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SPIDERS, RABBITS & OTHER HOUSEMATES

  photo: Luc Viatour Wikicommons

The spiders come first.

As soon as the sun sets behind the willows and over the canal that cuts off the chalet park from the rest of the Isle of Sheppey, and the light begins to dim, they abseil like a crack team of commandos down from the roof creating a skein of gossamer.

The first time I didn’t notice and walked through their trap, covering myself in sticky strands.

Next time, sitting inside in the gathering darkness, the lights out and the doors open to the elements, I watched them at work. The spiders live in the gaps at the top of the chalet where the double-glazed door and window units meet the flat, felted roof. It is not the tidiest bit of house building, everything a little bodged, and there are plenty of spaces, in cracks, crevices, fractured timber and weathered plastic, for the spiders to make their home. Whoever put the cabin together made do and mended with whatever they had to hand, so nothing fits tightly together, and the winds and rains and wildlife have all played a part in shifting the fabric of the building into its, for the most part, stable shape. Not that any of the chalets are ever entirely stable, and when winter comes, and the storms blow in across the estuary from the North Sea, they shake and creak like old boats. Sometimes they get blown away completely and break to pieces like a crumpled matchbox in the canal. A few days ago, the September winds were especially fierce and the heavy glass top of my immediate neighbour’s terrace table was lifted into the sky to smash into thousands of pieces against my chalet. Before sitting at my desk this morning, I went to clear the shards, and found a handful of magpies were already at work. Attracted by the fragments of glass glistening in the morning sun, they were removing them in their beaks one at a time, no doubt to adorn their nests along with all the other glittering prizes the birds are famed for collecting.

The top of the chalet is a perfect home to the spiders, spaces of sizes and shapes for every species; not as aesthetically pleasing to the human eye as one of Pablo’s bee and bug hotels at the London College of Fashion, but every bit as habitable. Facing south and so catching the sun from dawn to dusk, it is a warm and dry insect homestead. At first so numerous, surprising and gossamer sticky were the spiders and their webs that I sprayed citronella water around the chalet to discourage them, but my aversion did not last. Within weeks we were living in companionable proximity and I came to enjoy watching them being drawn out by the crepuscular light to create their traps in the setting sun. Their strands of gossamer are invisibly thin and perilously adhesive. The spiders know that it is as the water of the canal reflects the oranges and crimsons of the dipping sun, that their prey will come from their hiding places at the water’s edge, each a tiny Dracula in search of blood. As the spiders finish their work I close the door, sit with a glass of wine in hand, switch on the light, and wait.

Within moments they come from out of the darkness, midges and mosquitoes drawn to the light. During my first season in the shack, a pair of Canada Geese would come during the day and hammer on the windows with their beaks, no doubt in search of food which my predecessor had provided for them. These much smaller flying creatures come silently, almost as invisible as the webs which are set to trap them. If I unthinkingly come home at night and switch on the lights before closing the door, my room is filled with flying mosquitoes. Within moments it becomes a mission to swat them away and return the room to a space for relaxed human habitation. Otherwise their insistent buzzing becomes intolerable as they wait to take my blood or thrash around the lights, before being frazzled to death by the hot bulbs. Unlike their tropical relatives, who many a night travelling overseas have kept me confined behind mosquito nets in search of sleep or left me fretful of flu-like symptoms after being bitten on an ankle, our English mosquitoes no longer carry malaria. Once they did and this part of estuarine England was home to malarial mosquitoes from at least Roman times. Englands last colonies of malaria carrying mosquitoes lived on the Isle of Sheppey. Malaria would have been a common killer in Shakespeare’s time and it was not until the 1950s that this part of the country was finally free of the disease which remains the world’s worst killer. It was in 1952 that the last person known to have contracted malaria in England died of the disease. He was bitten, became infected and died on the island. My father, like many servicemen, caught malaria fighting in North Africa a decade earlier during the Second World War and never entirely escaped its symptoms till the day he died. Now, with global warming, the Anopheles mosquitoes carrying deadly malaria are moving ever closer to the shores of Britain, and it may only a matter of time before once again a mosquito bite in Kent could mean certain death. For now, the insects are just an irritant.

