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Excited volunteers discover rare ‘moonshiner’ beetles by torch-light in Brecks car park

PUBLISHED: 08:07 20 February 2020 | UPDATED: 12:51 21 February 2020

The rare wormwood moonshiner beetle has been found at two new sites in Breckland. The beetle is pictured on its field wormwood food plant. PIcture: Brian Eversham

The rare wormwood moonshiner beetle has been found at two new sites in Breckland. The beetle is pictured on its field wormwood food plant. PIcture: Brian Eversham

Brian Eversham

It’s one of the UK’s rarest beetles, and it only comes out at night – so wildlife volunteers were thrilled to discover the elusive wormwood moonshiner at two new Breckland sites.

Phoebe Miles, previously the Shifting Sands project officer, torch-surveying field wormwood plants in Breckland. Picture: Natural EnglandPhoebe Miles, previously the Shifting Sands project officer, torch-surveying field wormwood plants in Breckland. Picture: Natural England

Conservationists said 2019 was a "fantastic year" for the enigmatic beetle, named after its nocturnal habit of feasting on the ripening seed heads of the field wormwood plant, a fellow rare speciality of the Brecks.

The wormwood moonshiner hadn't been seen in the UK since 2011 until a new population was discovered in 2018 on green space within a Mildenhall housing estate.

Volunteers taking part in the Lottery-funded Back from the Brink Shifting Sands project returned to College Heath Road in autumn and found an "incredible" total of 72 beetles - the second highest count for the species on record.

But they were even more excited to find two new sites for the wormwood moonshiner in the following weeks. A single beetle was found at Forestry England's Mildenhall Warren on a large mature field wormwood plant and, a month later, two beetles were found on Brandon's London Road Industrial Estate on field wormwood plants which had made their home in the car park of an industrial unit.

The rare wormwood moonshiner beetle has been found at two new sites in Breckland. The beetle is pictured on its field wormwood food plant. PIcture: Brian EvershamThe rare wormwood moonshiner beetle has been found at two new sites in Breckland. The beetle is pictured on its field wormwood food plant. PIcture: Brian Eversham

This followed the designation of the industrial estate as a County Wildlife Site and Roadside Nature Reserve, thanks to the collaboration of nature conservation partners in the Shifting Sands project, which aims to safeguard the future of rare Breckland wildlife.

Jamie Robins, projects manager for nature charity Buglife, said: "It's really exciting to find new sites for such a rare beetle, particularly after a number of years with no sightings and its disappearance from previous strongholds. This goes to show what Back from the Brink can deliver - volunteers armed with just torches, warm clothes and a bit of knowledge have made a really valuable contribution to conservation."

Pip Mountjoy, project officer for Shifting Sands at Natural England, said: "The discovery of new wormwood moonshiner sites is fantastic news for Breckland wildlife. The beetle is one of our Brecks specialists, and one of many endangered plants and animals that are only found here. It's a really special place, reflected by the passionate volunteers that are working to protect it."

The wormwood moonshiner was lost from large areas of the Brecks as traditional land management practices changed, leading to the disappearance of its field wormwood foodplant.

A volunteer torch-surveying field wormwood plants in Breckland. Picture: Natural EnglandA volunteer torch-surveying field wormwood plants in Breckland. Picture: Natural England

The Shifting Sands project says that until drastic management intervention in 2018, wormwood had also been nearly entirely lost from the modern stronghold for both species - a postage stamp sized Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on the London Road Industrial Estate in Brandon, prompting concerns for its long-term future as a UK species.

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