Fearless as ever, I spent an afternoon last week searching for one of Britain’s few venomous animals. No, it wasn’t the adder I was after – it was that other beast that strikes fear into the heart of many: the water shrew.
Water shrews are quite remarkable animals. They are the only British insectivore that willingly spends its life in or by water. Like other shrews they have a fast metabolism, so need to eat pretty much constantly. In the water (I’m told) they look like quicksilver.
As part of my British Animal Challenge I’ve visited a few places that are ideal habitat for water shrews (they like similar unpolluted water to water voles). But I hadn’t yet seen one. They seem to like water with lots of vegetation, making them difficult to spot. In fact, I know people who have spent years working on sites that are home to water shrews, but have never seen one.
During my newt surveying with Surrey Wildlife Trust I learnt that water shrews live by a smallish pond on one of their reserves that isn’t open to the public. They kindly agreed to let me spend some time watching for water shrews, so I booked some flexi-leave.
A last minute work phone call meant I was running late, so I skipped lunch and headed straight to the reserve. It was a warm afternoon, alternating between baking sunshine and threatening clouds. One of the Wildlife Trust staff showed me where the shrews had been seen, so I set up my camera to get a good view, and started to watch.
The pond was crystal clear, and filled with insects. Waterboatmen and shiny round bugs glided near the surface. Dozens of damselflies and dragonflies darted about above the water, occasionally resting on a leaf to lay eggs, or fighting with a sound like angry paper planes.
Have you ever spent quality time just watching a pond? It’s surprisingly engrossing. There was always something going on. An hour passed quickly, then the next half hour. Then I started to notice my missed meal.
For a while a particularly fine dragonfly, the size of a light aircraft, engrossed my attention. It would dart and hover tantalisingly in front of my lens, but never long enough for me to get it in frame and focus. After a while of being tormented like that, it became my dearest wish not just to see a water shrew, but to witness one eat that particular dragonfly. I got one half decent shot (below) – any idea what sort he is?
After three hours of watching, and no sign of a water shrew, the sky clouded over and I decided to call it a day. As I drove away the rain started, leaving me that particularly smug feeling of just beating the weather.
Luckily I get a chance to try again this week.