Drawn to the light of the cabin and, like me, unseeing of the webs spun to trap them, the mosquitoes come towards the light. Many are caught and dispatched by their spider hunters who scurry down and take them back to the darkness for eating. Other bash their brains out on the glass and are there to be found as blood red blobs in the morning. The rest escape only to return again the following evening and take part once more in the nightly death ritual.

A very few somehow make it through and into the chalet, no doubt when I put the milk out for the night, and bash around the light bulb until I turn it out, after which they drone their high pitched whine through the night, the lucky ones finding my exposed limbs as I sleep fitfully above the rabbits thumping and humping under the floor below my bed.

‘Have you got rabbits?’ asked a Sheerness neighbour.

‘Yes, they keep me awake at night scuffling around under my bedroom.’

‘Thats good,’ he told me. ‘If youve got rabbits, you haven’t got rats’.

Rabbits may be better than rats in many ways, but they do eat through the electrics. We have had to move all the cabling up on poles above the chalets now, to where the rabbits can’t get them.

I had always thought of rabbits as quintessentially English. Beatrix Potter must be to blame with her insertion of Peter Rabbit into the English landscape and so appropriating the species into the very heart of our culture. But Peter Rabbit is not English he is French, Pierre Lapin, a European immigrant brought to these shores by the Norman invaders to provide food and fur. There is some evidence that the Romans too brought rabbits to our shores along with their mulberry trees a thousand years before the Normans.  It seems that it was the islands off the mainland, like Sheppey, that were first homes to colonies, the soft island soil making ideal burrowing, and the islands themselves becoming self-contained warrens. The first rabbits were given artificial homes, mounds and banks to build their warrens in. Eventually the rabbits were housed in constructed warrens, or conies, to be husbanded for fast breeding nourishment and warm clothing. Here on Sheppey the bank at the edge of the CYC Club, built, ironically, to keep the French, and the sea, out, has become a rabbit Eden, ideal for creatures to dig a warren of warrens. They have few predators. The disease myxomatosis is one and the odd shotgun is another. Sometimes a figure will stroll past me of an evening as I look out towards the setting sun and give me a nod as he takes the gun from his shoulder. It is the time the rabbits like best to come out and do rabbit things, jumping around, drawing attention to themselves with their white tails: lucky talisman on a key ring, unlucky target on the rabbit. The grass and the flowers and plants provide a moist mouthful for the rabbits at the end of the day. It is the best time to take a shot and get one for the pot.

My neighbour Harvey came past one morning with a plastic bag full of dead rabbits.

He stopped, pulled one out, and tossed it into the water.

‘Morning, Harvey.’

I was still in my pyjamas.

Harvey looked as if he had been up for hours.

‘Did you shoot them?’ I asked.

‘Nah. Myxy.’

‘Myxomatosis? Around here?’

‘Yeh. A bit. You can see from their eyes. They pop out.’

He pulled another from the bag and showed me. Then he tossed it too into the water.

‘I’m feeding them to the crabs. Recycling’.

His mouth flashed a smile.

The Romans may have first brought rabbits to these islands, but they were not as far as we know farmers of rabbits, unlike the Normans who husbanded and maintained colonies of rabbits, kept enclosed in walled warrens (sometimes called cuningera or coneygarths) looked after by warreners who had houses on site for husbandry, killing, skinning and curing the pelts. They were an important source of food. The court of Henry III consumed 450 rabbits as part of their Christmas dinner in 1251. That may sound like a lot of rabbits, but as the familiar phrase tells us rabbits are famed for the speed with which they breed. The does, the female rabbits, are fertile from six months old, and can have six litters a year each of five young. If my math is right, that is something like 150 new rabbits every six months.

Warreners would husband their rabbits, keeping them safe from predators and poachers, culling the bucks, caught with nets and driven from their burrows by the ferrets that the French brought over for the task, and leaving the does, harvesting meat and fur and keeping their colonies contained.

Some of the rabbits escaped and over time and the feral rabbit population overtook the farmed one, the warreners disappeared, and hunters took over their role. By the 18th Century, when the docks walls of Sheerness were being built, Britain had become overrun with rabbits. Just as Roman and Norman colonists had brought the rabbit to England so now the English colonists took them overseas with them as a quick breeding and cheap source of meat, and the new colonies, especially Australia, too became overrun.

