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‘They are everywhere in this area’

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We should see plenty of action in an hour, Dr John Dunbar says assuredly via email, excited at the prospect. As a venom expert, many nights are spent combing the walls and railings of Dublin housing estates for Ireland’s highly-poisonous false widow spider.

Alone in the dark, armed with extended tweezers and a headlamp, he carefully places each one inside long plastic tubes as the residents sleep inside, blissfully unaware.

On a chilly evening thousands of such spiders are scattered just out of sight along Beech Park, a long quiet suburban road in Lucan lined with detached homes and webbed hedges. The noble false widow – or steatoda nobilis – first recorded in Ireland in 1999 is far more common than most people realise and its numbers are increasing alarmingly.

Within two minutes Dr Dunbar is poking at a web string. He has spotted two long, thin protruding legs, inconspicuous to the passerby. It is the first trophy of 94 that night.

Although he has handled thousands, Dr Dunbar has never been bitten. Twenty bites have been recorded in Ireland, he declares, and the bite is one to be avoided.

Hospitalised

“In some cases [bite symptoms] are so mild they just observed it for a couple of hours and it was pretty much gone,” Dr Dunbar explains. “Then we’ve had other cases where people have been hospitalised.”

In some cases victims have experienced severe bacterial infections, debilitating pain and body tremors.

Steatoda nobilis is compared to the notorious black widow for a number of reasons including notable similarities in appearance, genetics and toxins. It is known as the “false widow” because in regions where they co-exist it can be difficult to tell them apart.

Smaller than the native house spider, chocolate brown with a large bulbous abdomen and an intricate cream pattern sometimes resembling a skull, the false widow is easy to identify.

Five or six years ago researchers would have had to look hard for one. Today, a single hunter can expect to bag between 100 and 150 in a few hours in any suburban estate.

Thought to have originated in the Atlantic archipelagos of Madeira and the Canaries, it arrived in the United Kingdom and Europe on banana boats. Throughout the 20th century it established thriving populations throughout England and Wales, and later colonised parts of western Europe, California, Chile and the Middle East.

Although found in Co Wicklow a little more than two decades ago, little was known about its presence here until more recently. A 2017 Royal Irish Academy study confirmed the species in at least 16 counties, but most significantly in the greater Dublin area where it is abundant in urban buildings and around street furniture.

As Dr Dunbar walks slowly from suburban home to home, he identifies and scoops up the spiders from virtually every single driveway pillar he examines. His head torch illuminates the undersides of wall ledges, shrubs, gates, guttering, the back of ESB boxes. They are everywhere. After just a short while it seems other native species are relatively difficult to come by.

“[Their urban habitats] bring them in conflict with humans,” Dr Dunbar explains. “Usually the spider accidentally gets entangled in clothing or bed sheets and when they’re unintentionally pinned or squashed the spider actually bites, purely in defence. They’re actually quite a docile species.

Potent venom

“But they do have a venom that’s a little bit more potent than what we’re used to. It’s very similar to the venom of black widows, not quite as potent, but still kind of getting there.”

The risk posed are similar to ones posed by bees and wasps. Each spider can give about half of one microlitre of venom, about one thousandth of a millilitre. On his regular hunts Dr Dunbar tells the gardaí he will be prowling. The glow from his headlamp and his intricate inspection of neighbourhood walls are common, as are encounters with neighbours.

Just as he is plucking a sample with his extended tweezers, a resident approaches with a fair idea of what is going on but curious all the same. “They are obviously everywhere in this area,” Colm Gallagher says resignedly. “I know what the implications are; they have venom and whatever else. But they’re not terribly dangerous.”

They do go inside houses, but not usually. Whether for the curious resident, the arachnophobe or the scientist, there is still a lot to learn about these creatures and a race to learn it.

“They are here to stay, there is no way we’re going to get rid of them,” he says. “But we really need to monitor them while we can over the next years and see what happens. Now science must tell us what we are dealing with,” he said.

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Britain’s biggest homes for sale: Devon country house vs London mansion

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The biggest properties for sale on the open market in Britain – both in and outside of London – have been exclusively revealed by Zoopla.

The largest home on the property website is in Devon, in the town of Ottery Saint Mary, and at 22,211 sq ft it’s almost double the size of the 12,451 sq ft mansion in the capital.

Yet the price tag of the country house in Devon – said to be where Oliver Cromwell declared civil war –  is significantly less at £5.95million, costing just over a third of the £15.95million one in North London’s Highgate.

