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October / November 2012

To see a sample of the current issue of Ireland's best-selling gardening magazine, click the image below.


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Daddy-long-legs!

Dick Warner traces this insect's path on the web of life

You know it well. Most people call it a daddy-long-legs, trout anglers shorten this to ‘daddy', and its proper name is a crane fly. Crane flies are attracted to light so if you leave the bedroom light on and open the window on a warm evening in late summer or autumn they will come in. This terrifies my wife and I'm ordered to solve the problem. Luckily crane flies are not very good at flying which makes them easy to catch. They are also completely harmless. Not only are they incapable of biting, they actually don't have a mouth to bite with.

The winged adults of Irish species do not feed, their only purpose in life is to find a mate, which is presumably what they were looking for in the bedroom. There are several Irish species, some of which are small and insignificant. It's the two or three large species, and it takes an expert to tell them apart, that cause household ructions. But they are only a fraction the size of some tropical species which can have a body length of over 10 centimetres.

No Irish species is aquatic at any stage in its life cycle, though there are some American species where the larvae live in the water. Here they tend to like damp grassy places to lay eggs and the adults, being poor fliers, are often blown on to the surface of rivers and lakes. Trout love to eat them and many artificial patterns have been developed by fly fishermen. The real fly is sometimes dapped by anglers on the larger lakes late in the season. Birds and bats also find them very tasty.

But although the adult crane fly is a harmless creature, contributing to the food chain of larger animals and birds, the same cannot be said of its larvae. These are known to gardeners as leather-jackets. They are cigar-shaped creatures with a distinct head and a tough, grey skin. They live just below the soil surface and feed on roots. They have a particular liking for grass roots and can cause a problem in lawns. In fact in the 1930s they caused a major crisis in Britain when a concentration of them built up below the wicket of Lord's Cricket Ground, causing balls to bounce eccentrically.

Before you resort to chemical warfare it's worth noting that there are some natural ways to reduce their numbers. They will only reach problem proportions in a damp lawn, so improving drainage can work wonders. A hard frost will also kill most of them. They have a number of natural predators, of which badgers and rooks are probably the most effective, along with some parasitic nematode worms. But blackbirds and jackdaws, which are rather more common in gardens, take a fair number of them as well.

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