Tag Archives: British wildlife

In which we find woodmice, bank voles, field voles, and pygmy shrews but no harvest mice

As the alarm went off at 5.20am the other day, I did wonder why I had let myself in for such an early start on a precious day off. The rain beating against the windscreen as I drove through the dark, empty roads didn’t encourage me, either. I pulled up in the near deserted superstore car park, and it crossed my mind that this was not a normal thing to be doing.

The rain had stopped by the time I had got out of the car and wellified myself, and the remains of the supermoon cut cleanly through the sky. Our small group of like minded eccentrics congregated and headed off down an obscure path in the corner of the car park, lighting headtorches as we moved out of orange glare of the street lamps.

The path went under the dual carriageway, beside the river, to an isolated area of  waist-high marshy grasses, visible only in the small patches illuminated by head torch beams. After a bit of searching, we found the cached hoard of straw, food and weatherwriter, and stocked up the black bin bag. It didn’t look at all suspicious, four people walking around deserted wasteland at 6am in the morning carrying a black bin bag. I did wonder what anyone looking out of a window from the houses across the river must have thought.

We headed into the grass towards the scrap of striped tape that marked the first trap point, where two longworth traps (one on the ground, and the other set a couple of feet up on a stake) waited.

There’s always a frisson of suspense as you approach a small mammal trap. Has it been tripped? If so, what will it contain? We had a bumper harvest that morning – 8 woodmice, 2 field voles, 2 bank voles and one fiesty pygmy shrew. But none of the animals we were really searching for: harvest mice.

Field vole
Field vole

As the bright November morning dawned, we were able to get a better look at what we caught. If you think that one small mammal species is much like another in temperament, you’re mistaken. As you can see from these photos, voles are pretty chilled. I didn’t get any photos of woodmice (it was too dark when we found them, and they move too quickly). The tiny pigmy shrew was my personal favourite. You’ve got to admire a creature that, though about as big as a thumb nail, decides to try to bite its captor’s hand (it’s teeth weren’t long enough the penetrate the skin, but it gave it a good go).

Pygmy shrew trying to bite
Pygmy shrew trying to bite

The check was part of Surrey Mammal Group and Surrey Wildlife Trust’s harvest mouse project. We’re trying to get fur samples from harvest mice populations in different sites in the county. These samples are then DNA tested to allow us to see how closely related they are, or whether harvest mice at different sites have very different DNA to each other. The point of this is to see how good the connectivity between sites is for wildlife. Connectivity is important, as isolated populations are vulnerable to being wiped out.

This is our third year of the project. In the first year we were able to get enough samples for the lab scientists to identify plenty of DNA markers that will allow us to compare different harvest mice populations. Last year, when we went back to survey the sites that had had lots of harvest mice the previous year, we found very few. And we’ve not had large numbers this year, either.

We repeated the survey that evening, starting and ending in the dark, and found similar numbers of woodmice, bank voles, field voles and a single pygmy shrew, but again no harvest mice. The voles decided that sitting on hands was a morning activity – in the evening it’s all about climbing onto heads. This one seemed to particularly enjoy Derek’s hair – it looked like it was planning to settle down up there. Glen and Keith also got scaled by intrepid vole explorers.

A vole in the hair...
A vole in the hair…

By the end of the check it was bucketing down, and I was very pleased to get home to a warming bowlful of food, prepared by Dr C.

It’s not hugely surprising we didn’t find any harvest mice at this site – it really is cut off from other harvest mouse habitats (I suspect voles and woodmice are a little less particular in the sorts of neighbourhoods they’ll live in). And, while we didn’t succeed in our aim for the checks, it was still great to see small mammals at such close quarters. And it was worth braving the elements and giving up a lie-in to have that privilege.


Dormouse Box Check October 2016: dormouse activity in new areas of the site

After last month’s brilliant box check, I was hopeful that we’d see lots of dormice this month. I was expecting the seven youngsters we found in one box to now have separated and set up their own homes nearby. And I was hoping the pinkies would now be bigger and bouncier.

