May has marked the arrival of butterflies and caterpillars in Rousay, something that we were very excited about. We have raised Painted Lady caterpillars in the past and all of my children thoroughly enjoyed watching them grow and make their big change into a butterfly. Since then we have had a real soft spot for these little guys.

We first noticed the Tiger Moth caterpillars, mainly because they are hard to miss! Ginger and black with long white hairs on top (see bottom of post), they are supposed to have declining numbers due to the pesticides being used on verges. They don’t have that trouble here and are thriving, we see several every time that we go out walking. I even found one just about to tuck in to my young chard plants this week. He was safely relocated to a healthy dandelion patch.

That’s the trouble with caterpillars – they are fascinating to watch, beautiful to look at, they grow into butterflies and moths which are so important for our gardens, but they eat the things that we are trying so hard to grow.

I particularly felt this, this week, when Wren and I were exploring the far reaches of our garden where the willows are densely packed. We spotted this handsome fellow, which we discovered later was a Magpie Moth caterpillar. As we were looking to see if we could find any more, I realised that the plant that he was happily munching, was a currant bush.

I was so pleased and when I started to look closer I realised that we had around twenty currant bushes growing in amongst the trees. We are trying to grow as much of our own food as we can, so finding mature fruit bushes was a real score. Unfortunately, the caterpillar that we had found had a large group of friends and relations, who were all busily munching our newly found currant leaves!

.I went back to the house, feeling a bit conflicted. I didn’t want to harm the caterpillars, but I did want the currants to have enough leaves to fruit. So I did some research and found that they were common all over the UK and that their favourite snack is the leaves of currant and gooseberry bushes. I also found out that in Orkney they have adapted to live on heather, mainly I should think, because people don’t grow a lot of fruit outside here, preferring to keep it safely tucked away in polytunnels.

That evening I went out with our 10 year old, Lark, armed with two large jam jars. We fought our way into the depths of the willow trees and started to pick the caterpillars off the currant bushes. Some of them were quite tricky to collect, because they seem to drop off the leaves if they notice you – saving themselves with a silken thread. We worked for about an hour and then returned to the house to cover the jars with net, leaving them a few leaves to keep them happy until morning.

The next day I walked up to the peat bog with Lark and Wren and our two jars filled with caterpillars. We released them onto the heather, all but three, who we have kept to raise and study over the next few weeks.

We had to return to our collecting the following night, to get all of the ones that we had missed and I think that I will keep a careful eye on those currant bushes from now on. We might have saved them from the caterpillars, but the birds are probably going to get all of the currants if I don’t come up with a plan before they are ready.

So caterpillars – friend or foe? I couldn’t tell you, but we will continue to enjoy them despite their unfortunate eating habits. After all, I have seen the look of joy on my children’s faces when they are small and they see the butterflies dancing through the air. That’s worth losing a few leaves for!