Ter­ri­fy­ing beasts

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.

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: JENNY WAL­TERS IL­LUS­TRA­TION: STEVEN HALL

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.

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