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4 Feb 2019

Who you gonna call? Mothbusters!

Three people stand in a grand drawing room, holding small vacuum cleaners in the air.
Volunteer mothbusters at the National Trust for Scotland’s Newhailes House. L–R: Tom Harcke, Brenna Spray and Frank Chambers.
Large numbers of clothes moths are threatening to harm the historic collection at Newhailes House near Musselburgh.

This week we’re beginning our biggest ever management programme to rid the house of the insatiable insects, combining a deep clean with a deep freeze.

Two industrial freezers, each the size of a shipping crate, have been installed at the property. Over the next two months, the entire textile collection – from carpets and curtains to sofas, chairs and clothing – will undergo a sub-zero treatment to freeze and destroy the clothes moth eggs and larvae.

Items will be wrapped in acid-free tissue paper, then covered in polythene before being placed in the freezers where temperatures will drop to -35C (-31F). Staff will then use specialist back-mounted vacuum cleaners to reach in to every nook and cranny of the house to clean away the clothes moths.

Three people stand in a grand room in a country house. A polar bear rug lies on the floor. All three are holding vacuum-cleaner-type devices in the air, as well as wearing purple nitrile gloves.
Volunteer mothbusters wearing the specialist back-mounted vacuum cleaners at Newhailes House

Now in the care of conservation charity the National Trust for Scotland, Newhailes House was once home to the influential Dalrymple family, who gave the house its library, rococo interiors and collections of paintings, ceramics and furniture.

Staff at the property noticed a sharp rise in the ‘webbing clothes moth’ (or common clothes moth) in 2016 and have been managing the problem with localised treatment and targeted deep cleaning. Clothes moth numbers, and damage, have continued to increase and the organisation is implementing the freeze programme to protect the Newhailes collection.

The charity has used freezers to destroy clothes moths at other properties but on a smaller scale using chest-sized freezers. The two 20ft-long (6m) freezers that are being deployed at Newhailes represent our biggest ever attempt to keep moth numbers down.

Two people carefully wrap a dining chair in plastic sheeting. They are in a room where the wooden floorboards are already covered by plastic sheets.
Mothbusters wrapping a chair before it goes into the freezer

Mel Houston, National Preventive Conservator at the National Trust for Scotland said: ‘This is the biggest project that the National Trust for Scotland has ever undertaken to tackle a pest problem like this and protect the important collections here at Newhailes. In the last year clothes moth numbers at Newhailes have exploded and we’ve seen a four-fold increase in how many we’re finding. We’re lucky to have been able to catch the problem at just the right time, when we’re able to do something to control the moths before really serious damage is done.

‘The deep freeze and deep clean gives us the confidence that we’re killing off as many clothes moths as we can. We’ll never get rid of them completely but we’ll be able to get down to the level where they can be controlled.’

A team of mothbusting volunteers has been recruited to work with the Trust’s collection and conservation team to undertake the low temperature treatment, deep cleaning of the historic interior, and collection movements.

Over the course of the project, we’ll run tours so members of the public can learn about the damage that the insects have caused and see the moth management programme in action.

Public tours will run on 6, 13, 20 & 27 February and 6 & 13 March. Tours will be 10–11.10am and 2–3.10pm; £8 per person; recommended age 14+.

A group of people, all wearing navy National Trust for Scotland tops, stand by the wall in a room in a country house. The room has bare floorboards and only one dining chair remaining in the middle of the room. The man in the middle of the group holds a pink omega-shaped sign which says LOVE National Trust for Scotland.
The mothbusting team in Newhailes House

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