Of Sphagnum and Spiders – Planning Lowland Bog Spider Surveys for 2022

If had to name two things that have claimed me this year over the course of my traineeship I would say they are Sphagnum mosses and spiders. I’ve said quite a bit about Sphagnum in previous posts so here I intend to make my main focus spiders.

The first thing I’d like to say about spiders is they’re always about, everywhere, in every habitat we can name, from woodlands to moorlands, to grasslands to mosslands, they’re in our gardens, houses, and cars. They can be found (or turn up unwanted) at any time of the year. They say you’re never less than six feet from a rat, well, in my experience, I’d say you’re far more likely to be less than six feet from a spider!

I used to be afraid of spiders. Like so many people particularly of the large-bodied, long-legged house spiders of the Tegeneria genus who would often scuttle across the fire place and occasionally get caught by the cats or would show up in the bath together with the gangly-legged daddy long-legs spiders (Pholcus phalangiodes).

I don’t know why I was afraid of spiders. On some level I think it’s instinctual, but it’s also societal. As a child if you see adults screaming and running away from spiders you learn they’re something to worry about. For me I think it’s the fear of something so strange, so alien, running onto me, coming up close, the shock. The interruption to my ‘safe space’. And also the fear of damaging these strange beings in ill-fated attempts to put them out, as I’ve done in the past, then the horror of putting them out of their misery. Unless I’m confident I can catch them without harming them I now tend to let them be.

Recently fear has turned to fascination as I’ve started noticing them more and learning about them. This began in February when I was out planting with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust contract team on Little Woolden Moss. In areas of bare peat I frequently noticed strings and sometimes a lattice-work of spider-silk. On the last day the air was filled with threads and with tiny ballooning spiders. Like the carriers of a message.

Fast-forward to August and, now a trainee, I am gathering cottongrass seed for the purpose of growing cottongrass sustainably at Prince’s Park Garden Centre. As I work I am aware that I am surrounded by webs and that in almost all of the cottongrass heads is a spider! Many of them are big, four-spotted, and vary in colour from orange to brown to green. They’re spooky and beautiful. I have to remove them from my clothes and tip them out of my bag at the end. Still, some end up coming home. I later learn they are Four-spotted Orb-weavers (Adraneus quadratus) and the cottongrass heads are their retreats.

These encounters with spiders lead me to attend a workshop on identifying spiders in the field with Richard Burkmar, at Rixton Clay Pits, which is just down the road from Little Woolden Moss. I learn that, of the 650 species of spider in Britain, it is possible to identify around 200 with a hand lens or with the naked eye. Richard introduces us to collection techniques such as vacuum sampling, sweep netting, beating, and grubbing, and shows us how to catch the spiders in a spi-pot to examine them more closely.

With Richard’s help I manage to identify a few spiders on Little Woolden Moss. These include Larinoides cornutus (an orb-web spider) and three wolf spiders – Trochosa ruricola, a spider of the Pirata genus, and Arctosa perita. The latter is interesting because it prefers dry, sandy habitats such as the Sefton coast. Here, on the peatlands, it favours bare peat. This master of camouflage has adapted its colour to fit its surroundings.

I find out that Richard has been conducting spider surveys on the lowland bogs of Lancashire and Cheshire for over ten years and he generously shares his publications and spreadsheets with myself and the mossland team. I learn that spiders are not only valuable in themselves, but indicators of the health of a peat bog and, as predators, of the wealth of its invertebrate population. This seeds the idea of carrying out spider surveys across Little Woolden Moss, which is in different stages of the restoration process, over the course of five years to see how the management affects spider populations.

I have written the survey methodology and am in the process of planning a training session with Richard for volunteers in spring next year along with arranging dates for the surveys. Although my traineeship ends in March and I am unsure if I will be able to stay on on the peatland team I intend to otherwise commit to these surveys as a volunteer. And likewise with the Sphagnum surveys. Whatever happens in this unstable and competitive job-world I have two favourite things to look forward to next year.