Tag Archives: harvest mice

I finally see a water shrew

Those of you who have been following my blog for the last 18 months will know that I have not had any success at seeing water shrews, despite numerous attempts.

I had read that the best place to see water shrews was in clean streams and watercress beds (not that they eat watercress, but the insects they so eat need nice clean water, so are often found in watercress beds). So my first attempt was in Hampshire, where they grow lots of watercress. I ended up seeing water voles instead (they’re even rarer, and rather partial to a bit of watercress). Despite returning several times, I never saw a water shrew there (maybe the otters, which I also didn’t see, have eaten all the water shrews).

When I heard that at least one water shrew lived on one of the ponds at Surrey Wildlife Trust’s education centre, I got permission to spend some time standing silent and still by the pond for a few hours. It was a rather meditative experience, but still no sign of the shrew. Undeterred, I tried again a different day. This time I think I got a bit closer, as I heard a squeak that may have been a water shrew, but didn’t get a glimpse.

That approach was also not working very well, so I put my quest for water shrews aside for a while. Imagine my feelings when the reports from the first couple of weeks of harvest mouse trapping featured several water shrews, yet I was unable to attend due to work.

When I finally got out to help with the harvest mouse trapping it was at a couple of sites where no water shrews (or harvest mice) had been found the week of the survey, and my session did nothing to change that record.

Finally, on the third harvest mouse site I helped out with, my luck changed. The first animal we found was a harvest mouse, and not long after I got to see my first water shrew.

A water shrew who's reluctant to come out of its temporary nest in a longworth trap
A water shrew who’s reluctant to come out of its temporary nest in a longworth trap
Water shrew scurrying off after being weighed
Water shrew scurrying off after being weighed

Water shrews are the biggest of the British shrew species, and are usually darker than other shrews, with a silvery underside. I had my hopes raised then dashed a few times at other sites when we happened to catch a common shrew that was darker than normal. But you can really make sure by looking for a fringe of bristles on the back legs and under the base of the tail.

Like all shrews, water shrews are insectivores, and have noses like Wombles. They live life at quite a pace, having a fast metabolism. They’re probably the most striking British shrew, with their dark back and light underside. I didn’t manage to get a good photo, as I didn’t want to disturb the animal more than necessary. You can just see a dark shape disappearing into the foliage.

So, I finally ticked water shrews off my British Animal Challenge list. I wonder what species I will see next…


In search of harvest mice again… and again… and again

For my British Animal Challenge I am trying to see every species of mammal, reptile and amphibian living in the wild. For some that’s been fairly straightforward – a case of going to the right place at the right time. Others have been more elusive. My focus this month has been on two of the trickier subjects: harvest mice and water shrews (more on the latter in my next post).

Harvest mice live up to their scientific name: micromys minutus. They are tiny. As their common name suggests, they like living among crops (grains) or areas of tall, seedbearing grasses. This makes spotting them while out and about unlikely.

Harvest mouse on seedhead

Helping out with some scientific harvest mouse trapping projects was likely to be my best chance to see them. So last autumn I volunteered to help with harvest mouse surveying at Gatwick airport. While it was a fascinating experience, we didn’t find any harvest mice. Undeterred, I volunteered for a session this year at Gatwick (work has been pretty intense lately, so I could only get to one).

Once again I got to drive through 10ft high gates topped with barbed wire, past the intimidating signs saying authorised vehicles only, before leaving the car in the glow of the runway lights, and heading off into the mini wilderness just a few hundred metres from the runway, by the River Mole. I was helping out Gatwick’s resident ecologist, Rachel Bicker (they do a surprising amount of biodiversity work at the airport). Like last year, we didn’t find any harvest mice, although we did have a good crop of voles, shrews and woodmice.

Surrey Mammal Group (working with Surrey Wildlife Trust) have been busy on a new harvest mouse project this autumn. They’re working with geneticists to see if hair samples from harvest mice can tell us about connectivity across the landscape. How related are populations in different sites to each other? Are they isolated by habitat fragmentation, or are they able to disperse and mix? This is important for the resilience of the population. And if harvest mice can move between sites, other animals will be able to as well.