The first set of boxes we surveyed didn’t show new signs of dormouse activity. But, excitingly, there was the start of a new dormouse nest in one of this year’s boxes, in a new bit of the site. This box is one of four in a clump of hazel on the edge of the woods, and separated from the other boxes by a stretch of un-dormousey woodland – tall trees with little understory. It was a bit of an experiment putting the boxes here – I wanted to see if dormice would use this bit of hazel, given the unpromising habitat between it and the rest of the boxes. So far this year, nothing had used any of these boxes. So it was very exciting to see the start of a dormouse nest here.

The shrew who had taken over the bees nest which had taken over a dormouse nest has finally moved out – not before time – the nest was covered in shrew droppings, and sticky from the bees. The kind Dr C volunteered to clean that one out, which is great as it was a health hazard for any creature that might have ventured in.

There was no sign of any of last month’s young in the boxes near where we found the seven dormice. And the bitey adult male has moved out as well. But we did find a 16g young male in a wren’s nest. As I slid the box lid off, and the perspex over the nest, he clambered to the top of the mossy nest, pressing himself against the perspex. He turned out to be a lively little fellow, so I didn’t take a photo of him – I wanted to get him sexed, weighed and back in the nest before he had time to get too upset. This is the first time we’ve found a dormouse in that particular little section of the site, so more encouragement that they’re not limited to one bit of it. And it’s good that he’s probably big enough already to get through the winter.

No sign of last month’s pinkies – hopefully mum has made a nice natural nest for them.

I’m not sure if that’s the last box check I’ll do this year – if the weather stays mild and there’s still food about, dormice could still be active in a month’s time (particularly this year’s young, as they work on fattening up). But if the weather turns cold, we may not find anything. I’d be a bit sad, if that’s the last check of the year, but, sitting beside my first fire of the season, maybe it is time for hibernation.

Apart from the one dormouse, and signs of new nest building, the other thing of note that we found was this rather fine caterpillar.  Possibly a pale tussock? What do you think?

Catepillar - possibly a pale tussock?
Caterpillar – possibly a pale tussock?

Dormouse box check September 2016: lifting Sophie’s curse

I was very excited about this month’s dormouse box check, after the promising signs last month, finding a pregnant dormouse and a young family. I was expecting to find boxes of bouncy young dormice, ready to explode out like jack-in-the-boxes as soon as the lid was removed. But I had forgotten that Sophie, one of the volunteers joining me this month, seems to be cursed, with dormice hiding away from boxes whenever she visits a site, no matter how many dormice are usually found there…

I was reminded of Sophie’s curse early on in the check, when the nest that held the pregnant female last month turned out to be empty, and none of the surrounding boxes had any sign of dormice. Hopefully that means she’s made a natural nest somewhere to have her babies, and we may see them turn up in our boxes next month. But it doesn’t help Sophie get the experience of handling young dormice that she needs to get her license. Still, we knew that one of the last boxes of the check had a family in last month, so we continued with some (slightly diminished) optimism.

The woods are starting to feel autumnal, with the leaves just starting to turn yellow, and fungi everywhere you look.


Luckily we didn’t have to wait until the end of the check to find dormice. A new nest had appeared in a box about halfway through our check route, so we got it off the tree, and had a proper look in. There seemed to be three or four young (eyes open) dormice in the nest. So Sophie started bagging them up for weighing. But it didn’t stop at four. They just kept coming. Five… six… seven. No sign of an adult, but seven healthy, lively youngsters. I’ve no idea how they all fitted in the nest.

Dormice generally have litters of about four, so seven is a big, but not unheard of, number. Most of them were around 8-10g, although one was an impressive 14g (he was also quite feisty, biting Sophie – quite unusual for a dormouse, but perhaps his feisty attitude is how he got so much bigger than his siblings). We used coloured twisty tags to help us keep track of which was which.

We were able to sex a few of them – mostly males, but my personal favourite was a very pretty female with a white tip to her tail. Hopefully, with that distinguishing feature we’ll be able to spot her again next month, and see how she’s doing putting on weight for hibernation.

Young dormouse
Young dormouse

With seven dormice to go around, we all got a chance to handle a few while putting them back in the box. They were very cooperative, with none trying to escape the nest while we posted their siblings back in. Just as well, as we could have been there all day otherwise…

A few boxes later we found an adult male (who also bit Sophie). By that time we were wondering if she smelt of hazelnut…

A shrew has taken over one of the old bees nests, which they’d taken over from a dormouse nest… It’s funny how some boxes seem to be attractive to several different species, while other nearby boxes are empty.

