Children nature walks --May -Part 2 More water creatures-featuring the Leech

 The stories related in this series are from the book Country Walks of a Naturalist {with his children} Not in copyright, and courtesy of the Gutenberg Project. The author the Rev.W.Houghton was based in Shropshire { England}. The book was published in the 1800's and only species names are updated along with other relevant information where necessary by me.

In children's nature walk -2 May- part one, the naturalist and his children went to look for sticklebacks,in this chapter we explore other water creatures that the naturalist and his children came across.


Our story begins.

" Oh! Papa do look here; as I was turning over this bit of flat tile I found in the water,I found a creature something like a leech and on raising it up I saw what looks like a quantity of the animal's eggs, and she seems to be sitting upon them as a hen upon her eggs." All right Jack let me look, I dare say it is one of the snail leeches. Yes, to be sure, it is, and here are the eggs that the creature carefully covers with her body,and upon which she will sit till the young ones are formed; the small  sometimes 150,or more in number, then attach themselves to the under surface of the parent.and they carried wherever she goes. There are various interesting species in this family ,all of which are inhabitants of fresh water,some incubate or sit upon their eggs,others carry them off in a hollow formed by the contraction of their sides.

They have a long tubular proboscis, by which they suck out the juices of pond snails and other water creatures. the snail leeches move along in the same way as the common horse leech or the medicinal leech,namely,by fixing their head part on to the surface of some substance in the water then drawing up the hind part up to it ;they then extend the head portion and fix upon another spot,again drawing up the other extremity. But the leeches,properly so called, have all red blood, that of the snail leeches is colourless.

" Is the leech used to bleed people when they are ill ever found in the ponds of this country.?" asked Willy. I believe it is rarely met with these days, most of the species used in medicine are imported from Spain,Hungary and the south of France; and Algeria,many millions are brought each year into this country. The medicinal leech, was however,pretty common in the lakes and pools of northern England. The poet Wordsworth introduced us to an old Leech -gatherer,lamenting the scarcity of the animal in the following lines---

" He with a smile did then his words repeat

And said that gathering leeches far and wide

He travelled, stirring thus about his feet

The waters of the pool where they abide.

Once I could meet them on every side

But they have dwindled long by slow decay;

But still I persevere and catch them where I may"


This sonnet was written in 1807,and when we consider the immense numbers used in medicine, and the utter neglect of leech culture in this country we shall cease to wonder why native leeches are very scarce. It is said that four only of the principal dealers in London import every year more than seven million leeches. The annual demands in France was estimated in 1846 to be twenty to thirty millions;Paris requiring three million a year. " I should be very sorry Papa" said Jack, " to walk about in the water like the old man you describe in the lines you have just quoted now, with bare legs in the water using them as bait for leeches. Ugh! its horrible to think of, they must suck a great deal of blood from the man's legs ".  There is nothing like being used to a thing, and when you remember a lot of people derive their whole support from the leeches they gather, you will not wonder that they do not fear a few leech bites. I do not suppose that they loose much blood, no doubt the gatherer's pick them very quickly and put them into their collecting cases.;besides the chief flow of blood, from a leech bite occurs after the leech as been removed. the flow is encouraged by warm fomentations, but the cols water of the pool would stop the flow of blood  in the case of the man's legs. We ought to be grateful for the animal's existence, which is of such great service to mankind. I suppose it was with the appreciation of their value in medicine,that induced the French ladies,about forty five years ago,to regard leeches with especial favour. Many people will remember the Cochin-China mania, and the sea anemone mania,,buy May, what would young ladies say to the fact that in 1842, there existed in France a mania for leeches?  The most enthusiastic admirer of Cochin fowls or Sea anemones would never have thought of carrying her admiration of her pets so high as to wear on her dress figures of these animals; But we learn from a French writer that there might have been seen in that period, elegant ladies wearing dresses 'a la Broussais', on the trimming of which were imitations of leeches!.

Broussais, you must know was a physician, no doubt a fashionable ladies doctor , and a great Patron of leeches. " What?" asked Willy " Are the leeches I often find in the drains on the moors and other places?" i have no doubt you often find these kinds, there is a small leech, the commonest of all called Nephalis {Old genus name}  who's little oval cocoons are so frequent on the under sides of stones in water and waterside plants. I will soon find a few cocoons; look here under this little brick tile are five or six; they now contain the eggs, as I will show you, by slitting open the case with my penknife. They gradually change to young leeches,which find their way out of the cocoon from one or the other opening at each end. then there is the Horse leech and another very similar to it called Aulastoma, which means having a wide mouth, it has no English name. I once witnessed a curious sight, I put two of these wide mouthed leeches into a vessel of water and introduced a great fat lob-worm, each leech seized the worm one took the head and one took the tail. As the worm got gradually swallowed the leeches came to close quarters and eventually touched. What was to happen? Would they twist and writhe about and try and break the worm, and so share the 'grub' between them? No! the one fellow quickly proceeded to swallow his antagonist. I watched him very carefully;and he succeeded in getting down the red lane about an inch of his companion;but whether he did not like the taste or whether he had a qualms of conscience  of taking such an unfair advantage of a near relation,I know not,after a few minutes the partly swallowed leech made his appearance again,apparently none the worse for his temporary sojourn in the throat of his companion. 