Of course, to test this we first need to get samples from harvest mice. Last year the mammal group did a lot of work surveying various sites for harvest mice, and, while they were at it, tested 3 different trap designs. Based on these findings, they selected the sites with the most harvest mice last year to resurvey this year to get the samples, starting with the most harvest mousey site.

Frustratingly, work commitments meant I couldn’t get along to any of the checks at the first site, and I was ill for the week of the second site. I was restricted to seeing the updates on Facebook. The weeks progressed with plenty of voles and shrews (including my nemesis, the water shrew), but not a single harvest mouse. The dedicated volunteers consoled themselves by collecting mouse, vole and shrew poo for students to analyse for parasites.

I was finally able to help for the last check on the third site. Once again, it was the same story, the harvest mice from last year seemed to have disappeared, leaving only voles, woodmice, shrews. It was an interesting and pleasant way to spend the Friday evening, after a stressful week at work, but did leave me wondering what’s happened to the Surrey harvest mouse population.

The next site I volunteered at was by the River Wey, where I used to walk during my student days. I’d never thought about the wildlife that might live in that meadow, but looking at it now, it seems like ideal habitat for small mammals. The news from Facebook was encouraging – the group had finally caught some harvest mice, and got enough samples to analyse the population at that site, at least. Was it the night I would finally see a harvest mouse in the wild?

Harvest mouse site by the River Wey
Harvest mouse site by the River Wey

There are two moments of suspense in checking the Longworth traps. Firstly looking to see if it’s been triggered, and then, once you’ve opened the trap in a bag, waiting to see what will emerge.

Checking a longworth trap
Checking a longworth trap

We hit gold with the first triggered trap we found that evening: a harvest mouse. They are tiny. And lovely. This particular mouse had already been caught, fur clipped and sampled earlier in the week, so we didn’t need to weigh or take a sample from him again.

A not very good photo of the harvest mouse we found
A not very good photo of the harvest mouse we found

In total we had 10 small mammals in traps that night, but only one harvest mouse. Still, I had finally done it: I had seen one of Britain’s smallest and cutest mammals in the wild for the first time.

The surveys are continuing for another week or two, and hopefully we will get enough samples from other sites to compare. It will be interesting to hear the results from the lab. And hopefully it will help us find out more about habitat connectivity in Surrey. If this approach works it may help other parts of the country monitor their living landscape.

Another year in the Wild South

Today is the 2nd birthday of this blog, so to celebrate I’ve been back over my posts from the last year, and picked a couple of my favourites from each month. I quite enjoyed looking back – brought back lots of memories!

September 2014

Looking from St Agnes to the Gugh
Looking from St Agnes to the Gugh
  • Photo Special: Isles of Scilly – I had to choose this one, really, as not only do I quite like some of these photos, but, as it happens, I’m actually in the Isles of Scilly at the moment. It’s a beautiful place with excellent wildlife watching opportunities.
  • Hedgehog pawprints – I just love hedgehogs really.

October 2014

Diagram of how moles are adapted to life underground
Diagram of how moles are adapted to life underground
  • Scrumping badgers? – it’s so exciting seeing badgers (even if I didn’t get any photos)!
  • Moles: perfectly adapted – I’ve still never seen a mole in the wild (alive, at least), but you can’t help admire how suited they are to their subterranean lifestyle.

November 2014

Nut nibbled by a dormouse. Note the smooth inner surface of the hole, and the scratches outside the hole.
Nut nibbled by a dormouse. Note the smooth inner surface of the hole, and the scratches outside the hole.
  • Looking for Harvest Mice at an airport – this day of surveying for harvest mice at Gatwick airport was really memorable, even if we didn’t find any in the end. It’s fascinating to see what wildlife can exist even in the most unlikely places.
  • How to tell who’s been nibbling your nuts – some close-up photos of nuts nibbled by dormice and other mice, with guidance on how to distinguish between the two.

