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Scorpions living in Sheerness Docks glow in the brickwork at Blue Town, Sheppey


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Frightened of creepy-crawlies and devil-like things which come out at night?

Then you're better off staying clear of Blue Town on the Isle of Sheppey.

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Scorpions on display at the Blue Town Heritage Centre
Scorpions on display at the Blue Town Heritage Centre

It is home to a colony of sinister-looking scorpions which have been living there close-on 200 years.

No one knows exactly how the tiny terrors arrived but it is believed the stinging stowaways hitched a lift on sailing ships bringing stone - possibly Italian masonry - to Britain during the reign of George IV.

Whatever the reason, there is now a population of some 15,000.

I have lived on Sheppey since the 1960s but although I was aware of the Island's strange claim to fame I had never clamped my own eyes on a real one - until the other night.

The boss was horrified to learn of this shortcoming.

Scorpion-hunter John Nurden dons pith helmet, net and torch as he goes in search of creepy-crawlies at Blue Town
Scorpion-hunter John Nurden dons pith helmet, net and torch as he goes in search of creepy-crawlies at Blue Town
Scorpion-wrangler Jenny Hurkett shows off two scorpions displayed at the Blue Town Heritage Centre at the Criterion Theatre, Sheerness
Scorpion-wrangler Jenny Hurkett shows off two scorpions displayed at the Blue Town Heritage Centre at the Criterion Theatre, Sheerness

"Well, you'd better take a visit to see what all the fuss is about," she commanded.

So that was how I ended up speaking to Sheppey's chief scorpion-wrangler Jenny Hurkett, 72, who runs the Blue Town Heritage Centre at the Criterion Theatre and has two on display in a box.

"You will need a UV torch," she warned, sniffing at the sight of me already armed with a fishing net, ordinary torch and sporting a rather fetching pith helmet, like all the best explorers.

I could sense she was about to suggest I was taking the, er, mickey but she was very polite and contained herself.

"Pray tell where I may find my prey?" I enquired.

Scorpions live in the walls of Sheerness Dockyard at Blue Town
Scorpions live in the walls of Sheerness Dockyard at Blue Town
Scorpions live in the walls of Sheerness Dockyard at Blue Town
Scorpions live in the walls of Sheerness Dockyard at Blue Town

Jenny Hurkett of Blue Town Heritage Centre talks scorpions

She told me where to go. Apparently it's anywhere along the giant Dockyard Wall which has been standing there since architect John Rennie had it built in 1813 to stop any more pesky Dutch invasions.

My first disappointment was to discover scorpions are nocturnal and don't 'do' daylight. So I returned after dusk in more practical apparel.

It can be a daunting project hunting scorpions on your own. At least two rowdy parties of curious passers-by wanted to know what I was doing.

By this time, I had abandoned the regular torch and was bathing the brickwork in a sea of blue light from a little UV lamp. For the first couple of minutes there was nothing. And then, wonder of wonders, I spotted a pair of tiny pincers emerging from a gap in the wall and glowing in the eerie light.

This was my first scorpion! It was, however, very tiny. I'm not sure what I had been expecting. I'd been told you could keep them in a matchbox. But this was microscopic. Attempting to get a photograph proved virtually impossible as I juggled the torch and camera in the dark.

Scorpion spotted in Blue Town, Sheppey

Scorpion claws glowing in UV light at Blue Town, Sheerness. Picture: John Nurden
Scorpion claws glowing in UV light at Blue Town, Sheerness. Picture: John Nurden
Scorpion glowing in UV light at Blue Town, Sheerness. Picture: John Nurden
Scorpion glowing in UV light at Blue Town, Sheerness. Picture: John Nurden
Scorpion caught by camera flash at Blue Town, Sheerness. Picture: John Nurden
Scorpion caught by camera flash at Blue Town, Sheerness. Picture: John Nurden

There are others, like Kent postman Jason Steel who has won awards for his nature photography. The pictures of Sheppey scorpions on his website www.jason-steel.co.uk are stunning. But he uses macro lenses and stuff.

I tried using a flash on one of mine but I think that just frazzled the poor thing.

For those thinking of trying to 'pap' a scorpion, Jason offered these tips: "To get sharp images you are going to need your camera mounted on a tripod and you'll have to wait for the scorpion to stand still for a few seconds, which is something they don't often do when they out in the open and exposed to predators.

"Wildlife photography takes a great deal of patience and dedication. You can use an off-camera flash to take more natural-looking images but you are still going to need a torch focussed on the scorpion so the camera can focus properly in such dark conditions.

"Having a friend to hold the flash and torch for you while you concentrate on taking the photos makes things much easier."

Yellow Tailed Scorpion from Blue Town, Sheerness, under UV light. Picture: Jason Steel www.jason-steel.co.uk
Yellow Tailed Scorpion from Blue Town, Sheerness, under UV light. Picture: Jason Steel www.jason-steel.co.uk
Yellow Tailed Scorpion from Blue Town, Sheerness, under normal light. Picture: Jason Steel www.jason-steel.co.uk
Yellow Tailed Scorpion from Blue Town, Sheerness, under normal light. Picture: Jason Steel www.jason-steel.co.uk
Tiny Yellow Tailed Scorpion from Blue Town, Sheerness, on a fingertip. Picture: Jason Steel www.jason-steel.co.uk
Tiny Yellow Tailed Scorpion from Blue Town, Sheerness, on a fingertip. Picture: Jason Steel www.jason-steel.co.uk

I spent about an hour tracking down other specimens, enthralled by their unearthly beauty.

The invasive European yellow-tailed scorpion is the only species found naturally in the UK. The arachnids can grow up to 45mm long and are predominantly black with yellow-brown legs and a deadly-looking tail - hence the name. They feed on woodlice, apparently, and run away from humans.

All scorpions glow a fluorescent turquoise under a UV lamp. No one knows why. One theory is that it could help shield them from the sun. Like vampires, they can't stand daylight. Another idea is that the glow attracts moths and other prey they like to munch.

There have been reports that the Sheppey scorpions have hitched rides on lorries and have been sighted at Harwich, Tilbury, Portsmouth and Southampton docks as well as Ongar underground station. But Sheerness remains their base. It is the most northerly population of scorpions in the world.

Scorpions live at Blue Town, Sheerness, but they only come out at night
Scorpions live at Blue Town, Sheerness, but they only come out at night
Scorpions live at Blue Town, Sheerness, but they only come out at night
Scorpions live at Blue Town, Sheerness, but they only come out at night

Children from Sheppey schools regularly incorporate a night visit to the scorpions as part of their lessons.

The creatures also have an annoying habit of popping up where you least expect them. Stuart Bradburn who runs the nearby G's Drive-thru MOT garage, said: "Sometimes I open up in the morning and find them in the shutter. I have no idea how they get there."

Fossil records show that scorpions have been on the earth for more than 400 million years and at one time could have lived both in the sea and on land and grew as long as 2.5 metres.

And yes, they still have a sting in their tail. "They say it's no worse than a bee sting," explained Jenny Hurkett, helpfully.

So did I try to pick one up? Definitely not. That's a job for real explorers...

Scorpion hiding in wall

Scorpion on brick

One of the famed scorpions living at the Sheerness docks compared to a coin. Picture: Andrew Wardley
One of the famed scorpions living at the Sheerness docks compared to a coin. Picture: Andrew Wardley
One of the famed Scorpions living at Sheerness Docks. Picture: Andrew Wardley
One of the famed Scorpions living at Sheerness Docks. Picture: Andrew Wardley

Read more: All the latest news about Sheppey

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