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Arachnid invasion threatens UK

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Arachnophobes look away now: The UK is becoming an attractive home for "exotic" spider species which, due to our increasingly benign climate, have decided to put down permanent roots in this Sceptred Isle.

According to the BBC, the invasion forces arrive in food and plant imports and no longer have to suffer cold snaps which might previously have killed them en masse. Milder winters allow them to consolidate their populations and spread.

Among the eight-legged immigrants is Steatoda paykulliana - "a false widow spider that is native to Southern Europe, West Asia and North Africa" - thought to have arrived here from the Mediterranean in the late 1800s but without gaining a firm foothold. It has, however, slowly spread from Devon along the south coast, and Stuart Hine, who heads the Natural History Museum's Insect Identification Service, warned: "Now we have found it in Plymouth. And it looks as if it is here to stay."

Hine cautioned that while Steatoda paykulliana can give you a nasty bite, it's a pussycat compared to the tube web spider (Segestria florentina), which has spread north from the south coast. He said of the 1.5cm and 2.2cm (0.6-0.9in) beast boasting "green iridescence on its jaws": "In spider terms, it has to be said that this is an aggressive spider. If you approach it, it raises its legs and bares its fangs. Most spiders will back away - this one will jump at you and bite."

The solution to the arachnid threat is, according to Matt Shardlow of conservation group Buglife, to get a grip on biological imports. He told the BBC: "Other countries in the world take great care about what biological material they allow in, because it can contain pests that can damage our goods, our livelihoods, our health and our biodiversity. Currently in the UK, we have a laissez-faire attitude - there is an open licence for people to bring in dangerous pests."

A spokesperson for Defra assured the Beeb: "The government and its agencies work with businesses, overseas authorities and the general public to minimise the risk of exotic animal and plant pests and diseases from entering the country and threatening public health, livestock, agriculture, horticulture and the environment. Disease can enter the country in many ways; that's why Defra undertakes international disease monitoring, while there are also strict controls on the movement of livestock and animals."

All well and good, but Stuart Hine was prompted to speculate that the black widow - a spider which can kill with the merest glance* - could be our next unwelcome guest. He doomwatched: "There is no great reason that they wouldn't survive here now - winters are now mild enough. It really is only a matter of time."

Those with nerves of steel can get some mugshots of the multi-limbed monsters here. ®

Bootnote

*Not really - that's a joke we nicked from Peter Fleming's excellent Brazilian Adventure. Highly recommended.

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