Affectionately known as ‘Rodney’ to locals, (thanks to Mike Webb’s brilliant cartoon ‘Mere Quacks’ in our local newspaper, the Diss Express), this special arachnid can be found down at Redgrave and Lopham Fen, managed by Suffolk Wildlife Trust. The Fen Raft Spider (Dolomedes plantarius) is one of our largest and rarest spiders. Thanks to extensive and determined conservation efforts it can now be found at 7 sites in the UK, up from just 3 in 2003. But it is still very much a rarity.

I’ve lived near here for over 30 years now, and have only seen this magnificent animal 3 times! Despite being rather large (females growing up to 7cm across) the chocolate brown colouring with fancy white or cream ‘go faster’ stripes blend in very well against the peaty water and reed stems. Very much an aquatic species, they hunt by resting their legs on the waters surface to feel the vibrations made by passing prey, anchoring themselves to a plant stem with their rear legs. They can dive underwater too, turning silvery as the hairs on their body trap air around them. An impressive creature!

With a few hours spare on a sunny afternoon in May, I decided to try to spot one. The Fen is such a beautiful place, and so vibrantly alive at this time of year. Foxgloves and Irises hummed with insects, a Marsh Harrier soared over the reeds and a Cuckoo called. Arriving at the viewing platform I scanned around the edges of the pool, searching for the shape of a spider. The warm sun on my back and a Sedge was warbler singing, but there was no sign of my target. I checked the other pools and squinted around the margins between the plants and the still water, but nothing moved. Crouched in front of another pond, staring into the water, thinking perhaps I wouldn’t see this rarity today, a movement caught my eye. The swirl of something skimming across the surface, a water boatmen perhaps? The water shimmered again, closer now. Following the movement, there it was, long brown legs, creamy stripes along it’s body, delicately rowing across the pool. On the other side, it moved easily through the dense vegetation, sometimes skimming on the water, and sometimes climbing in, over and around the stems. I’ve not seen one this active before. It hurried around the pool, inspecting every miniature cove and inlet. It moved too fast to track with my camera, and when it did pause, it was hidden amongst the green stems of the plants. It came towards me through the grass, out of the water now. Suddenly it froze, hidden in the turf, as another person walked down the path.

After a few minutes, it came out again, squeezing through the leafy maze rather than walking over the top, getting further from the pond. I suspect this is a male exploring the area in search of females. After a few moments, I lost sight of him, hidden in the grass and impossible to spot again having momentarily turned by gaze elsewhere.

The other person called me over, having spotted a spider at the back of the pool with the platform, and generously lent me his binoculars for a closer look. Turns out, this is the secret to spider spotting – binoculars! He found another even larger spider in another pool, resting in typical fashion with front legs on the waters surface. With his help I saw more Fen Raft Spiders today than I’d ever seen before! Thank you so much for your help! After he left me to it, I went back to the place I’d seen the first spider, hoping to catch another glimpse, but all was still. After a while I revisited the platform, for one last look before going home, but to my amazement, there was a spider right in front! Perched on the water plants, with front legs outstretched, the classic pose of a hunting raft spider, and close enough for a few photos. Absolutely still, watching and waiting for its next meal. I watched for some time, crouched on the wooden platform, listening to the sound of the fen. A small pond skater rowed dangerously close to the spider, but it didn’t move, perhaps on the lookout for a larger meal. I left the spider to it, my own dinner calling me home.

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