The lesser white-toothed shrew has one of the smallest distributions in Britain of any British mammal. It is found only on the Isles of Scilly (a idyllic group of small islands about 30 miles south west of the tip of Cornwall) and some of the Channel Islands. Hence they are often referred to as Scilly shrews, (although it’s not that unusual in Europe).
I’ve had rather mixed success at seeing shrews for my British Animal Challenge. I have seen common and pygmy shrews, but only when they’ve happened to be in dormouse boxes I’ve been checking, not when I’ve specifically been looking for them. Water shrews have proven even harder. After hours, over several days, of standing by a pond where I know they live, I still haven’t seen one (although I think I heard it). So, keen to maximise the of seeing one during my stay on Scilly, I did some research.
I emailed the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, to see if they had any advice. They replied, very helpfully. The best island to see them on is St Agnes, as work has been done to eradicate rats on the island, which has helped shrews as well as seabirds. That was encouraging, as I was planning to spend a week camping on St Agnes, not just a day trip. I also asked someone from the RSPB on Tresco, and local Isles of Scilly naturalist, Will Wagstaff for advice on how best to see a Scilly shrew.
Once I arrived on St Agnes, I was on full alert for shrews (luckily Scilly is only home to one type of shrew, which simplifies identification). Shrews have fast metabolism, and have to eat frequently, so they are active both day and night. Every stroll was slowed down by my staring at the stone walls that line every road on the island. My ears strained to hear the rustle of foraging, or a high-pitched squeak as two shrews meet. At night I used my powerful headtorch to try to spot light reflecting back from a shrew’s eyes, but all I saw were rabbits and pinpricks of light reflecting in the eyes of spiders and moths. I needed to change my strategy.
One of the easiest places to see shrews is on the boulder beaches, near the high-tide line of dried seaweed, where they come to forage. It’s not that they’re more likely to be there than elsewhere on the island (in fact, they seem to prefer being near houses), but you stand more chance of seeing them there as there’s less vegetation to hide them. So, after five days of no luck with seeing shrews, I decided it was time to get serious: I needed to spend some time on a beach.
On a sunny afternoon Dr C and I found an empty beach, and settled ourselves down on the large boulders at the edge. Armed with binoculars and camera, I scoured the seaweed line for shrews, while Dr C quietly read his book. There was plenty of birdlife, including a fleeting glimpse of a kingfisher. After 45 minutes of hard looking through the binoculars, constantly alert, Dr C got my attention. He’d heard a sound, and then saw a shrew’s nose poking out from a gap between two rocks, just a foot away from where his foot was resting. I had missed it.
I was partly encouraged – we knew now we were definitely in the right place. And partly frustrated at missing one so near me. Mainly I was amused that while I’d been scouring the distance through binoculars, there was one so close. I think the shrew must have had a sense of humour.
Not long after the Dr C’s sighting, I spotted a grey back and tail scuttling between two rocks a couple of metres from me, and heard a squeak and then some twittering. A little later I spotted a womble-y nose poking up by Dr C’s foot again. So, I didn’t quite manage to see the whole of a Scilly shrew in one go, but if you put together the bits I did see at different times you’d be able to get a whole animal.
The things that struck me from the sighting we must either have been very good at keeping quiet, or the shrew wasn’t too bothered by our presence. It’s not often a wild mammal will come that close to you (even a house mouse will keep its distance).
So, another successful day for the British Animal Challenge. And one of the pleasantest so far – sitting on a beautiful, empty beach on a warm, sunny afternoon, seeing a species for the first time. What more could I want?!