Churchyard Nature Note with Andrew Tompsett

April 2016

Bugs of Ancient Lineage

The thread of life from low to high makes existence possible for us all on earth even the lowliest playing an important part in our well-being. Look beneath any churchyard stone or piece of damp wood and you will see some of the most ancient and commonest of creatures such as woodlice, hiding away from the light and seeking moisture. Their diet consists of dead and decaying plant matter such as dead leaves, cardboard and wood and they perform a very useful function, hastening plant breakdown and recycling. Unfortunately not plastic but most other kinds of litter they very usefully cope with! This is a beneficial creature, the only mildly harmful aspect of woodlice is to greenhouse plants which, when soft and damp, may be nibbled.

When the bug hotel in Maningham wood is investigated the most numerous bug found is invariably the woodlouse. Although there are some 46 species in Britain only 32 are likely to be found outside our greenhouses and not all of them roll into a ball when disturbed, a habit which led to the common name of pill-bug. Such names go back a very long way, pill-bug to when they were prescribed for the relief of bladder troubles, thankfully not now! Medical uses, too numerous to list here, are also recorded going back to the time when the shape of a creature, a seed or plant part resembled the affected part of the body. It all sounds very strange to us today!

We know that the woodlouse group is very, very old because the fossil imprints can be seen in coal and other rocks of the Carboniferous era, that is some 300 million years ago. In an odd way there is a general liking for these harmless and shy creatures which of course abound in the churchyard. Down the ages they have lived very close to us, so close that they have attracted a vast number of common names many of which are very curious indeed and in most cases only known locally, in Cornwall – ‘grammer-zows’ or ‘gramfers’. Others are Chizel-pig, chiggy-pig, gammer-louse, monkey-peas, shoemaker, tiddy-hog, and Susie-pig are just a few! Apparently they can indicate the part of the country where these childhood names became used.

Many names are associated with pigs and the term louse also has this origin since the woodlouse, though a crustacean, does rather resemble the pig louse, a bloodsucking insect. Thus,’ chuggy-pig’ is used in Cornwall and parsons-pigs, usually the runt of a litter, is used in the Isle of Man with slater in Yorkshire. An old Glaswegian expression being ‘it is better than a slater up the nose’.

No doubt there are more local ones here in Illogan!

Andrew Tompsett

All photos © D Fenwick.