For £5.95m, you could get more than 22,000 square feet of country house with 21 acres of grounds in Devon's Ottery Saint Mary

For £5.95m, you could get more than 22,000 square feet of country house with 21 acres of grounds in Devon’s Ottery Saint Mary

By contrast, £16.95million buys a 12,500 square feet seven-bedroom mansion on London's affluent Courtenay Avenue

By contrast, £16.95million buys a 12,500 square feet seven-bedroom mansion on London’s affluent Courtenay Avenue

The seven-bedroom London pile is on Courtenay Avenue, which was recently named the second most expensive street in Britain and is close to Hampstead Heath. It comes with half an acre gardens – a sizeable chunk of land for a home in the capital.

But the Devon property boasts 21 acres, 10 bedrooms, parkland and woodland, and comes with what the estate agent describes as ‘the fascinating Cromwell Fairfax Room where it is believed Civil War was declared in the 17th Century’.

The average price of a home in Ottery, where it is situated, is £433,981, which is up £28,052 on a year ago, according to Zoopla.

By contrast, the average price of a home in Courtenay Avenue is £20,510,200, but that is down £108,741 compared to a year earlier, as buyers’ pandemic desire for the countryside tops demand for the capital.

We take a look inside both properties… 

1. Seven-bed house, Courtenay Avenue, London, £16.95million

The property is on a private gated road and boasts a luxurious interior with a large dining room for entertaining

The property is on a private gated road and boasts a luxurious interior with a large dining room for entertaining

The house for sale in London with the biggest square footage is in the north of the capital, on Courtenay Avenue.

Running parallel with the more famous Billionaire’s Row of The Bishops Avenue, Courtenay Avenue is an even more exclusive no-through road on the borders of Highgate and Hampstead, which was recently named as the second most expensive street in Britain by Zoopla. The £20million average house price there was only topped by Kensington Palace Gardens at £30million.

The Courtenay Avenue house extends across 12,451 sq ft, the equivalent of 1,156.7 square metres, and sits in just over half an acre of land. 

It has seven bedrooms, including a main bedroom suite that overlooks the landscaped gardens.

Inside, there is a swimming pool, gym, steam room and sauna, as well as staff accommodation.

The property has a price tag of £16.95million and is on the market via estate agents Bargets. 

The Courtenay Avenue home boasts a swimming pool, gym, steam room and sauna, as well as staff accommodation

The Courtenay Avenue home boasts a swimming pool, gym, steam room and sauna, as well as staff accommodation

Deep pockets required: The property has a price tag of £16.95million and is on the market via estate agents Bargets

Deep pockets required: The property has a price tag of £16.95million and is on the market via estate agents Bargets

The house extends across 12,451 sq ft, the equivalent of 1,156.7 square metres, and sits in just over half an acre of land

The house extends across 12,451 sq ft, the equivalent of 1,156.7 square metres, and sits in just over half an acre of land

The house has plenty of space with seven bedrooms, including a main bedroom suite that overlooks the landscaped gardens

The house has plenty of space with seven bedrooms, including a main bedroom suite that overlooks the landscaped gardens

Daniel Copley, of Zoopla, said: ‘Located on Courtenay Avenue, which was recently crowned the UK’s second most expensive street, this palatial property has an enviable location a stone’s throw away from Kenwood House and Hampstead Heath, as well as 24hr security.

‘The property itself is brimming with luxurious touches including a spacious walk in wardrobe, while the fitness suites offer the perfect place to unwind.’

2. Ten-bed house, Devon, £5.95m

This £16.95million house in Devon's Ottery St Mary has the biggest square footage of any home currently for sale on Zoopla

This £16.95million house in Devon’s Ottery St Mary has the biggest square footage of any home currently for sale on Zoopla

The property has an impressive dining room where Oliver Cromwell reportedly declared the start of the Civil War

The property has an impressive dining room where Oliver Cromwell reportedly declared the start of the Civil War

The largest house for sale in the country on Zoopla is in Exeter’s Ottery St Mary. It is called The Chanters House and extends across 22,211 sq ft, the equivalent of 2,063.4 square metres.

The living areas include The Great Library, which is more than 70 ft in length and is where poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s family created one of the West Country’s most impressive libraries,

Meanwhile, the dining room is said to be where Oliver Cromwell hosted a meeting of local people and declared the start of the Civil War in the 17th century.

