Saturday 22 October 2016

In praise of the lowly moth

How expert Heather Greer shows us that the butterfly's cousin is just as lovely

Published 07/08/2016 | 02:30

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

Everyone loves butterflies - but moths? We tend to think of moths as our enemies - we buy moth repellent to kill off moths and their eggs, so that our winter woollies (they love cashmere) are protected from their depredations.

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But Heather Greer has opened my eyes to the charms of the moth, with her study of the moths and butterflies of Connemara. Many moth species have lovely names - the Emperor Moth, the Peach Blossom, the Common Emerald, the December Moth (known in Irish as Leamhnan na Samhna, or Hallowe'en Moth) and pretty colouring to match.

Heather has a special reason, perhaps, for embracing the oft-despised moth. She's a trans-sexual (she changed from male to female in the 1980s, making the "final stage" of the journey in 1990) and she feels a sense of identification with the moth and its lowly status. The moth has had such a bad press! We abhor moths without knowing much about them: but only about three moths out of 4,000 species are clothes-eaters. The vast majority eat plants, grasses, brambles and a wide range of herbaceous perennials. The main culprit for clothes-eating is the tiny Brown House moth: Heather emphasises that "99.999pc of others are totally innocent!"

She adds: "They bring only pleasure to our souls, if we but let them!"

The moth is a cousin of the more cherished butterfly, whom most of us love (although a few people have a phobic fear of the butterfly, too): they are part of the common order of Lepidoptera and when examined up close, both the moth and the butterfly are astonishing creatures. We know how exquisite the Red Admiral and the Painted Lady butterflies are, though they are infrequent visitors to Connemara because there is not quite enough shelter and the salty sea-air isn't always congenial to them: they prefer the Burren in Co Clare. Since most butterflies migrate from warmer climes the south-east of Ireland is probably the most popular location for the species, most numerously from May to October.

Yet, a surprising variety of moths and butterflies are seen in Connemara, and Heather has photographed them in stunning detail in her book On Your Doorstep - Moths and Butterflies of Connemara.

Her fascination with moths began on a mild summer night in the early 2000s. She was in the kitchen of her home near Cleggan, when she caught sight of an amazing array of moths by moonlight, and she was struck by the delicacy of their tiny anatomies and the intricate design of their wings. From that moment, she was hooked, and joined Moth Ireland, a group of moth enthusiasts - there really is a group for everyone.

Heather's background was in engineering and management, where she was successful, but she has had her ups and downs in life - and in that, too, she feels a kinship with the moth and the butterfly, whose lives can be devoured by predators or nature's hazards. She grew up in Howth, though her parents had originally come from England: her father managed a factory in Finglas, Unidare, and all the family were Salvation Army.

As a male, she married and had a daughter and a son, and she has recently become a grandparent (her book is dedicated to Freddie, her new baby grandson). Her Sally Army parents weren't entirely thrilled when she took the decision to change sex, but eventually there was an element of acceptance. Her father was "a hard-driven" type of man; her Mum, who "half-understood" the trans-change, was terrific and always warm-hearted. Heather herself felt that the sex-change wasn't a matter of courage - she just "had to do it. There was no alternative."

She separated from her original spouse, and for some years she was alone - "I felt genderless, sexless, for some time". But then she met Mary Lovett from Galway, her present partner, and they're settled together in Cleggan - "a place I love in a way that I've never loved anywhere else." Mary, who is a keen gardener, is brilliant with the moths and butterflies, too, and - great excitement! - identified the presence of a Death's Head Hawkmoth, which is very rare in the west of Ireland (and is lovingly photographed in Heather's book, which Heather says should really cite Mary as co-authored).

Heather - who has a PhD and thus a "Dr Greer" - published the book herself under the imprint of Matador. The naturalist Michael Viney has written a foreword, and all the main bookstores in the Connemara area are now stocking it. (It can also be ordered through the website

At 70, Heather Greer has embarked on a new career - as a specialist in the botany, geology and geography of Connemara. She's always had an interest in, and a commitment to, issues around climate change, and has chaired energy research groups, too, so she benefits from her science background. Connemara is a rich source for natural and geological research, being on the edge of the earth's terrain where two continents divided (the north of Ireland is geologically part of a different continent from the south of Ireland - wouldn't you know?).

Her next book, which she is now well into, is about the history, geography and biography associated with Omey Island, which was probably inhabited some 6,500 years ago, and where, as it happens, my grandmother Mary Conroy was born in 1870.


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