As the world shuts down around us the uplifting role that wildlife plays in our lives becomes more vital than ever. So, for my own sanity as much as anything, I’m going to keep a daily diary of what I find around my garden. Photograph the wildlife you can see from your window or in your garden and post your pictures on the ‘Sussex Wildlife Trust Nature Table’ page.
"You told them you were mad. You had been mad since you saw something nasty in the woodshed, years and years and years ago." Extract from Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)
Well this has escalated quickly hasn’t it? Back in February I was sat in an Indian restaurant, struggling to finish my Chicken Tikka Masala and regretting ordering too many side dishes. Today I’ve been planting tomato seeds to help ensure we’ll have enough fresh food to eat in the future.
When we moved here about eight years ago we were thrilled to see that the bungalow came with a greenhouse. We had big plans of living The Good Life and growing our own tomatoes and chilli peppers, but that’s never really happened. The main reason for this is because one day, years and years ago I saw something nasty in the greenhouse.
Now, I’d do anything to get closer to wildlife. You can send me snorkelling with the sharks or push me into a pit of pythons and I wouldn’t blink. But whatever you do just don’t make me go into that greenhouse.
I have a confession to make. My name is Michael and I am arachnophobic. I am terrified of spiders. I know, I know. It’s completely irrational and ridiculous. Spiders are incredible animals; so diverse and fascinating. So why, when I find all other animals alluring, do these eight-legged arthropods make me so terrified that even writing this paragraph is sending an involuntary shiver down my spine?
Is my fear, as evolutionary psychologists believe, an inbuilt self-preservation instinct inherited from the cavemen? Is it a response conditioned by a spider-fearing society? Or is just because spiders have those creepy, long, hairy legs? I can trace my phobia back to a traumatic experience I suffered when I was a little boy – ever since then I start shaking whenever I enter a bathroom.
There are many spider species which have the audacity to share our homes (and greenhouses) uninvited but the real monsters belong to the genus Tegenaria – the house spiders. These spiders love dark, cool places - so when humans invented the concept of ‘indoors’ they happily followed us inside. There’s an easy way to identify the Tegenaria spiders. If you’re hyperventilating, swearing and sobbing while stood on a chair brandishing a mop then you’ve found one.
There are 9 Tegenaria species but the big daddy of the bunch is Tegenaria parietina AKA The Cardinal Spider (named after Cardinal Wolsey who apparently lived in fear of one of the eight-legged horrors of Hampton Court creeping up his cassock). Its leg span can reach a whopping five inches. Thankfully (for me) this species is rather rare and tends live in big, old buildings rather than bungalows.
Tegenaria are most active in the autumn. The mature males scuttle scarily along the skirting board looking for the bigger, even more frightening female. After mating he dies and then she eats him. A simple relationship but suitably horrific. She’ll then saunter around my house, giving me a minor heart attack as she passes by, before finding somewhere dark and cool to hole up until she lays her eggs in the spring.
Now that I’ve decided to ‘dig for victory’ and plant some tomatoes and peppers, the time has come. I have to evict my spider squatter. This greenhouse aint big enough for the both of us. Well, when I say ‘I’ will do it I don't actually mean me. I’m referring my incredibly brave wife.
Armed with an empty pickled onion jar and a 16 inch spider catcher, she courageously enters the greenhouse. After ten minutes of searching she finds her. Hidden at the back of the greenhouse on a rubble sack. My wife carefully captures the spider and carries her down the road in a jar where she is re-homed in the garage of a spider-friendly neighbour. I practice some ‘Spider Social Distancing’; standing about 400 metres away at the end of the cul-de-sac, trembling in fear.
(Photo: a 16" spider catcher. Still 84" too short if you ask me)
So now, after reclaiming the greenhouse from this tiny terror I am free to go about the relatively less scary task of getting through a global viral pandemic.
(Photo: The greenhouse. Spider-free...or is it?)
My wife did take a photo of the House Spider before it was re-homed. But I don’t want to put the photo up here on the diary in case any of you are as irrationally scared of small, harmless animals as I am.
But if you’re brave and you want to see her you’ll have to scroll down a bit further.
(Little bit further)
(I have to say I'm impressed with how brave you are)
(It's not too late - you can still turn back)
(Here she comes...)
OK, that one is from the 1975 B-Movie 'The Giant Spider Invasion'
So I think she is Tegenaria gigantea but I could be wrong. I do have the excellent book Britain's Spiders: A Field Guide but I find it hard even looking at the photos in it. It's crazy! Look at her, she's harmless and I'm 6 foot taller than she is! Spiders are such fascinating creatures - I'd love to know more about them. When I get through this pandemic I'm going to have to get some spider trauma therapy or something. I'll add it to my list of 'Things to do when this is over'.
Anyway, I bet this diary entry still wont get as many 'likes' on Facebook as the Dormouse one.