Scary wildlife this Halloween

PUBLISHED: 08:30 31 October 2019

Spiders' webs at first light. Picture: Rupert Evershed

Spiders' webs at first light. Picture: Rupert Evershed

Archant

I may not jump at the sight of a mouse or spider but I have been known to leap around at the sight of a leech!

A leech (Erpobdelliformes) photographed by acclaimed wildlife photographer and writer, Dr William J Weber.A leech (Erpobdelliformes) photographed by acclaimed wildlife photographer and writer, Dr William J Weber.

It's Halloween and pumpkins and a whole array of decorative paraphernalia have appeared in the shops. Today I absentmindedly tried to brush off what appeared to be a cobweb across the corner of the shop's card reader. It was a cobweb but a fake one, part of a larger edifice specially erected for Halloween. I quickly rearranged it to restore its cobwebby character noting an unrealistic tarantula lurking by the chewing gum.

Spiders are classically scary creatures as no doubt any arachnophobe will tell you, but for me, Halloween is a little incongruous with my usual experience of nature at this time of year. Real spiders' webs are exquisitely beautiful, especially when adorned with dew and back-lit by the rising sun. It is as if the morning mist has taken on material form and draped itself on grass and thorn.

In truth, very little of British wildlife is really scary - we have just one poisonous snake, moth-eating bats and harmless spiders. Some friends of mine recently returned from safari in Africa and recounted how their tracker had gone in search of some lion cubs and had been charged by two lionesses. He, however, stood tall, arms waving and shouted and, believe it not, they backed off!

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With such a demonstration of steely bravado it seemed this man was unshakeable and yet, as they drove on, the jeep passed over a snake lying in the road. It was a black mamba! Utter terror and panic overtook the formerly fearless tracker. Nothing it seemed held quite the threat of a black mamba.

Not only is it deadly poisonous - a single bite can kill a human within 45 minutes - but it is unusually wily and aggressive. The tracker apparently feared that the snake had latched itself onto the underside of the jeep and was now seeking them out: jeepers creepers! Needless to say they all survived but that day the walkie-talkies buzzed with the news as the tracker shared his worst nightmare with colleagues from other safari groups.

Such stories may make our wildlife seem very tame but that said it nevertheless has the power to occasionally scare us. The fear we feel is almost always a combination of the creature itself and a degree of hiddenness - perhaps dark - that shrouds its true threat (or lack of) and allows our imaginations to run wild.

This summer a friend of mine texted me with a sound recording he made whilst out wild camping with his young son. It was of a tortured rasping bark worthy of any werewolf, but listening I knew instantly that it was a Reeve's muntjac - a common and tiny little deer that bolts at the first sight of humans. Speaking to my friend later, he and his son had lain petrified in their sleeping bags at 4am believing they might have discovered the Herts monster!

Spiders' webs at first light. Picture: Rupert EvershedSpiders' webs at first light. Picture: Rupert Evershed

This is perhaps as dramatic as British wildlife gets in terms of scaring us but it is often the smaller creatures that really give us the heebie-jeebies. The worst of these (from my point of view) is the leech. Thankfully they are confined to streams and rivers in this country and hopefully I will never have to endure leech therapy used by the NHS. Of course, they are remarkable little creatures but with their squirming movements and blood-sucking goal they send shivers down my spine.

My worst encounters actually happened many years ago when trekking in Thailand. In the drenched rainforest they adorned every level of foliage like little waving needles. We all had to stop periodically to burn them off our clothing with cigarette lighters but they were quick and not easy to spot. I recall watching in horror as the waving tail of one disappeared down through my bootlace eyelet towards my foot. Returning to our camp I was relieved to be able to take a shower and check myself over for these little invaders, but there, in the middle of the shower, was a tiny waving brown thread: a veritable monster in my eyes!

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