Grasshoppers, butterflies and wolf spiders

by Richard Jones

There, plodding through the yarrow and wild marjoram, is the biggest spider I have ever seen in Europe...

Mountain house, TuscanyOur European Grand Tour took us through a few days swimming in the Austrian lakes near Salzburg, across the Alps to Trento and then on into northern Tuscany where we had booked a 'mountain house' for a week. It soon became clear why there were so many four-by-fours about as we climbed higher up the zigzagging road that clung to the precipitous hillsides. The last half dozen hairpin bends were up a rutted gravel track that made, let's say 'interesting' driving for the fully laden family hatchback.

To call it a rustic retreat is a bit of an understatement, but once we'd recovered from our carsickness, unpacked, and worked out the plumbing eccentricities, we settled down to wonder at the idyllic setting and relax.

It's not clear whether we have a garden as such; stepping across the grass track from the plunge pool seems to take us straight into the Garfagnana countryside, which was obviously partly cultivated in terraces at some point in it's long history, but which is now reverting to beautiful wilderness.

The evening air is alive with the sewing machine whirr of grasshoppers and bush-crickets, and the distant piping of field crickets sweeps in from far-off grassy knolls and rocky outcrops. And in the morning we are engulfed in wildlife.

Butterflies are everywhere: giant and strongly coloured graylings of some sort, flap lazily around us and even settle on our clothes; chequered skippers, blues and large heaths dart in the long grass; huge silver-streaked (or washed?) fritillaries mark out their territories amongst the bramble bushes, and the occasional clouded yellow belts up the path at top bluster speed.

The air is thick with dumbledors buzzing lazily over the flowers; these shiny bluish, greenish or sometimes even pinkish Geotrupes are shinier than the ones I know in the UK but they still sound like model aeroplanes when they take to the wing. It's not clear what these giant dung beetles are after, but deer droppings seem to be their only likely source of food up here.

The six-year-old is enthralled by the boiling mass of grasshoppers that sweep ahead of us as we walk and it's not long before he finds a giant; at 55 mm plus almost the same length of sabre-like egg-laying tail it's something like the great green bush-cricket Tettigonia viridissima.

A short while later he calls out that he has found a giant spider crawling along the wall near the house. I wander over expecting a long-legged harvestman or perhaps a large house spider, Tegenaria, but his word is true. There, plodding through the yarrow and wild marjoram, is the biggest spider I have ever seen in Europe, a heavy-set and boldly marked wolf spider as fat as my finger, certainly something I never expected to see in any garden I'd ever visit -- Lycosa tarantula. Rural idyll it may be, but no barefoot walking in the long grass methinks.

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Gardeners' World Web User 17/08/2011 at 16:38

lovely that you had so many types of bugs bee's and butterflies, the wolf spider sounds quiet exciting to, when I first came to live in this house37 years ago, there were masses of creepy crawlies grasshoppers were hopping everywhere but over the years they have completly disapeared and it's rare to site a butterfly unless it's a cabbage white, had lizards and frogs also a rare site now, I feel that when they built the M25 it was the death nell of all these creatures.

Gardeners' World Web User 17/08/2011 at 16:39

sorry I spelt sight wrong now corrected.

Gardeners' World Web User 19/08/2011 at 23:12

A very nice report of a lovely place by the sounds of it. I also have a good assortment of creepy crawlies and this year the 'wildlife' landscaping which we did last year has seemed to be very successful in attracting them! The new wildlife meadow has also been the source of many new insects and butterflies to our garden. Although not as exciting or exotic as your findings we can all still have a good variety of 'life' in our own plots! Higgy

Gardeners' World Web User 28/11/2011 at 18:44

In my front room, as night approaches, some of the spiders scurrying around would be strong competition in the size competition! xx