Journal from the countryside: Bloodsucking parasites are eerie, never satisfied – and surprisingly widespread | Written by Jim Perrin
Who likes leeches? Definitely not me. Not the dark, speckled olive-green horse leeches that glide swiftly and purposefully through the muddy bottoms of ponds, nor the lighter fish leeches that torment the carp swimming in the green depths of Llandrindod Lake. Here, a water bailiff moves the carp to his keep-net and removes their unwanted parasites with a flick of his fingernail. There is even a term, hirudinophobia, for the uneasy psychological aversion to these tiny bloodsuckers, which is referenced in the Book of Proverbs: “The horse leach hath two daughters, crying, ‘give, give’. There are three things that are never satisfied, yea, four things say not, it is Enough!”
A medicinal leech can consume multiple times its own weight in blood before detaching and returning to its muddy habitat. It is able to sustain itself for weeks without needing to feed again. Despite being a common presence throughout the year, they are rarely spotted. The first time I encountered one was at Dunham Park Lake in Cheshire at the age of 12. I was horrified as I peered into the murky water and saw this dark, flat creature with teeth at both ends swiftly making its way across the lake bed. The movement of leeches is quite eerie.
Several years after, while travelling in Sarawak, Malaysia on a dugout canoe up the Rejang river, our guide brought us to a store in Long Singut, a village known for headhunting. He advised us to purchase women’s tights as they were the best protection against leeches. Other travelers shared exaggerated stories of being covered in leeches and having their limbs become invisible under them, or of socks filled with blood. They also warned of leeches falling from trees onto any exposed skin. However, I did not experience a single bite.
The Llandrindod leech presented a unique situation. It made its way up the slope with its distinctive gait, disappearing into the foliage. A silvermew, also known as a herring gull, was spotted inland due to Storm Gerrit and was performing its worm-dance to lure them out of the ground. The leech found a plump worm and began to feed, while the bird watched with interest before snatching both creatures and flying off in joyful triumph. Lesson learned: having a herring gull by your side is beneficial when dealing with leeches.