A story to tell: The Great Library is more than 70 ft in length and was created by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his family

A story to tell: The Great Library is more than 70 ft in length and was created by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his family

The property is called The Chanters House and extends across 22,211 sq ft and boasts a large indoor swimming pool

The property is called The Chanters House and extends across 22,211 sq ft and boasts a large indoor swimming pool

The Grade II listed property has a massive 10 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms and a striking conservatory with a large seating area

The Grade II listed property has a massive 10 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms and a striking conservatory with a large seating area

There is also a billiards room, a conservatory, a swimming pool and a striking greenhouse.

The Grade II listed property has 10 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms and sits in more than 21 acres, including parkland and woodland that runs down to the River Otter. It has a price tag of £5.95million and is being sold via estate agents Knight Frank.

Zoopla’s Mr Copley said: ‘Chanters House is a true piece of British history, with links to famous figures including Oliver Cromwell and the renowned poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

‘The spacious interior has plenty of beautiful details including carved wooden ceilings and panelling, as well as a beautiful library with over 22,000 books. There’s also expansive grounds with a BBQ area and pool house.’

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Prosecution of former British soldier over Troubles killing defended

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Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service has defended the decision to prosecute British army veteran Dennis Hutchings over a Troubles shooting.

Mr Hutchings (80) died in hospital in Belfast on Monday after contracting Covid-19, leading unionist politicians to raise concerns that the case against him had been allowed to proceed.

The former member of the Life Guards, had pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974. He also denied a count of attempted grievous bodily harm with intent.

Mr Cunningham, a 27-year-old with learning difficulties, was shot dead as he ran away from an army patrol near Benburb. People who knew him said he had the mental age of a child and was known to have a deep fear of soldiers.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson had challenged the prosecution service over what new and compelling evidence led to the trial.

Deputy director of public prosecutions Michael Agnew said: “The PPS [Public Prosecution Service] decision to prosecute Mr Hutchings for attempted murder was taken after an impartial and independent application of the test for prosecution.

“The test for prosecution requires a consideration of whether the available evidence provides a reasonable prospect of conviction and, if it does, whether prosecution is in the public interest,” Mr Agnew said.

“Whilst a review of a previous no prosecution decision does not require the existence of new evidence, the police investigation in this case resulted in a file being submitted to the PPS which included certain evidence not previously available.

“In the course of the proceedings there were rulings by High Court judges that the evidence was sufficient to put Mr Hutchings on trial and also that the proceedings were not an abuse of process.”

Mr Agnew said the PPS recognised the “concerns in some quarters” in relation to the decision to bring the prosecution.

He added: “We would like to offer our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Mr Hutchings, and acknowledge their painful loss.

“However, where a charge is as serious as attempted murder, it will generally be in the public interest to prosecute.”

“Our thoughts are also with the family of John Pat Cunningham who have waited for many decades in the hope of seeing due process take its course.”

Mr Hutchings had been suffering from kidney disease, and the court had been sitting only three days a week to enable him to undergo dialysis treatment between hearings.

He was charged with the attempted murder of John Pat Cunningham in Co Tyrone in 1974.

Mr Hutchings died at the Mater Hospital on Monday while in Belfast for the trial. Hours earlier, the trial had been adjourned for three weeks in light of his health.

Mr Donaldson said he had been shocked when the decision was taken to bring the case to trial. “He has been literally dragged before the courts,” he told the BBC.

“Dennis is an honourable man, he wanted to clear his name, he was prepared to go despite the risk to his health but I do think this morning there are serious questions that need to be asked of those who took the decision that it was in the public interest to prosecute this man.”

Mr Donaldson said Mr Hutchings’s actions had been investigated at the time.

“So it is not a question of this being something new, and therefore the question I have for the PPS is what was the new and compelling evidence that meant it was in the public interest to bring an 80-year-old in ill health on dialysis at severe risk to his health before the courts, and I think that is an entirely valid question that I am entitled to ask this morning,” he said.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie has called for a “full and thorough” review into the decision-making of the Public Prosecution Service. – PA

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How to value your home

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Since Revenue disclosed details of its property tax revaluation campaign back in mid-September, households around the State have started to fret about how much their home is worth.

Where just a few short weeks ago, people were talking jubilantly about how much the house across the road had sold for, now there is a fear that exuberant house prices will cause a sharp rise in property tax bills.

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