A RARE species of moth has been spotted in Sussex after a lifetime’s absence.

Experts believed the hornet moth had become extinct in the county until enthusiast David Noble caught it on camera.

The species, which burrows into trees as a caterpillar and can take years to emerge, had not been seen in Sussex since 1945. This is only the second confirmed sighting this century.

Bob Foreman, moth specialist at Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre, said: “We got a call on our hotline from a gentleman in Peasmarsh who had seen something unusual.

“When he posted photographs of the insect on the Sussex moth page, we just gasped. We couldn’t believe it was a hornet moth.

“This is a really rare sighting: I have to confess I’ve never seen a live one in the flesh.

“They’re fantastic mimics and easy to mistake for the hornets they ape to deter predators.”

Mr Foreman said the moth copies a hornet’s yellow-brown colouring, clear wings, and jerky flight pattern.

And they are the same size as hornets, with a wingspan of about 30mm — just bigger than a 2p coin.

He said: “They’d make a tasty meal for a mouse, a bird, or frankly anything that would encounter them. Their bright disguise helps them to survive.”

Mr Foreman noted a few reasons for the species’ elusiveness.

He added: “They’re extremely slow growing, with a low nutrient diet. They belong to a family of wood-boring moths. Their caterpillars feed on poplar trees, burrowing deep into their trunks. It can take seven years for them to emerge as flying insects, so it could have been a few years since there were actually adults around.”

The moth’s mastery of disguise could also have helped it remain off-radar. But Dr Foreman said there were plenty of detectives on the case.

He said: “We’re blessed with a very active mothing community in Sussex. There are a lot of us looking out for seasonal highlights like this. We had a man spot an oleander hawk moth on a hedge in Worthing Station recently. And because we’re close to the continent, we get a lot of exotic visitors, too. Things just turn up. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled. This is such an exciting moment for moth-folk. The hornet moth only flies for a few weeks. I’ll be holding out for one.”

Sussex is one of the best places in the country to find moths as it is home to more than 70 per cent of the UK’s 2,500 species. A number of legally protected moths can only be found in the region – including the Sussex emerald and the Rye marsh mallow.

Those hoping to spot the insects can join the Sussex Moth Group – and, from July 19, take part in the Butterly Conservation charity’s survey, the Big Butterfly Count.

Participants record the butterflies and day-flying moths they see in a 15-minute period. The project aims to protect the insects: two-thirds of the UK’s larger moth species are in decline due to habitat loss, agriculture, and air pollution, among other causes.

David Attenborough, the charity’s president said: “Plant a few pots in your garden or on your window ledge with the right plants and you can provide butterflies, moths and other pollinating insects with a lifeline of food and shelter.

“Or if you have space, why not let a small patch of grass grow out rather than mowing it short; leave a patch for nettles and brambles to flourish.”