Country Diary: Finding a new pet among the broad beans


We’ve recently acquired a new pet! It won’t cost much to feed, and Tigga certainly won’t be jealous. Whilst picking our broad beans, I noticed that several leaves had been eaten, but I thought no more about them, until two caterpillars were observed – little and large! We’ve kept the larger one as it’s more active.

It’s the larva of the Vapourer Moth, which was originally only found in woods but is now seen in towns, and even in London feeding on plane trees.

The larvae enjoy eating a variety of deciduous trees, shrubs and hawthorn. We admired the attractive caterpillar – a steely grey, hairy body with a row of red spots, four cream ‘shaving brushes’ and assorted hairy ‘horns’ making it easy to recognise. The female moth is wingless, but the males are deep brown with darker lines, and a white spot in the corner of the wing. Strangely, the female remains in and on the cocoon all her life! She awaits for the male, which flies by day, to find her and mate with her. Eggs are laid on the cocoon and over winter.

More butterflies have been observed in recent weeks, and red admirals have caught one’s attention, having arrived from the Mediterranean.

Very few are able to hibernate through our winters, if severe, but more seem to do so nowadays. Their caterpillars feed on stinging nettles, but the handsome butterflies frequent the butterfly bush, buddleia davidil, and valerian etc. In autumn they love the juices from over-ripe plums and apples, found rotting in orchards.

A party of screaming swifts chased low over the rooftops recently. Their rapid, winnowing wing beats alternated with short glides. Mid-July is when young swifts join their parents in pursuit of thousands of insects. On leaving the nest, a young swift immediately heads south without its parents to guide the way. Soon – by August they’ll have vanished, and I’ll miss them.

We have several low-growing lavender bushes alongside the path. They’re so fragrant and welcoming. The aromatic flowers and stalks have been used for making potpourri for centuries. Their scents are said to be mildly saporific as well as pleasant. You may get a good night’s sleep if you place your head on a herb pillow filled with dried lavender. I just keep a small lavender bag close by.

Because of the warmth and pressure of the face, or head, herb pillows become more strongly fragrant the longer they’re lain on. I have experimented along these lines but with no conclusive results.

Now, it was the renowned hypochondriac King George III who popularised hop pillows. A pillow filled with hops may sometimes induce sleep when all other remedies have failed. George III hailed it a complete success!

It remains debatable whether hop pillows have any real effect, but in Kent the scent was certainly soothing. Good night.