Welcome to the ugly bug ball

WHAT A HIDEOUS CREATURE And the praying mantis is no oil painting, either. Barrie Hudson gets up close and personal with Ventress

WHAT A HIDEOUS CREATURE And the praying mantis is no oil painting, either. Barrie Hudson gets up close and personal with Ventress Buy this photo

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“HERE,” said Sally-Ann Spence enthusiastically, inviting me to sample the faint whiff of rotting flesh coming from the cockroaches nestled in the palm of her hand.

“It’s their defence,” she explained. “Some hiss, some feign death and some smell of decaying flesh to put off predators.”

I once worked in a Government department like that, but thought it best not to say so.

Sally-Ann isn’t the first person to have roaches in their kitchen, but these are no ordinary roaches. They are one of only two British colonies of a Malaysian cave roach unknown to science until recently.

It’s no ordinary kitchen, either. Tanks and vivaria house not just roaches but also stick insects, mantises and other creatures. Multi-coloured exotic beetles scuttle like costume jewellery suddenly come to life, and everything is watched over sagely by a tree crab called Boris Johnson, who sits on a favourite log in his own bespoke quarters.

Nor is Sally-Ann what you’d call ordinary. For about three years now, she and her creatures have been Minibeast Mayhem, taking a roadshow to schools and children’s groups as far afield as London and spreading awareness of the natural world.

“I want children to appreciate their countryside, their world and the things that live in it,” she said. “If they don’t get a chance to appreciate it they’re not going to get a chance to worry about it – they’re going to be alienated to it.

“My policy is to bring the outside indoors. I have the facilities, the experience and the enthusiasm to do that. I’m passionate about the subject.”

Sally-Ann, 40, is married to Bill. The couple have two sons and work an arable farm near Ashbury. They also keep traditional breeds of animals – Dexter Cattle, Wiltshire Horned Sheep and Oxford Sandy and Black Pigs.

Sally-Ann grew up on a farm in Suffolk. “I spent my entire childhood in ditches, woods and fields,” she said. “I was finding, looking at and studying things. It’s something I have grown up with and it’s something I’m very attuned with.

“My parents were long suffering because we didn’t have pets in the house and I was forever smuggling in injured or orphaned wildlife that I had found. My mother discovered a pair of brown rats under my dressing table. I remember my pipistrelle bat that I successfully rehabilitated – she met that in my wardrobe.”

School was followed by agricultural college and a degree in rural environmental management. This was followed in turn by work with the Wildlife Trust in Norfolk, where her work included helping to preserve the fen raft spider, Dolomedes plantarius, an impressive beast with nifty pale stripes and a talent for walking on water.

Sally-Ann then became an education officer, a profession she’s followed on and off for 18 years. The passion for entomology, which began in childhood, has never left her. She breeds and studies the creatures, and her expertise makes her a respected contact for organisations such as the Natural History Museum in Oxford.

She began running her roadshows at the suggestion of a teacher friend.

She uses larger, exotic creatures because it’s easier for pupils to see special features such as limb structure and compound eyes.

Sally-Ann caters for pupils of all ages and abilities, including those with special needs. The emphasis is on enthusing rather than frightening people, so there are no spiders, scorpions or other ‘bitey’ or particularly phobia-triggering beasts.

“It’s not about intimidating,” she said. “It’s about encouraging that interest. I want them to walk out saying, ‘They’re really cool – let’s go out and find a ladybird!’”

The Minibeast Mayhem website is minibeastmayhem.com

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