Here we report a lepidopteran system in which a pathogen is both abundant and genotypically variable. Geographically separate populations of winter moth (Operophtera brumata L.) were sampled in heather habitats on the Orkney Isles to investigate the prevalence of a pathogen, O. brumata Nucleopolyhedrovirus (OpbuNPV), within the natural system. Virus was recorded in 11 of the 13 winter moth populations sampled, with two populations suffering mortality due to virus at levels of ⩾50%. The virus genome from 200 single insect isolations was investigated for variation using restriction endonuclease digests. Twenty-six variants of OpbuNPV were detected using SalI. The polyhedrin gene of the virus was partially sequenced, allowing the relationship between the 26 variants to be portrayed as a cladogram. The phylogenetic relationship between OpbuNPV and other known baculovirus polyhedrin gene sequences was also established. The discovery of virus at such high prevalence is discussed with reference to occurrence and genetic variation of pathogens in other lepidopteran host populations. This study shows encouraging results for further studies into the role of pathogens in the regulation of host insect populations.