoveries are legendary: Great Brocade! Stout Dart! Portland Moth! If I even thought for a moment that she made these things up, the very specimens still exist and can be admired in the National Museums Scotland’s entomological collections.

A hundred years ago killing and pinning moth specimens and displaying the collection was the way moth recording was carried out, and perhaps just as well. For the modern entomologist, old specimens provide a wealth of important information and because Alice’s specimens were well curated and still exist it has been relatively easy to check and add some of her moths to Butterfly Conservation’s national moth database. Moth enthusiasts today continue to enjoy the list-making process, but their “collection” usually comprises a hard-drive full of photographs. Enhancing the value of Alice’s collection of specimens are her nature notebooks, documenting local expeditions, observations and dealings with other entomologists of the day. These are fascinating in their own right and make her moth-ing endeavours much more than a simple list of species and locations.

A page from Alice’s notebooks: lots of unknown pugs!

Whittingehame has had little if any moth recording since Alice’s day and situated where it is, midway between moorland and coast, it has potential for a nice variety of species. This, combined with the historical documents and specimens from 100 years ago make for an interesting “following in footsteps” kind of project. So that is what I’ve decided to do.

As the only unmarried sister, Alice spent much of her adult life managing and running the Estate for her bachelor brother (politician and brief-time Prime Minister Arthur Balfour). In that respect we have little in common. However, as keen-verging-on-obsessive moth enthusiasts, trying to balance the desire to spend as much time as possible finding and documenting East Lothian’s moths with domestic duties, perhaps we do have some shared circumstances.

Above: Some 21st Century methods for finding moths!

My project will be part history, following in the footsteps of an accomplished female entomologist of her day, treading the same ground in search of moths, butterflies and other insects. It will also be part science. For example, will I discover the same moth species that she did? Unlikely. It is well-documented that the abundance and distributions of UK moths are changing, but also the success of moth hunting is very weather-dependent, with good years and bad years so I’d be needing to do this for a while to have any scientific merit. The local landscape has changed too: the Estate is no longer as extensive as it was in Alice’s day and management of the surrounding farmland will have changed; probably not in any moth’s favour. Finally trapping methods have advanced in the last 100 years, most significantly with the development light traps. As a modern moth-er, I wouldn’t be without my various light traps but I will also use some “old fashioned” methods of finding moths such as sugaring and dusking. So although it will be difficult to meaningfully compare then and now, like for like, it will be interesting to see what differences I do discover.

I would like to thank the current Estate owners for supporting the project and allowing me and my lights easy access. Thanks also to the National Museums Scotland for letting me study Alice’s collections and notebooks.

Whittingehame Water in winter