Country diary: this delicate centipede is the gardener's friend

Marigolds are still flowering in our veg garden, glowing bright orange against a dark mulch of new-laid compost. Between rows of carrots, beetroot and coriander in seed is a wooden board for walking on. I lift it carefully to see what’s underneath. Clods of compost stick to its underside along with worms, slugs and a centipede, chestnut brown, fast-moving and scuttling away to hide.

I often find centipedes when working in the garden: among crocks in the bottom of terracotta pots, in rotting leaf mould, when moving stones or dead wood. I pick this one up and it runs from one gloved hand to another in a fluid movement, repeating this over and over as I keep swapping hands. I drop it into an observation pot to count its legs: there are 15 pairs, one to each segment of its flat body. Fine antennae explore the pot and coil like some waving sea creature. Living in dark places and feeding by night, centipedes rely on antennae rather than eyesight.

This is a brown centipede, Lithobius forficatus, a carnivore and gardener’s friend. Fang-like modified legs near its front contain poison with which to inject its prey of insects and invertebrates – including slugs. Each leg is slightly longer than the one in front so that it doesn’t trip. The body is flat, for fitting beneath cool stones to avoid being eaten by birds or toads. Long back legs act as feelers enabling it to reverse-crawl almost as fast as it can move forwards. Remarkably, centipedes can live for up to six years.

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There are 54 species in the UK with differing numbers of legs but they are all in odd numbers of pairs from 15 to 101. My uncle was EH Eason and his 1964 book Centipedes of the British Isles is still an invaluable reference work. Elected a fellow of the Linnean Society, he drew meticulous illustrations of centipedes. His archive and collections are now held at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. When a British centipede was identified by him as a separate species it was named Geophilus easoni in his honour. I think of my uncle drawing and making notes in his study as I return to gardening.

• The photograph accompanying this article was changed on 9 November 2020. An earlier version showed a Geophilus easoni, rather than a Lithobius forficatus as the caption said.


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