One of my favourite memories growing up was of our annual family holidays to the Isle of Sheppey. It had everything - an amazing beach with miles of sand for cockling, shrimping and walks. A Vegas like strip of arcades, a freezing pool we never got cold in, a clubhouse for roller skating, live music and comedy, fish and chips, shellfish and much, much more.
But most importantly, it had rocks - lots of them. Here I would spend the vast majority of my time combing the rock pools looking for crabs and whatever other sea life treasures I could find.
The reason for my visit this time however wasn’t for crabs. This time it was for something quite unexpected and something which I had no knowledge of in my youth - scorpions.
Yellow-tailed scorpions to be exact.
Though you might not expect to find such a creature in Britain, whilst not being native, these fearsome little critters have been in residence in the UK since the 19th century. It’s suspected they arrived on masonry and building materials which were shipped from Italy and the first colony was reported in Sheerness in the 1860s.
Now known to be in several areas around the UK, the largest known colony is that on the Isle of Sheppey where there are now thought to be as many as 15,000. Here they have been living in the walls, rock crevices and buildings in the relatively cut-off area of the private docks but many can still be found on the large surrounding wall which runs through Blue Town.
Due to their camouflage and ability to hide in the smallest of cracks these scorpions are virtually impossible to find during the day but they can easily be found at night using a UV lamp where they light up like a fluorescent turquoise beacon. This is the result of the chemical beta-carboline found in a very tough coating in a part of the scorpion’s exoskeleton.
Scorpions are not insects, they have eight legs so fall into the arachnid category along with spiders and mites. They are fairly small, growing to around 5cm, have a brown body with paler legs and a yellow tail. They feed on insects and small invertebrates such as the woodlice which are in abundance at the Sheppey docks. Because of their incredible slow metabolism they only need to feed 4-5 times a year during summer.
Very unusually for an invasive species there are moves to protect these scorpion colonies as they appear to have no detrimental effects on native species, increase biodiversity and pose little threat to humans.