Terrifying in myth, but fascinating in life. Walk on to discover glow-inthe-dark birds, a witch in disguise, and a beetle that casts spells.
Glow-in-the- dark birds?
It flies through the darkness with eyes as black as night, a ghostly pale shape on silent wings, a creature that can spin its head to see behind: it’s little wonder our ancestors feared the barn owl. Hear its blood-curdling screech on a walk and you’ll fully understand why they called it the demon owl; it’s a far cry from the friendly twit-twoo of the tawny, another of Britain’s five native species. Today owls represent wisdom and it’s a treat to see this foot-tall bird with its buff back and wings quartering low over open country at dusk, using its acute hearing to hunt voles and shrews. There are even reports of barn owls glowing in the dark – possibly from bioluminescent fungi on their feathers from the hollow trees where they nest.
Since hissing into Eden the snake has been cast the villain: inscrutable, slippery, venomous. The adder is the only of Britain’s three native serpents to strike with poison, though, and it’s a handsome coil of shining scales any shade from white to red to black, with a dark zig-zag down a spine that can be two feet and 400 vertebrae long. Eyes are red, and it can sense prey by the warmth of their blood, vibration, and scent detected by its forked tongue. The quick hit of fangs injects a dose lethal to voles, frogs and ground-nesting birds; it then opens its loose jaw to gulp down prey far fatter than its face, helped by backward sloping teeth. Adders are shy and only strike people in finalditch self-defence; there hasn’t been a fatal bite since 1975. Now is your last chance to see them basking before winter, when they slither into old rabbit warrens to hibernate.
When peeved, the inch-long black beetle known as the Devil’s coach horse curls its abdomen up like a scorpion and flexes its fearsome jaws. Legend says the tail lays a hex on whoever it points at, or that a look alone will kill you. In reality it doesn’t sting, although you may get a whiff of a stinking fluid from its abdomen, and any bite will hurt. Part of the vast family of rove beetles – named for their wandering habits – it mates in autumn, laying eggs in the leaf litter which hatch into carnivorous larvae. This bug even has its own horror story, written by Richard Lewis, but it’s nothing on the bombardier beetle which releases a bomb of boiling chemicals with a pfut you can hear. You might be glad to know those beauties are rare in Britain. And then there’s the sexton – or undertaker – beetle, which burrows under freshly-dead animals, drags their corpse into the hole and lays its eggs in the rotting flesh. Gruesome, but a crucial cog in the ecosystem.
Arachnophobes look away now. The spider is a trope of the horror genre and one of few creatures that can make grown-ups scream, but it’s no threat to humans, at least not here, instead catching flies and other bugs that bug us. Britain is home to 650 species from the tiny money spider which can balloon for miles on a silken thread, to the rare cardinal spider which is four inches across. The water spider weaves a silken diving bell it fills with air bubbles to live underwater; the flower crab spider changes colour like a chameleon as it lies in wait on a blossom; zebra jumping spiders have the best eyesight of any invertebrate; male wolf spiders do a little dance to impress the ladies (stakes are higher than Strictly as she’ll attack if she doesn’t like it). Spiders are most noticeable on walks now as autumn dew pearls their cobwebs and they’re on the hunt for a mate – a quest that can bring them indoors. Conkers in the corners are said to keep them away.
Bram Stoker’s to blame for this creature’s scary reputation today, but the history goes back further than Dracula, based on unfounded fears of some bats’ fangs and blood-supping habits. 18 species are found in Britain (none of them vampire), although some like the greater mouse-eared are vanishingly rare. Bats here live on insects and save farmers a fortune in pesticide; our most plentiful species, the five-gram common pipistrelle, can catch up to 3000 bugs a night. Despite the ‘blind as...’ saying, bats can see although they rely mostly on echolocation – sounding into the darkness and using the returning echo to suss the scene. Bats are the only mammal that can fly, with their bony-fingers linked by stretched skin to form wings. You may spot them swarming near roosts of an autumn evening, as they mate now before heading into hibernation.
How can this lanky-legged, long-eared herbivore be scary? Surely seeing one of Britain’s two species on a walk, brown or mountain, is a thrill? Turn back time and hares were thought to be witch’s familiars, witches in disguise, child snatchers or the devil himself. Maybe it was the hare’s liking for shadowy, nocturnal light, or how it vanishes (drops into a scrape in the ground), or runs faster than any other British animal (up to 40mph), or its famed March madness (a mating ritual). Autumn is a top time to spot mountain hares, as fur turns white for winter but before the snows arrive.