Our last box of the day also revealed good news – a lactating female, with tiny pinkies (the official term for dormice babies before they develop fur – these were less than 15mm long). We didn’t get them out of the box, and processed mum as quickly as we could (although not before she had bitten me, through the bag!).

With 9 dormice plus pinkies we have well and truly lifted Sophie’s curse. Let’s hope they have a good month feeding, putting on enough weight to see them through the winter… (now there’s an idea!)


Vole patrol part 2

Surrey Wildlife Trust’s quest to find out if water voles are functionally extinct in the county continues. Which means I spent some of my bank holiday wading through a brook, looking for burrows, feeding signs, droppings and pawprints.

It was a beautiful day, and a beautiful site to survey. A small brook running through farmland, with earth cliff banks covered in brambles dripping with ripe blackberries. The stream itself didn’t have any vegetation in it, but the water was clear, the banks easily burrowable, and there was plenty of vegetation along the banks. So not entirely unlikely habitat for a water vole. In fact, we know there used to be voles here, hence we were surveying this site.

Tanners Brook
Tanners Brook

Charlotte (a fellow volunteer and my partner in crime for this survey) and I donned our waders, buoyancy aids and set off, stick and clipboard in hand. The survey involves one person wading in the river, looking for water vole signs (or mink, rat or otter for that matter), while the other keeps pace along the bank, drawing a map as she goes. We took it in turns to do the fun bit (the heat of the day made the cool water appealing, even though my waders were slightly leaky).

Disappointingly (but not surprisingly), we didn’t find any signs of water voles. There were a few holes too small for a water vole, and a few much to big. But not pringle tube sized holes, no vole droppings, no feeding lawns… I guess the good news is that we didn’t find any mink pawprints or droppings either.

Water vole populations have disappeared from 94% of their previous sites, the fastest decline of any British species. The last confirmed sighting of a water vole in Surrey was eight years ago. Surrey Wildlife Trust aim to survey around 200 sites where water voles have previously been reported. They’re also asking members of the public to report any water voles they spot in Surrey. There’s a handy ID guide on their website (which is useful as it’s easy to mistake a swimming rat for a water vole – in fact, the wonderful Ratty from The Wind in the Willows is actually a water vole).

The intrepid vole patrollers have so far surveyed 84 sites. But we haven’t found a single water vole sign. Plenty of mink. And rats. But no water voles.

The information from all these surveys will help Surrey Wildlife Trust work out how best to help water voles in the county. This may include predator (mink) control and possibly re-introductions, if there’s still enough  suitable habitat in our crowded county. Our neighbours, Hampshire, still have water voles. I hope one day we can see them in Surrey again.

Dormouse box check, August 16

As we assembled for this month’s box check I was in two minds about whether to go ahead with it. It was raining, which isn’t ideal, as you don’t want any disturbed dormice getting soggy (their fur isn’t waterproof). And it was quite windy in the car park on top of the ridge of the North Downs. The forecast said it should just be a shower. But the wind was due to double by lunchtime. It’s just not sensible to be in the woods on a windy day.

But the volunteers had travelled to get there (giving up a precious Saturday lie-in). And I would struggle to find time for the check another day this month.

In the end I decided to see what it was like at the site (a 15 minute walk away from the car park, and a bit more sheltered), trusting that the forecast would be right about the shower, and that we’d finish the check before the wind picked up.

Once in the wood, the wind became less noticeable. The leaves were rustling, but the branches were still. So at least it was safe for the volunteers.

We started, as always, with nine boxes we put up last year across the path from the rest. It was where we had found a dormouse last month, so a promising place to start. The dormouse had moved on from last month’s nest. But, a few boxes later, we hit gold.

A lively dormouse jumped out of the box. Once we had bagged it up, it was clear that he was a male in breeding condition. It’s usually quite hard to determine the sex of a dormouse, but that wasn’t a problem with this fellow. While he was safe and dry in a weighing bag I explored the nest for any other occupants, and found a beautiful pregnant female. This was fantastic news – it’s great to see breeding happening on that side of the path. Both dormice safely returned to their nest, we carried on.

