Nature 2008 August

Stingers, Suckers, Biters and other pesky critters

I set off writing this as Federer and Nadal take an extended rain-break on one of the few wet days for the last month or so but this has most likely set the pattern for the much of the summer to come with both hot, steamy and cloudy, cool days.

A question from a couple of visitors to our area from rural Georgia in the southern United States a month or two back got me thinking about the risks we run when we are out and about in the countryside. Walking down Parrotts Lane, we were forced to cling on to the bank as one of those unnecessarily large 4x4s tentatively negotiated a narrow stretch. As the car pressed by and we moulded ourselves snugly into the grass bank my friends nervously asked if we had any dangerous wildlife they should be aware of at this precise moment. No, I said reassuringly.

However as I said, this got me thinking as to what there is out there in the wilds of the Chilterns, which could trouble us. Well I guess the obvious place to start is with snakes. Of the three British species only the adder is of serious concern. Distinguished by the zig-zag down the back they are not normally aggressive and unless threatened, tend instead to slink away. If unfortunate enough to be bitten (although not normally life-threatening to humans or pets) medical attention is essential. Neither of the other two is venomous. Grass snakes, normally having a yellow or orange neckband, kill their prey by biting; often under water. Meanwhile, the very rarely seen smooth snake is, surprisingly, neither armed with poison nor a fierce bite but a constrictor, tackling the likes of mice and voles.

It is insects and other invertebrates that more often than not bring us grief. They fall into four types. The ‘stingers’ include that unwanted picnic guest, the wasp, which becomes increasingly irritable as the season progresses. The hornet, a close relative of the wasp, certainly packs a punch but despite its reputation steers away from troubling us if we in turn leave it alone. Meanwhile (Hollywood movies aside) bees have to be seriously provoked to retaliate.

The next group of insects are the ‘suckers’. All of these are pests of domestic animals, such as horse flies and midges and are doubly troublesome to us as being also carriers of serious diseases. Only the females bite in order to obtain blood for protein as part of egg production. Nowadays, mosquitoes in Britain no longer carry malaria but one hundred and fifty years ago during Victorian times this was a major cause of death in the Kentish marshes before these areas were drained.

The third group are the ‘biters’, ranging from centipedes that use their front legs to insert poison into the skin, to the water spider that can also inject venom with a painful bite, leaving you with an inflammation similar to a bee sting.

The fourth group are best described as the ‘pesky critters’. Brown-tail moth caterpillars have barbed hairs which when brushed against can cause anything from a mild rash to headaches and nausea. Meanwhile beware of sitting on a mound made by woodland red ants. Do so and you may experience multiple bites followed, if you are unlucky, by stinging, and if you are still around they will spray you with formic acid for good measure. For most of us such attacks result in a relatively mild reaction caused by our bodies producing histamine; but for a few, just a small amount of venom or anticoagulant can cause anaphylactic shock where urgent medical attention is needed.

Dangers are also lurking for us in the world of plants. There are just three contact poisonous plants in Britain. I’ll just mention stinging nettles only in passing. Next on the list has to be giant hogweed that contains a phytotoxin, which reacts when the skin is exposed to sunlight and causes blisters and longer term scarring. The third is only a threat if you fancied a quick dip in one of our ponds. Blue-green algae, which is present in both fresh and seawater will, if confronted when swimming, affect our eyes and provide an all over body rash.

Apart from some over-friendly highland cattle and some inquisitive ostriches, the only large animals I could come up with were the occasional sightings of wild boar! Mind you a regular contributor of interesting local observations (P. Dice) has passed on that there has been a sighting of a very large black cat (of puma-sized proportions) in the area, so keep a good lookout!

Meanwhile as we walked along the lane I learned from my American friend what they had to contend with in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains: ten different lethal snakes, cougars, lynx, wolves and bears. I’ll spare you all the spiders and insects and plants!

So what’s out and about this month? Down in the leaf litter under hedges, pigmy shrews, our smallest mammals, are rushing about in search of beetles etc. They weigh less than four grams (or one penny coin) and females must feed continuously to top up their metabolism as they produce at least five litters per season. Adult toads are on the move. They travel considerable distances in the Spring to find a breeding pool and at this time of year will be found in and around the ponds building back up their strength, stalking their food and using their sticky tongue to snare it, then blinking their eyes to assist the swallowing processes.

Swallows, swifts and martins will be making the most of the billowing clouds of insects wafting on the evening breezes. Last year was a disappointing one for butterflies. The cool wet weather prevented many adults emerging or having sufficient time on the wing to pair-up. So far this year things are looking up with a good supply of early summer ‘flutterbies’ making the right moves. Look out for fast flying day time ‘hummingbird’ and ‘bee’ hawkmoths visiting the flowers in August. They are very fast and look just like their respective names.

Take care driving along the lanes as dusk falls. There is a large number of young muntjac around straying naively onto roads away from the safety afforded by their mothers. Owls are also out hunting to feed their young and frequently sweep low along the high-sided verges, so are also vulnerable. Perhaps a collision with either of these will be the biggest risk you’ll run with the local wildlife, so take care!

Finally in the ‘Recently seen in the Hilltop Villages’ section (Puma’s aside that is). We seem to be a popular place this year for raptors, with more and more sightings of red kites and buzzards, plus some interesting chance observations of some smaller birds of prey engaged in aerial acrobatics over the woods in Hawridge Vale last month: and just before going to press, I have also just had a delightful report of one of this year’s cuckoos being fed by a pair of dunnocks.