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Cinnabar Caterpillar

Cinnabar Caterpillar.
Nature is glorious in the sunny months of May, June and July - blooming and blossoming in the wildlife garden, large green spaces, parks and nature reserves.

Cinnabar Caterpillar. Nature at High Elms Chalk Grasslands. Kent.
Cinnabar Caterpillar. Nature at High Elms Chalk Grasslands. Kent.

It should not have been a surprise to see such a striking caterpillar at the High Elms Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which is just along the road from the home of Charles Darwin and historically shares some its wildlife and botanical species with his own local meadows to make this a particularly beautiful an interesting corner of Kent - but it was!

The caterpillar was instantly spotted at the top of these dazzling yellow buds of a ragwort that were growing along the side of a trodden path, not too far from a conservation wildflower meadow - 'Chalk Grasslands'.

It would have come from a large batch of eggs, laid by a cinnabar moth, on the underside leaves at the base of the ragwort. As it matured, it would have moved away from the crowd to find more food for itself; the caterpillars climb towards the top of the plant, so perhaps the others weren't too far behind!

Ragwort is a British native plant and paints a bold splash of colour across fields and meadows, but it is poisonous and must be removed from sites used for grazing, or those which make use of the meadow grasses as hay. As the Cinnabar caterpillar eats the ragwort, it consumes the toxins and becomes poisonous itself. The moth's noticeably red appearance serves as a warning to ward off predators - and it has a bitter taste too, which helps keep it safe.

It was surprising to see such a fair-sized caterpillar so exposed at the top of the flowers but, as a caterpillar, it seems to have little to worry about.

Although its main predator is the cuckoo, and the local wood to where it was found is called 'Cuckoo Wood', which suggests there might be plenty of cuckoos to feast upon the ragwort - cuckoos are in decline, with their UK Conservation Status set as 'red' (by RSPB).

The cinnabar caterpillar's main threat, it seems, is that it might run out of food!

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Nature art workshops throughout August in Kent. Contact BEECHE (Bromley Environmental Education Centre at High Elms) for further information and bookings.

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