Last month we had a couple of bees nests in dormouse boxes. We approached them with caution, watching and listening for any signs of bees. They seemed to have left the first nest, and, as we watched, a shrew emerged from the second. I’m guessing that one no longer has bees in. But we’ll wait til next month to clean it out, to be on the safe side (the bees seem to enjoy lulling you into a false sense of security at my site).

As the check progressed the rain eased up, although by that time most of us had soggy feet.

Dr C checked the last box. Last month it had an empty bluetit nest in it. If it was still disused this month, we’d clean it out, like we had with the other manky bluetit nests. As he slid the lid across, we saw it had been transformed in the last month. No longer a shallow open nest, the box was full of moss (like a wren’s nest), with leaves and honeysuckle bark as well. Although not a classic dormouse nest, we were both suspecting dormice, when a golden face appeared against the perspex.

Dan, a volunteer who is working towards his license, had the job of bagging the dormouse, who turned out to be a lactating mother. In the nest cavity we could feel some young, but, given the less than ideal weather, and their vulnerability, we decided to leave them in the warmth and safety of the nest, and return mum to them as quickly as possible.

Mummy dormouse

It was a wonderful end to the check, and I am very excited to see how they are all getting on next month.

Photo special: Macrophotography course

It’s easy to overlook small things, and miss the everyday beauty (and weirdness) that surrounds us. Dr C very kindly gave me a macro lens for my birthday, back in April, and since then I’ve been seeing the world differently. It’s been a revelation.

I realised I needed to learn how to use it, so booked myself on a Surrey Wildlife Trust macrophotography course, led by Adrian Davies. The course took place in an old orchard, in the most glorious sunshine. There was plenty of unexpected beauty to be found, once you start looking at it. Here are my best shots from the day.

Globe thistle
Globe thistle
Bee on bramble flower
Bee on bramble flower
Irridescent fly
Irridescent fly
Water drops at the heart of a flower
Water drops at the heart of a flower
Hoverfly on bramble flower
Hoverfly on bramble flower
Cranesbill flowers
Cranesbill flowers
Gatekeeper(?) butterfly on bramble flower
Gatekeeper(?) butterfly on bramble flower

July 2016 Dormouse Box Check

July’s dormouse box check got off to a good start. As I looked into my first box of the day, a lively dormouse appeared.

By the time I had got the box off the tree, into the bag, the dormouse had turned shy, burrowing beneath the nest. The nest itself wasn’t particularly well constructed, so unlikely to survive being lifted out of the box.

An unusually messy, loose dormouse nest
An unusually messy, loose dormouse nest

Often when active dormice are reluctant to come out of their nests at this time of the year, it’s because they have young they want to protect. So I took things slowly and carefully. Once I had established there were no youngsters in the nest, I had another go at getting out the adult, this time successfully.

I finally extracted the dormouse from it's box
I finally extracted the dormouse from it’s box

It’s always a little nerve-wracking, handling your first active dormouse of the year. The last active one I handled was back in October – 9 months ago. Luckily this one was pretty cooperative (and pretty) so didn’t make a run for freedom up my arms.

We weighed and sexed her quickly, then returned her to the box. She was 16g, which is not unusual for the time of year.

The dormouse in a bag, to be weighed
The dormouse in a bag, to be weighed

The rest of the check was less exciting – no other dormice and no new dormouse nests. The bees are still occupying a couple of former dormouse nests. The bluetits have all left their nests, but a couple of wrens were still nesting in the cosiest nests imaginable.

The pleasant morning was completed by a quick lap of a Cherry Fair (it’d be rude not to buy some cherries).

Hopefully next month we’ll have some signs of breeding to boost the local dormouse population.

Courting hedgehogs

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a hedgehog in my garden. I know they’re there – they eat the food we put out for them each night. But with the long days and lots of travelling recently, I just haven’t seen them. So I was delighted last night when, just before going to bed I had one last look into the garden. Not only was there a hedgehog; there were two!

One was quite big, and the other one much smaller. At first Dr C thought they were both interested in the food, which would be unusual as they don’t tend to like sharing food bowls – they’re not the most sociable of animals. But it soon became clear at least one of the hedgehogs had other things on his mind. The old joke sprang to mind: How do hedgehogs mate? Carefully!

