Longleat has joined an international rescue programme to try and save a Critically Endangered species of wolf spider.

Desertas Wolf Spider.

It’s thought that only around 4,000 Desertas wolf spiders survive in the wild within a small valley on the uninhabited Desertas Grande island, part of an archipelago off the south-east coast of Madeira.

Longleat is one of seven collections, including Bristol Zoo, which is working with the Portuguese government on the conservation programme.

A total of 52 young spiders arrived at Longleat in December. The plan is to raise the spiderlings to adulthood and then establish a satellite breeding population with batches being released back into the wild to boost native numbers.

Longleat’s James Gotts inspects one of the Desertas wolf spiders.

Keeper James Gotts, who is overseeing the spider project, said: “As well as being one of the rarest wolf spider species, Desertas wolf spiders are also among the largest with a legspan of up to 13cms.

“Historically there have been no native mammals on the island so the spiders are effectively one of the top predators.

“However, the recent expansion of an invasive grass species into the valley the spiders live in has prevented the spiders from being able to live in their normal rocky environment, putting them increasingly under threat. Since 2005 the spiders’ range has declined abruptly.

Longleat’s James Gotts with one of the Desertas wolf spiderlings

“As well as setting up our own breeding colony we hope the new spider laboratory in our Animal Adventure area will aid with research on this little known species and also raise awareness of their plight,” he added.

The spiders are being looked after in a carefully-controlled environment which mimics conditions in the wild and staff are even monitoring temperatures on the island.

“The plan is for one of our keepers to travel out to the island in the near future to help with population monitoring and habitat restoration, including hopefully supplementing the wild population with some of our captive reared animals,” he added.

Watch the video interview with keeper James Gott about the wolf spiders below: