Beale Park wins BIAZA award for Conservation

Posted by Jane Chapman on 17/06/2016

Beale Park has been recognised for its work in Conservation at the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums 50th Anniversary awards ceremony.

 The British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums turns 50 this year, and representatives from its membership came together to celebrate the past and consider future challenges at a major conference held at Marwell Wildlife, Hampshire, which ran from 6 to 8 June. The conference culminated in a gala dinner and awards ceremony on the Wednesday evening, where Beale Park Animal Keepers, Mark Myhill and Bekki Harrington, were recognised for their contributions to a conservation programme aimed at saving the UK’s rarest, and biggest, spider – the Fen Raft. Mark and Bekki personally hand reared 100 Fen Raft Spiderlings (Dolomedes plantarius).

The native spiders, found only in the fens of Norfolk, South Wales and Suffolk, are on the endangered species list and, at present, are found only on these few sites in the UK because of their specialised habitat.

Working alongside eight other BIAZA Zoos (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums), as part of a national invertebrate initiative, Mark and Bekki spent two months acting as Mum and Dad to a brood of spiderlings, responsible for the care of the 100 creepy crawlies until they were strong enough to be released into their natural habitat.

Mark says, “The spiders were all kept in test tubes and both Bekki and I had to individually hand-feed them with fruit flies. It was a time-consuming job but was vital in order to help conserve and grow the future population of this species.”

The committed Keepers spent a couple of hours, every other day, feeding and caring for the spiders to ensure they have the best possible start in life.

The dedication shown meant that the spiders were reared to a healthy size and were transferred to Norfolk and released into a nature reserve where they will continue to be monitored.

The Fen Raft is an aquatic spider which hunts on the surface of the water and lives in marshes amongst the undergrowth. It is also the UK’s largest spider and can grow up to 23mm long. They are dark brown in colour with a characteristic white, yellow or cream stripe along the side of its body.

Fen Raft Spiders are known as fishing spiders, but the habitat where they live is important for more than just food. They will use their environment for courtship displays and they will submerge their egg sacs under the water to keep them cool in the hot weather.

Normal diet includes other invertebrates, pond skaters, water boatman and dragonflies, but they are also capable of grabbing tadpoles and small fish.

They are one of only two species in the UK that are fully protected by law and are named because of their ability to float on top of the water in the fens and wetlands where they reside.

Unfortunately, the spiders have had a tough time of it after major losses to their wetland habitat – as a result their numbers have declined dramatically. This puts even more importance on the conservation effort shown by Mark and Bekki, as it would be difficult for remaining populations of this invertebrate to recover on their own.

Dr Kirsten Pullen, Director of BIAZA, said, “The standard of award submissions was incredibly high this year and I’m delighted that Beale Park has achieved a Gold award for hand rearing 100 endangered native spiders for release.

“As we celebrate 50 years of ‘Working Together for Wildlife’ we have an opportunity to reflect on the incredibly important work done in conservation and the significant contributions our members make in educating the public about our natural world and inspiring them to protect it. The zoo and aquarium community has come an incredibly long way since the Association came into being, but we must continuously strive to improve. This event has provided us with an opportunity to bring our members together to remind ourselves of how far we have come and re-inforce our commitment to animal welfare, conservation, education and scientific research.”

Originally known as The Federation of Zoological Gardens of Britain and Ireland, BIAZA was formed in 1966 out of recognition of the need for standardised principles and practices in animal management. Made up initially of just nine zoos and bird gardens, the Association has grown over the past 50 years, and today its113 strong membership have become a powerful force for conservation and education, with continuous scientific research and sharing of best practice to ensure the highest levels of animal welfare.

About Fen Raft Spiders

  • The Fen Raft spider is one of the UK’s biggest, and rarest spiders
  • Dark brown in colour with a characteristic white, yellow or cream stripe along the side of its body
  • They are predatory and do not build webs to catch their prey
  • This species hunts from perches at the water’s edge with their front legs resting on the water in order to detect vibrations made by potential prey
  • The spiders can walk on water and hunt for prey both on top and underneath the water
  • Largely aquatic animals, dependent upon the presence of standing or slow-moving water
  • Diet consists of a wide range of wetland invertebrates including amphibians and small fish
  • Adult females lay their eggs into a large silk sac. The female carries her egg sac under her body for three to four weeks
  • To care for their young, the female constructs a large nursery web built up to a metre above the water