When I was a child rabbits were still a staple and cheap meat, only to disappear from the butchers when a combination of myxomatosis, which arrived in Britain in 1953, and the availability of cheap factory farmed chicken replaced them on working class tables. By then the rabbit was largely thought of as a pest by country folk and the decimation of the population through disease from perhaps a hundred million to less than one million was not mourned by farmers whose crops were grazed by rabbits. Few crop plants are immune to their nibbling and breeding like rabbits as they do, they can decimate maize, winter wheat, young trees, anything they can get their teeth into.

They are crepuscular creatures, active when the sun is rising and as it sets, animals of the dawn and dusk. It is the late afternoon when they do most of their grazing and that is when they come out at Sheppey. They graze rapidly and without discrimination on whatever they can find for the first half hour and then, relaxed in their eating, they are more selective for the rest of their foraging, picking and choosing more carefully.

The government classifies rabbits as pests and if they are on your land not only are you able to kill them, but you have a statutory responsibility to keep them under control. Under the Pests Act 1954: ‘You must control rabbits on your land.’

Here on the Isle we let disease and the occasional bit of shooting do the control for us. We do not have gas, or traps or snares, or rabbit proof fencing.

W. H. Hudson watched the chasing of rabbits on Hackney Marsh: ‘Rabbit coursing, or rabbit worrying, with terriers; and pigeon, starling, and sparrow shooting from traps, were the favourite pastime (on Hackney Marsh). The crowds which gathered to witness these matches were not nice to see and hear, nor were they representative of the people of any London district; they were, in fact, largely composed of the lowest roughs drawn from a population of a million souls – raucous-voiced, lawless, obscene in their language, filthy in their persons, and vicious in their habits. Yet you will find many persons, not of this evil description, who lament that these doings on the Marsh have been abolished, so dear is sport of some kind, involving the killing of animals, to the natural man!’

In the morning, after a night dreaming of rabbits, I find that a few of the mosquitoes have been successful, sucking their fill of my blood and leaving me itching and in search of anti-histamine cream. And those caught in the webs are awaiting their fate as I eat my breakfast toast. The spiders, after a night of patient anticipation, come down in the morning sun to feed on their trapped pray. On one side of the shack, that facing east and most preferred by the insects because it first catches the sun in the morning and is warm an hour before the front canal-facing side, the carnage makes a bloody mess of windows and window sills.

As a beekeeper, much though I abhor the idea of pesticides, especially insecticides, I also like reasonably clean windows. The answer, such as it is, is to discourage the spiders from making their lairs in the eves, so I use the spray of citronella oil as a deterrent and do my best to reduce the remains, carcasses and bloody spots of insectivorous carnage on that side of the chalet. But spiders, like the rest of us, must have somewhere to live and so I leave the front of the chalet citronella free and allow the spiders to take their fill of prey during the summer nights, conspiring with them as I leave my curtains open and switch on my lights.

As the morning sun rises in the sky, the spiders retire, replete, back into the shadows, full of fly food. I empty the clean, distilled water from the deckchair, wipe it down and sit with my breakfast toast, watching the ants processing in and out of the gap between the bricks of my front porch. They too share this habitation.

Then there is a fluttering, and a bird appears. Grass green, the greens of fresh grass and of dried grass, almost as if fashioned of grass itself, it darts around the eves, seeking out its own food, never alighting, but grabbing a spider when it can from between the wooden slats. Then it flutters away a few inches, a foot maybe, before quickly coming back again for another eight-legged snack. Flapping, almost hovering around the eaves of the chalet, this is a Meadow Pippet. The spiders, fat and fed, are now themselves food for the birds. The pippet is a nervous bird, its colours changing chameleon like with the seasons, its greens becoming at times dowdy grey and browns, camouflaging into the grasses and willows. The pippet picks at the spiders and I chomp on my toast. The ants collect the crumbs and take them back beneath the soil.

At season’s end the spiders will make their nests, cotton wool like chambers in and around the chalet, and lay their eggs ready for the spring sun to warm them into life. Once the Autumn solstice has passed it is safe to leave the lights on and the doors open with no threat of gossamer webs and mosquitoes, and no companionship from the spiders.