6 – The Clifden Nonpareil

Clifden Nonpareil, credit to Harald Süpfle, via Wikipedia

The Clifden Nonpareil (also known, rather obviously, as the ‘Blue Underwing’), Catocala fraxini, has been ‘known in Britain since at least 1740’ (Heath, 1983). The earliest account I can find of this moth is from 1749, in Benjamin Wilkes’ wonderful, succinctly titled book  – The English Moths and Butterflies : together with the plants, flowers and fruits whereon they feed, and are usually found ; all drawn and coloured in such a manner, as to represent their several beautiful appearances ; being copied exactly from the subjects themselves, and painted on the best atlas paper ; together with an attempt towards a natural history of the said moths and butterflies.

I was planning on quoting the bit about the Clifden Nonpareil below, but I think a picture actually does the text better justice:


Wilkes' original description of the Clifden Nonpareil

Wilkes’ original description of the Clifden Nonpareil


As can be read above, the moth was first found in Clifden (or ‘Cleifden’, as Wilkes spells it) in Buckinghamshire; in modern times now spelt ‘Cliveden’. The ‘Nonpareil’ part of the name comes from the French for ‘without equal’. Essentially, in modern-speak, the moth is ‘Cliveden’s moth without equal’. Good name. (Interestingly, ‘nonpareil’ shares the same French root word as ‘umpire’)


This early record, however, probably does not relate to a resident individual. Indeed, the Clifden Nonpareil was probably only ‘temporarily resident [in Britain] in aspen woodland probably from about 1935 to 1964.’ (Heath, 1983). This expansion in range was probably due to favourable climatic conditions in the first half of the 20th century. In the 50’s and 60’s the climate again deteriorated, and ‘Several moths that had colonised southern England during the preceding period of favourable weather, now became extinct’ (Hawksworth, 2001).

It’s not all bad news though! There are possible indications that there may be a few, small fledgling colonies in Suffolk. Perhaps we are now in the grip of a recolonisation by this absolutely stunning beast.


EDIT: As always, I shun rewriting articles. After writing the text above, I contacted the moth recorder for Sussex regarding the current status of the moth in the county. Colin Pratt, the aforementioned recorder, provided me with a wealth of information and I am now forever in his debt.  The following quote from his book summarises the current status of the Clifden Nonpareil in Sussex:

A scarce immigrant now well established in both vice-counties since 2001 or 2005, the species continues to be repeatedly reported in the far east and freshly in the south-western corner of Sussex’ (Pratt, 2013)

So this post has actually ended up being about the recolonisation of a former resident – perhaps the Clifden Nonpareil would be better termed a ‘transitory resident’?

The larval foodplant is aspen, Populus tremulosa, and the adult moth is/was on the wing from August to September. And, speaking of wings, the wingspan of this rascal is in the range of 75 – 95mm. I’d love to see one someday in future.  I can’t shake the idea that if you licked it, it would taste of Parma Violets. Hopefully I will have the strength of will to resist the urge to find out.



Hawksworth, D. L. (2001) The Changing Wildlife of Great Britain and Ireland, Taylor & Francis Ltd., London.

Heath, J. (1983) The Moths and Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland: Noctuidae (Cuculliinae to Hypeninae) and Agaristidae, Harley Books, Essex.

Pratt, Colin (2013) Supplement Number Two to A Complete History of the Butterflies and Moths of Sussex, self-published.