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Moth numbers have declined more in UK woodlands over the last half century than in any other habitat, according to a new study.

A team of scientists led from Rothamsted Research found that populations have more than halved in broadleaf woodland, compared to average losses of 34% across the rest of the country.

Habitat loss, pesticides and urban light pollution have all been implicated in insect declines, but these results show the greatest losses are occurring in broadleaf woodland, a UK habitat type that in fact increased in area during the study period and is relatively shielded from the effects of chemical and light pollution.

The authors – who also looked at the possibility that over-grazing by deer and less woodland management might be responsible - say the reasons for the declines are still unknown, but climate change may play a role.

Lead author, Dr Dan Blumgart said: “Climate change is known to have contributed to the national decline in moths and it is likely that this has driven at least part of the decline observed in woodlands.

“But this can’t explain why the declines have been worse in broadleaf woodland compared to other habitats. We might expect the shade provided by woodlands to help buffer against the effects of climate change, but that is clearly not the case.”

Based on data from more than 400 species and over eight million individual moths, the study looked at four indicators of moth population health in woodland and six other habitats over the period 1968-2016.

Alongside the number and total weight of moths collected from each species, the team measured species richness, which is a measure of the number of species, and species diversity, which takes into account the number of species present as well as how many individuals of each species there are.

Broadleaf woodland was the only habitat in which all four measures declined severely, with abundance down 51%, biomass down 52%, species richness down 14%, and species diversity down 15%.

This contrasted with smaller nationwide declines in abundance (34%) and biomass (39%), whilst species richness didn’t change, and species diversity actually increased by 10%.

These national figures for species richness and diversity are indicative that, despite their declining numbers, moths are expanding their ranges northward – another indication that climate change is impacting their populations.

Other habitats in the study included arable land, improved pasture and urban areas.

The decline in moth abundance within broadleaf woodland (-51%) was more severe than that of any other habitat, including intensively farmed habitats, with arable showing a 7%-, and improved pasture, a 28%, decline.

Further analysis showed that abundance in broadleaf woodland was stable up to the late-1980s, after which it declined severely, whilst losses from woodlands in the south were also greater than in the north.

The team also compared woodland moths based on their feeding habits, predicting that moths that feed on plants vulnerable to reduced management or grazing by deer would have been most likely to have declined.

“We thought that the decline in broadleaf woodlands could be due to changes that have resulted from less woodland management and increased deer density: namely, more shading and intensive grazing and browsing,” said Dr Blumgart.

“We hypothesised that these changes would have reduced the quantity of forbs, shrubs and shade-intolerant plants that are more vulnerable to grazing and shading, leading to a decline in moth species feeding on those plants compared to moths feeding on trees, grasses, lichens and shade-tolerant plants.”

Contrary to the hypothesis, species that feed on forbs and shrubs hadn’t declined in woodlands any more than those that feed on grasses, trees or lichens, he added.

The data for the study came from the Rothamsted Insect Survey, which has been monitoring UK insect numbers using a network of light traps since 1968.

A total of 8,829,484 moths from 266 sites over 49 years, were included in the habitat analyses, whilst a total of 10,963,959 moths belonging to 427 species from across 384 sites, and 49 years, were used in the analysis of feeding habits.

After broadleaf woodlands, the most severe declines occurred in urban areas, with a decline in abundance and biomass of 44% and 46%, respectively.

Despite these losses, species diversity in urban sites actually increased by 24%. Species feeding on lichen did especially well in urban areas, likely due to an improvement in air quality over this time which has helped lichen populations to increase.

The study is published in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity.


Dan Blumgart

PhD Student

Dr James Bell

Project Leader - The Insect Survey


Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries in areas as diverse as crop management, statistical interpretation and soil health. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative approach to developing innovative farm practice.
Through independent research, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally, with economic impact estimated to exceed £3 bn in annual contribution to the UK economy. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and multiple partnerships.
Rothamsted is home to three unique National Bioscience Research Infrastructures which are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests to push back the frontiers of biology and deliver a healthy, prosperous and sustainable future. Through our investments, we build and support a vibrant, dynamic and inclusive community which delivers ground-breaking discoveries and develops bio-based solutions that contribute to tackling global challenges, such as sustainable food production, climate change, and healthy ageing.
As part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), we not only play a pivotal role in fostering connections that enable the UK’s world-class research and innovation system to flourish – we also have a responsibility to enable the creation of a research culture that is diverse, resilient, and engaged.
BBSRC proudly forges interdisciplinary collaborations where excellent bioscience has a fundamental role. We pioneer approaches that enhance the equality, diversity, and inclusion of talent by investing in people, infrastructure, technologies, and partnerships on a global scale.


The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.