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Spiderman tames a two-horned monster

Tom Foulds used to be an engineer. Then he discovered his true love - creepy-crawlies. Colin Blackstock reports
It is the stuff of which arachnophobic nightmares are made: spending your life covered in spiders, with the eight-legged creepy-crawlies weaving about your person, spinning webs in your hair, and scuttling up your sleeves, while you suck them up through a tube.

To Tom Foulds, however, it is bliss. The volunteer monitor of the arachnid world has just discovered the 200th type of spider living in Nottingham's Clumber Park, bringing the National Trust property into the big league of spider sites in Britain. There are around 630 species of spiders in the country and for one site to have as many as one-third of them is unusual.

"It was quite remarkable," said Mr Foulds, taking a break from sucking on a length of plastic tubing - a pooter as it's known in the spider-catching trade - trying to catch one of the many spiders released in the room for the purposes of a photograph. "The 200th species we found turned out to be quite a rare spider."

The spider, a Linyphid, is a type of money spider known as the Saloca diceros. Roughly translated, this means "the agitated two-horned", and as the name suggests, the spider has two bristle-like horns protruding from its head.

Mr Foulds first became involved in the life of Clumber Park nine years ago when he was part of a natural history group attempting to keep a register of the park's flora and fauna. The wardens knew there were people such as bird-watchers recording the wildlife as a hobby but they never benefited from the information collected. They held a public meeting for anyone interested and drew up a list of what they hoped would be documented.

Nigel Dorrington, a warden at the park, said: "We have a large number of different habitats and it is important we know what is in them because if we don't we could wipe out a rare species by managing a habitat incorrectly.

"Right at the end of our list was spiders, and we didn't know if anyone would be interested but Tom put his hand up and we virtually snapped it off."

A complete novice when he began, Mr Foulds' job as a volunteer spider recorder is to find and document the arachnids in the park. He has progressed to become an accepted member of the British Arachnological Society, picking up his assistant "spiderman", Trevor Harris, on the way. Mr Harris was a bird-watcher until he discovered Tom flat out on the grass, "grubbing" for spiders, and became hooked himself.

"I've never had this phobia a lot of people have of spiders," said Mr Foulds, "and one of the things I'm trying to do is to talk to people about spiders and get the message across that they are not something to be scared of. When you meet somebody for the first time and tell them what you do, it's a great conversation stopper. I think a lot of people are mildly amused by what I do."

A retired British Telecom engineer, he says of being a spiderman: "It's what I should have done many years ago. I think I've found my true vocation." Mr Foulds goes back to using the pooter, but the spider in question is refusing to co-operate, as Tom chases it along his arm with his tubing, sucking as he goes.

"When I see a spider I can now more or less tell what family it's from," said Mr Foulds, who has amassed a collection of more than 1000 spiders at his home, which he keeps in small plastic pots and tubes, each one carefully referenced for study. "Some are obvious, but some are so small you have to study the genitalia. I still don't like killing them, but you have to kill some of them to identify them."

The idea of looking for a spider's genitalia seems daunting, but Tom insists it's not difficult.

His quest to find more species in the park may prove harder, however. His ideal find would be a Lepthyphantes midas, another money spider listed in the "Red Book" of extinct and endangered species. "It would be nice to find one," he said. "It has been found in the North-east, so we'll keep looking."