31 August 2012

Hundreds of the UK’s rarest spiders are being reared at Chester Zoo ahead of their release later this year, as part of a conservation programme aimed at ensuring their survival.

Lead Keeper Karen Lambert is hand-rearing 400 fen raft spiderlings in a purpose-built, bio-secure pod at the zoo. She will act as a foster parent to the youngsters for around two months until they are strong enough to face the outside world and be released back into their natural habitat.

Mrs Lambert said:

“The spiders are all kept in separate test tubes so they do not eat each other and I have to individually hand feed them with fruit flies. It’s a very, very labour intensive job for that number of spiders but it’s vital for the future of the species.”

The dedicated keeper spends two hours a day; seven days a week, alone with the spiders in the special breeding facility – surprising as she confesses to having suffered from arachnophobia until her early twenties.

“Up until about the age of 21 I was a huge arachnophobe. I’d run a mile at the sight of even a house spider,” she added.

“But as soon as I started working at Chester Zoo and began to learn about them, I soon realised what fascinating creatures they are and my fear just disappeared”.

Fen raft spiders are one of only two British spiders that are fully protected by law and are named after their ability to float on water in the fens and wetlands where they live – all thanks to their hairy legs.

But major losses to its wetland habitat means they are found in only three sites in Britain – in Norfolk, East Sussex and South Wales.

Chester Zoo is working with the government body Natural England, local wildlife trusts, several other zoos and the BBC Wildlife Fund in attempt to boost their numbers in the wild.

Mrs Lambert said:

“Fen raft spiders have become isolated to just a few pockets of habitat in England and their numbers have declined to preciously low levels. It would be difficult for the remaining populations to recover on their own.

“I’m helping see them through to adulthood before they are released as that will give them a much better chance of survival.

The release of the spiders, which are one of the UK’s most endangered species and grow to have a 10cm leg-span, is planned for September.