The bigger one (the male) circled the smaller, female, hedgehog for quite a while. She was careful not to let him get behind her – I’m not sure she fancied him, even though he looked very handsome to me. This continued for a while, until a helicopter flew over head and the female decided she’d had enough, and scurried off. The male soon followed, so I don’t know if he did eventually manage to seduce her, or whether she gave him the slip.

Anyway, it was lovely to see hedgehogs again. I did try to capture some footage on my phone, but it was too dark. So you’ll just have to imagine it instead. Hopefully we’ll see some hoglets in due course (although whether this particular couple will have young, I don’t know…) My one consolation for the nights getting longer is it becomes easier to watch the hedgehogs.

Dormouse box check: June 16

This month’s dormouse box check started early with just Dr C and me. The birds nests were all empty, with the chicks having hatched and fledged between checks. The bees were still occupying a couple of dormouse nests, so we gave them a wide berth. And no dormice to be seen. There wasn’t even any sign of new nesting activities.

So a quiet check. Even the woods seemed relatively subdued after the cacophony of wildflowers on display last month. It was the first check this year without finding any dormice. But a pleasant way to spend a few hours, and good to get a chance to check boxes myself, rather than just map read and supervise. Hopefully next month we will find some dormice, and maybe even some youngsters.

Dormouse box check, May 2016: unlikely nests

After April’s soggy box check, it came as a relief to set out in the dry in May. The woods were decked out in their best – more species of wildflower than I can name, in all the colours of the rainbow. And the dormice were co-operating too.

The check got off to a good start – in one of the first boxes we checked one of the volunteers called my attention to a small pile of dead leaves at the bottom of the box. That immediately made me think that an apodemus mouse (wood mouse or yellow-necked mouse) had started to build a nest there. That’s not something to particularly get excited about – if an apodemus mouse is using a box, that means it’s one less box available for dormice. And, unlike dormice, they’re not house-proud. They happily urinate and defecate in their nests. And an apodemus mouse is much more likely to bite you than a dormouse is. (Having said that, I’ve never been bitten by an apodemus mouse, but have been bitten twice by dormice…)

So, when I came to have a look at the box, I wasn’t expecting much. There weren’t enough leaves for it to be a proper nest, and there was no structure to it. But I investigated it gently, and as one of the leaves from the top of the pile shifted, I caught a glimpse of gold – the gold of a dormouse, rather than the dull brown of an apodemus.

The dormouse was torpid, so it was an easy job to get the mouse out and weigh it. It was a 16g female, which is about usual for this time of year. We managed to weigh, sex and put the dormouse back in its unconventional nest without waking it, which is always satisfying.

16g dormouse found in May
16g dormouse found in May

Obviously it’s always a delight to find a dormouse. But this was particularly special, as it’s the first dormouse we’ve found in the new boxes we put up last year. It’s good to know that we work we put in then is now benefiting at least one little dormouse. And it’s also encouraging to know that dormice are active that side of the footpath.

Many of the boxes we checked had birds nests in – mostly bluetit nests, generally with eggs being incubated, although one nest had chicks. They seem to be a little behind compared to previous years. There are also more wren’s nests around this year. Wrens build lovely nests – loads of moss, with a big chamber, and they keep them clean (unlike bluetits). Dormice will quite often move in to these.

We found another dormouse somewhere we weren’t expecting to. At the last few checks a shrew has been using an old dormouse nest, which by now has broken down and got smelly. If it had been unoccupied this month, we’d have cleaned the box out. But a dormouse had moved back in – obviously too lazy to build its own nest. This was a 14g male, who was also torpid, but showed signs of waking, so we dealt with it as quickly as possible before returning it to the dilapidated nest. Hence the lack of photos of this dormouse.

Two of the nicer dormouse nests from previous checks had been taken over by bumblebees. As you probably know, bumblebees are having a tough time at the moment, so it’s hard to begrudge them a couple of nest boxes. But they do pose a hazard for whoever’s checking the nest box, as they are prepared to sting if disturbed. Luckily we escaped unscathed, and will tread cautiously round those boxes until the bees leave the nest (probably in a couple of months time – they go into hibernation even earlier than dormice!).

So, a successful box check this month. Further encouragement that dormice are using the whole box check area, and a reminder to never assume dormice aren’t present in an unlikely looking nest.