Tag Archives: field vole

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
Vole
Vole

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.

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British Animal Challenge: look back at 2014

At the start of 2014 I began a huge challenge: trying to see every different type of British animal in the wild. The list has changed a little bit over the year, but here’s the latest version. It includes mammals, amphibians and reptiles. In all, there are 107 species.

I’d seen a reasonable number before I started the challenge, but many of the ones remaining are, for one reason or another, tricky. Some are very rare, some restricted to small parts of the UK (including tiny islands), and others are hard to see because they’re nocturnal, or live at sea.

So, what progress have I made this year? I’ve visited different corners of Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Cornwall and Surrey on my quest, and spent quite a few hours trying to see some of our elusive animals.

New species seen:

And species I haven’t seen, despite several attempts:

In all, I’ve seen 45 species, and still have 62 to go. It’s going to be a busy year next year!

British Animal Challenge November update

November has flown by. Sadly my efforts to see a harvest mouse led only to sightings of woodmice and field voles. But it’s good to have ticked field voles off the list.

Jim the trap-happy field vole
Jim the trap-happy field vole

Apart from that, I haven’t been out and about much. I hope, weather permitting, that I will have more time to spend looking for wildlife in December. I don’t have any particular targets in mind (although I’m heading down to the River Otter, so would love to see a beaver – highly unlikely, I know).

To be honest, I feel just about ready for hibernation. Maybe I’ll try and use the time tucked up by the fire to plan next year’s wildlife adventures…

Looking for harvest mice at an airport

6.10am on a chilly November morning. It will be almost another hour before the sun rises, and a mist clings to the ground in the pre-dawn gloom. Most sensible people are still in bed, but I’m at Gatwick Airport. Not catching a flight to somewhere warm, nor waiting to welcome a loved one home. I’m here to see some wildlife.

An airport seems an unlikely place to see any exciting animals. Acres of tarmac, deafening noise, light and air pollution. I was intrigued, which is partly what brought me there so early in the morning. That and the hope of seeing a harvest mouse.

Beyond the public areas of the airport there are some pockets rich in wildlife. They have Bechsteins bats, the rare long-horned bee and great crested newts. But it was harvest mice I was interested in.

Chilly morning at Gatwick airportThe previous night Jim Jones from Surrey Wildlife Trust and Rachel Bicker, an ecologist at Gatwick, had set out 60 small mammal traps, and we were here to see what had been caught.

Jim showed us how to check the traps, and if occupied, how to weigh and sex the animal, then reset the trap with fresh bait. Our first occupant was a male field vole. Jim clipped his fur (so we could tell if we catch him again) and released him into the long grass. Voles are quite laid back creatures compared to mice – their response to danger is to stay still in the hope of not being seen, which makes them relatively easy to handle. The woodmice we found in some of the other traps were a bit more challenging.

Jim the trap-happy field vole
Jim the trap-happy field vole

So, nothing more exciting than a field vole from the first check. Time to go home and try to warm up.

The traps need to be checked three times a day, so I still had a couple more opportunities to see a harvest mouse. I returned at lunchtime, and the whole scene had transformed. The mist had disappeared, and the sun warmed us as we worked. The vole we had caught and released that morning had found his way back into a trap. The next occupied box we found gave us a surprise. It felt like it was buzzing when I picked it up, and I expected a very angry mouse to bounce out, but it turned out to be a disgruntled wren, who flew off to safety. That was our lunchtime haul, but we were also treated to views of a kingfisher and a sparrowhawk.

wrenThe evening check felt very different again. The planes seemed bigger and closer in the dark, and we had to rely on torch light to see the traps. The same vole had found his way back into a trap. Having seen him three times in one day, we decided he needed a name, and settled on Jim. No wrens this time, but another woodmouse or two.

Sadly no harvest mice showed up for me. The traps stayed out the rest of the week. Rachel and a team of dedicated volunteers checked them three times a day, come rain or come shine. But no harvest mice turned up.

It was a worthwhile experience. I’ve seen a field vole and learnt how to distinguish it from a bank vole. I’ve learnt how to use three types of small mammal traps, and seen a kingfisher. And I’ve had a fascinating glimpse into the wildlife of Gatwick Airport. You can read more about biodiversity at the UK’s second busiest airport on the Biodiversity Gatwick blog.