DESPITE the relative mildness of our winter so far, my woodpile has been shrinking rapidly; yesterday, in fact, I reached the bottom layer of the dry-and-ready-to-burn stack.

On lifting one of the biggest of the split, birch logs I unwittingly unleashed mayhem and panic among the creatures that had been living underneath it. Most of them were woodlice, with a couple of centipedes and one odd-looking spider.

The woodlice had chosen this bottom log as their abode for good reason – being in contact with the ground meant that it wasn’t as dry as the others stacked above and, being so low down, it was well shielded from the sunlight. Damp and dark… just how woodlice like things to be.

I can still remember a simple animal behaviour experiment I did in biology at school; we put 10 woodlice in a square container divided into four quarters – dry and light, dry and dark, damp and light and damp and dark. At the end of the lesson we looked to see where the little creatures had chosen to go and, as expected, all 10 were nestled in the damp and dark corner.

Anyway, back to my woodpile woodlice. On closer inspection they turned out to be shiny woodlice (Oniscus asellus), one of the five species common in Ryedale, the others being rough, fast, pygmy and pill.

All these names are descriptive of the animals concerned and self-explanatory, except maybe the pill woodlouse, which earns its label from an ability to curl itself up hedgehog-style into an almost perfect ball. While we are on names, half of the word “woodlouse” is very misleading; “wood” yes because

they both live within it and eat

the stuff, but a true louse is a parasitic insect not at all related to woodlice.

Our endearing little wood-munchers are crustaceans, so are much closer allied to crabs and shrimps, a genealogy which limits their habitat. Because woodlice lack the waterproof cuticle of insects they are very prone to dehydration – hence the preference for damp and dark places.

“Louse” is a poor name for another reason – it infers unpleasantness (as in ‘lousy’) and on the whole we tend to like these harmless and inoffensive creatures.

The plethora of regional names we have for them reflects our feelings; in the West Country they are chiggypigs or penny sows, Kentish folk call them cheesybugs or cheese rockets and local Ryedale names I have heard are billybuttons and billybakers.

We are not the only ones fond of woodlice. That odd-looking spider sharing my log pile had a maroon front-end and creamy abdomen and was an individual of a specialist species that feeds almost exclusively on woodlice – no mean feat as they are almost completely encased in tough, armour-like scales.

The woodlouse spider (Dysdera crocata) doesn’t bother making webs to catch it’s slow-moving prey but it does need disproportionately large fangs to be able to penetrate the woodlouse’s thick armour plating and inject its venom.

The intimidating appearance of the woodlouse spider has led to stories of its really painful and dangerous bite for humans as well. The truth is that, although those enormous fangs are certainly capable of piercing human skin, the animal itself is very placid and loath to bite anything other than a woodlouse.

Reports from people who have either accidentally injured one of these spiders, or deliberately provoked them as an experiment, say that the bite is like a wasp sting at first which then becomes intensely itchy, but not dangerous.

“Live and let live”’ is my principle for organisms not doing me any harm (and even some that do) so the damp bottom layer of logs will remain undisturbed.

While the next load of firewood dries out above, and I can entertain myself by imagining everyday life and death for the community of creatures living in the dark below.