Country diary: the spider that small fish should fear

Waveney Valley, Suffolk: The fen raft spider, the largest in the British Isles, skates across the water as it hunts

The grazing pasture bounding the last stretch of the River Waveney before it enters Breydon Estuary is currently an English summer idyll. There are vast level sun-washed horizons in each direction broken only by boat sails or grazing cattle, where every moment unfolds to the hush from the breeze through reeds. I am here at the invitation of the arachnologist Helen Smith, who tells me that she can pass whole days out here among all this peace and not see another soul.

Smith has done more than anyone in Britain to save the extraordinary animals I’ve come to see. Fen raft spiders, Dolomedes plantarius, were once found at just three widely scattered spots in Britain – on the Pevensey Levels in Sussex, at a couple of bogs near Swansea and at Redgrave Fen in Suffolk. As a consequence of her dedicated efforts they are now spreading steadily through the Yare and Waveney valleys.

Fen raft spiders are famous for being our largest arachnid – they can span 7cm across – and for living in water, where they can skate across the meniscus and trap prey as large as small fish and the biggest dragonflies. In the dykes here they are almost commonplace.

I get my eye in for the tell-tale silk mesh globed over the floating leaves of water-soldier, where the colonies of spiderlings are housed. As a prelude to their establishment the prospective mother weaves a thick silk ball about the size of a large marble, in which she lays 500-700 eggs. She then carries around her little globe of genes for about a month, when her offspring hatch and shed their first skins before taking up residence in the nursery web.

Adult female fen raft spider wrapped around her silk sac containing 500-700 eggs
Adult female fen raft spider wrapped around her silk sac containing 500-700 eggs. Photograph: Mark Cocker

Kneeling for hours on the dyke bank at arm’s length from my photographic prey, I steadily adjust to the spider’s micro-world of water and weed, striped by saw-edged water-soldier spikes and their shadows. By a slow recalibration I start to see the smallest things as noteworthy, the way thistle parachutes sail the dyke surface, how a mother spider hitches her silk bag of babies under her front legs, and the way a near-weightless octave of legs presses eight tiny hollows into the water’s wrinkled skin.


Mark Cocker

The GuardianTramp

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