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The alien invasion grows: now its poisonous spiders

Friday 17 October 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard felt quite at home with the spiders in his bathroom until he heard that poisonous species of the beast are invading Britain and setting up shop here because of climate change

SOME years ago, I was going through the tedious business of getting through immigration control at West Palm Beach airport in Florida when an almighty row broke out in the queue ahead of me.

Foreign spiders in the dales
Alien invasion: spiders

It involved a very large lady of Caribbean extraction, her even larger basket, and several red-faced and out of puff US immigration guards. The basket had become the subject of a tug o’ war between them when, in a great cloud of dust, bottles and clothing, it exploded.

Onto the floor shot a dozen or so plantains – a banana like vegetable that tastes like sweet potato – and the men in uniforms seized on them as though they had unearthed a major drug-haul.

The large lady was dragged off to some interrogation centre and, as I learned from enquiries later, she was put back on the plane she had arrived in, basket and all, and deported back home. All she had wanted to do was to take her Florida-based son some of the favourite vegetables she had grown in her own backyard.

The Americans, you see, are totally fanatical in trying to ban the import of seeds, vegetables and fruit, as well as living fish, mammals or fowl, into the USA because they understand only too well that they can bring in strange diseases which can decimate local crops and animal breeds.

I find this a bit of a hollow laugh from the Americans, the people who gave us the grey squirrel, the wild mink and the signal crayfish, but the Yanks are a pragmatic race. If foreigners wish to take the grave risk of their countries being over-run by alien species, let them get on with it – so long as no-one does to same to them in reverse.

This past week has brought alien species into sharp focus here in Britain. Scientists had asked for permission to import a sap-sucking bug from Japan so that it can drain the lifeblood from one of our most invasive plants, the Japanese knotweed (See News, Monday) but worse was to come.

Now I find the idea of importing more foreign pests to fight existing foreign pests highly alarming. The Australians tried it by bringing in huge five-pound toads from Hawaii to eat insects attacking their sugar cane. Now there are billions of the things, and you can’t drive on some of the roads in Queensland because the bodies of dead toads are as thick as slimy snow drifts.

For different reasons, the Normans brought us rabbits – now the bane of my allotment life – and we in turn gave them to the Aussies, where they cause even more trouble than the toads. But even that is not the punch-line to this week’s horrors.

This past week has brought alien species into sharp focus here in Britain. Scientists had asked for permission to import a sap-sucking bug from Japan so that it can drain the lifeblood from one of our most invasive plants, the Japanese knotweed but worse was to come.

It was revealed by the BBC that Britain is undergoing yet another alien invasion, and this time it is by poisonous spiders. Now I am OK with spiders: there is one in my bathroom which will stay there over winter and I chat with him/her n the morning as I shave.

I cannot claim to be an expert, but I am pretty sure this is not Steatoda paykulliana, or the false black widow which, by the looks of our picture, seems to have a part reddish body not dissimilar to that of a lady bird. This may not be a killer like the American black widow but it can sure as hell give you a nasty nip.

I hope, too, that its is not the tube web spider (Segestria florentina), another non-native with nasty green jaws that is probably the most dangerous spider in Britain with a bite that could give people with heart conditions a very nasty turn indeed.

Both these nasties, and possible even more yet un-discovered, have entered Britain either on cargoes of fruit or timber and there is nothing new about that: local newspapers have been reporting the discovery of tarantellas and the like in fruit bowls since the end of World War 11.

What is unusual is that these two beasts have set up home in England and are now breeding away happily, thanks to our warmer winters. And this week, several top bug experts complained that the Government was not doing enough to inspect incoming cargoes from suspect ports for potentially dangerous stowaways.

Now I know that you cannot be expected to catch every spider but there are surely boats coming in from destinations where such poisonous species are endemic. But, according to the charity Bug Life, we - unlike the Americans - take a “laissez faire” attitude to such matters.

Wait until someone dies as a result of a spider bite. Earlier this week, as unemployment began to climb, Gordon Brown suggested that the unemployed should go out and get jobs insulating people’s lofts. A better idea would be to train more dockside cargo inspector to insulate this country against alien invaders with an open-house invitation. They might even pick up the odd dug smuggler.

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