Ben Waddams’ Wild World: Bizarre forms of self defence

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For most males of the species homo sapien living in Buckinghamshire, there are very few moments in life where bravery, courage, not to mention foolhardy resolve, is needed.

There is, however, excusing any unforeseen tragedy, a moment looming in every man’s life, when great valour is required and nerves must be thrown aside in favour of insolence and effrontery. That moment is, of course, meeting your partner’s parents for the first time.

As my girlfriend and I drove to the pre-arranged meeting point, (a country tea-room with a walled garden) we realised we had rather over-estimated the distance and time involved and therefore happily, arrived early.

Being such a scorching day already by 10am, I parked up under the shade of an apple tree and got out to stretch my legs. It was rather pleasant in the dappled light of the orchard, but it seemed I was not the only one who thought so.

As I wandered along the length of the wall, I saw what I first thought to be a section of lizard skin behind a bunch of stinging nettles.

Closer inspection, however, revealed the owner of the scales to be a particularly large grass snake. I’m afraid to say that, unless I’ve recently had a sensory overload of the reptilian kind, I have an overwhelming desire to pick up and examine any reptile I see. They are, to me, the most intriguing of all animal groups.

Perhaps that is why I enjoy my birds so much, too, for birds are strictly speaking, feathered reptiles themselves.

Besides the fact that I cannot resist examining such a gentle creature as a grass snake, I could see the car park was fast filling up and so thought it best to chivvy my find along a little.

As I held him, (male snakes have longer and thinner tails than females. Indeed, the longer tail you have, the more attractive you are to female snakes, apparently) he did not attempt to strike or bite but instead unleashed the grass snake’s favourite anti-naturalist weapon – musk.

Happily one can gauge the stress level of a grass snake rather easily. If a snake is slightly perturbed by your presence, it will emit a milky, foul smelling substance from the base of its tail – musk. If it’s getting angry, it will strike without biting. If it’s really angry, it will bite. And if it fears for its own life, it will play dead.

Thankfully I only got to first base with this one. However, the power of the musk should not be underestimated.

After releasing my catch through a hole in the wall, I was traumatised to discover how potently I had been sprayed. The ‘in-laws-to-be’ were fast approaching and in a mild panic, I dashed to the toilet.

I apologise to the cleaning staff at The Tea Garden, for I used up nearly an entire soap dispenser trying to get my hands free from ‘eau de snake’, but I think I managed it in the end. I’ll never know for sure, though – my partner’s parents are far too polite for that.

While some animals to be found at this time of year hide their distastefulness ‘between their legs’ so to speak, others flaunt it in name and appearance.

The Puss Moth caterpillar (pictured) is one such contender for ‘most bizarre’.

In its adult form, it’s a pretty, yet unspectacular, flying moth with furs all over its body (the cat-like hair gives it its name). But as a caterpillar, it is wonderfully peculiar.

It wears a saddle of black over its luminous green body and exhibits a bright orange ring around its face. To scare off any would-be attackers, it has three tricks.

Two giant eyes are painted on its head, it has a set of duel flails on its back end and, if it’s really annoyed, the caterpillar has the ability to squirt formic acid into the face of its opponent. Quite a remarkable repertoire when you consider it’s still only at the infant stage of its life.