Snail leech


From the pond to the fields

Let us leave the pond and take our little fish with us,taking care not to shake the can more than we can help. We are now in the fields which are beautifully green after all the rain. Look at the crab  tree in the hedge;did you ever see such magnificent blossoms? The hawthorn hedges are full of may buds,what a show of may there will be in a fortnight's time. Lets us gather a sprig of crab blossom and a few may buds and see if we can gather  a pretty handful of wild flowers for May, to take home for mamma. Here are a few cowslips with their drooping golden balls and delicious scent, I'm afraid we won't find enough to make a cowslip ball. here is a cuckoo flower,which has 'Old Gerarde'  says " Doth flower in April and Maie,when the cuckoo doth begin her pleasant note without stammering" Old Gerarde, by the way, ought to have said His pleasant notes, for only the male bird that cries ' cuckoo '.Its flowers are of a delicate pale purple when at the height of its beauty; they become nearly white when on the wane. Ladies smock is another name for this flower,Shakespeare speaks of it---

" The daisies  pied and violets blue,

And ladies smock all silver white"


Here is blue speedwell and penciled stitchwort with its pure snow white blossoms and delicate green leaves.It is a lovely spring flower and very common among the grasses of every hedgerow. We will pluck a few bits;how brittle the stem is. What curious ideas our ancestors must have had; fancy calling this plant 'all bones' ! Its name stitchwort, no doubt alludes to the plants supposed virtue in cases of the stitch in the side.  The following lines of Calder Campbell on spring flowers, I think you will find very pretty----

The buds are green on the Linden tree ,

And flowers are bursting on the lea;

There is the daisy, so prim and  white,

With golden eye, and fringes bright;

And here is the golden buttercup

Like a Miser's chest, with the gold hep'd up;

And the stitchwort with his pearly star;

Seen on the hedgebank from afar;

And there is the primrose,sweet though wan,

And the cowslip dear to the ortolan;

That sucks its morning draught of dew;

From the drooping curls of the harebell blue"


Here is more 'May-flower',or Marsh marigold,let us take some; It will make a bright show in our wild flower cluster. we will put a sprig or two of copper beech,with its rich brown leaves,which we can get from the garden,two bits of lilac blue and white,and though the nosegay is very common it is still pretty,and mamma will put it in her best vase and give it a place in the drawing room for those to admire who have hearts to admire the wild gifts of Nature.

Why Jacko what are grubbing up from that ditch? " I am not grubbing up anything" said Jacko "but  here are a lot of black creatures,lively enough when you stir them up, I suppose they must be tadpoles". Tadpoles Jack,unquestionably , but are they the Young of a toad or the frog?. Let me see. Well it is not easy to say which is which at this stage, a tadpole is so like a tadpole whether the young of a frog or a toad. If you had found the eggs which you could have done earlier in the year,there would have been no difficulty in saying whether they were the eggs of a frog or a toad. For the toad lays its black eggs embedded in a long clear jelly like line.,whereas the frogs eggs are embedded in a shapeless mass of jelly. Look at some of these black little fellows, there is a delicate fringe on each side of the head; these are the creatures gills and answer the same purpose as the gills of a fish. The blood circulates through them and is made fresh and pure by the action of the air  contained in the water, but must come to the surface to take in air from the atmosphere. By -and-by we should see two small tubercles appear near the root of the tail these are the first indications of the hind legs. Meanwhile the forelegs are budding forth, and in time will assume their distinct forms. The changes of the tadpole from when it is a 'fish' to a frog, when it becomes an amphibian, are most curious and interesting.

" What sort of frog do they eat in France? " ask Willy, "because you know the French eat frogs" The frogs that the French eat is a very different sort to our common frog,though I dare say our common frog would be quite good. The edible frog has been found several times in this country,and  Mr, Eyton says that during the time a detachment of French prisoners were at Wellington,they were highly delighted to find their old friend the edible frog wild on the moors here. I have never,myself seen anything other than our common frog here. You would think that a frog would make a curious kind of pet,but a gentleman once kept a frog for several years quite domesticated. It made its appearance in an underground kitchen at Kingston on the banks of the Thames. The servants,wonderful to say, showed him kindness and gave him food. One would have expected them to give a loud shriek of terror and fainted away at the unexpected sight.

Curiously enough during the winter seasons, when frogs are usually lying asleep at the bottom of the pool, this frog used to come out of his hole and seeks a snug place near the kitchen fire, where he would continue to bask and enjoy himself till the servants retired to rest. And more curious still, this frog got remarkably fond of a favourite old cat, and used to nestle under the warm fur of Mrs Pussy,she in the mean time she did not in the least to Mr. Frog's presence. 

But frogs and toads do a great deal of good by destroying great quantities of slugs and injurious insects; they are moreover; perfectly harmless. Some ignorant people,who love to destroy everything,insist on killing frogs and toads;they say they eat the strawberries in their gardens. Did you ever examine a toad's or frog's tongue Willy?. You never did; then I hope the next frog you catch you open its mouth very carefully;-treat him as if you loved him, as honest Isaac Walton says  and give me some short account of its structure  of a frog's tongue. " All right, Papa" said Willy, " I will bear the matter in mind. It makes me laugh, though, to think of my examining a frog's tongue; still I wonder what it is like,and I wish that I could catch a frog at once to see what it is like, but we are now close to home and I will have to wait for another walk".