December 2014

New growth from beaver-coppiced willows on the River Otter
New growth from beaver-coppiced willows on the River Otter
  • Dormouse licence! – It took a long time to get enough experience with handling dormice to obtain my licence, so this was quite a significant milestone for me. This year I’ve enjoyed having my own site to survey.
  • On the trail of wild beavers – I’ve really enjoyed following the story of England’s first beavers in the wild for hundreds of years, and it was amazing to see signs of them when we were visiting the River Otter.

January 2015Grey squirrel

February 2015Skeletal hydrangea flower

March 2015

What you need to set up a footprint tunnel: tunnel, tracking plate, tasty food, masking tape, vegetable oil, black poster paint powder, something to mix the paint in, A4 paper, paper clips, tent pegs, footprint guide
What you need to set up a footprint tunnel: tunnel, tracking plate, tasty food, masking tape, vegetable oil, black poster paint powder, something to mix the paint in, A4 paper, paper clips, tent pegs, footprint guide

April 2015

Supporters of Christian charities call for action on climate change
Supporters of Christian aid agencies (and others) call for action on climate change
  • British Animal Challenge: March and April 2015 – a summary of my progress on seeing every species of British Animal
  • Church speaks and acts on climate change – While the new government seems to be implementing as many policies as possible to increase climate change (fracking, cutting subsidies to renewable energy, imposing the climate change levy on green electricity, the list goes on), it’s encouraging to see the church take a strong stance on this issue

May 2015

Summary of where the parties stand on some nature issues
Summary of where the parties stand on some nature issues
  • Election summary – I spent a couple of months during the election campaign trying to find out where the main British parties stood on various issues relating to nature, the environment and wildlife. I must say, I didn’t enjoy the process much – it was quite dispiriting. But this post summarised all that work.
  • In which I learn I need a new approach to seeing bats – another batty adventure.

June 2015

Torpid dormouse found on my box check in June
Torpid dormouse found on my box check in June

July 2015

Work in progress: my barn owl cross stitch
Can you tell what it is yet?
  • Too darn hot (or how to help wildlife during a heatwave) – I think the rather dull summer we’ve had might be my fault – I wrote this post during a hot period, and since then heat has not been a problem. But still, it’s good advice for if we do get another heat wave.
  • My barn owl project – this is a little different from the projects I usually write about on this blog, but I’m enjoying it, and making good progress.

August 2015

How my garden birds did in 2014-15 compared to previous years
How my garden birds did in 2014-15 compared to previous years

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!

Top posts from 2014

As the year draws to a close, it’s a good chance to look back over what’s happened. I’ve been going through the stats to see which posts have had the most views (per month) in 2014. Here are the top 10:

10) 10 more Christmas present ideas for wildlife enthusiasts: It seems lots of people are looking for inspiration for Christmas presents. I just hope Dr C is among them!

9) Looking for harvest mice at an airport: my (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to see micromys minutus in the unusual setting of Gatwick Airport.

8) Fascinating wildlife fact #11: sharks don’t have bones: a short but interesting glimpse into the anatomy of sharks.

7) On the trail of wild beavers: an account of an expedition to find traces of the first beavers living wild in the UK for hundred of years, and the campaign to keep them that way.

6) Hope for the River Otter beavers: An update on the saga of whether the beavers who were discovered living wild on the River Otter will be allowed to stay free, or rehomed to a zoo. No doubt there will be more posts about this topic next year, as there’s still no definite plans.

5) Kingfishers: Another post from the River Otter (3 in the top 10!). This time it’s some of my better attempts at photographing kingfishers. Still room for improvement, but I’m getting better at it!

4) How to tell who’s been nibbling your nuts: This post outlines how to tell the difference between a nut nibbled by a squirrel, woodmouse, bank vole or dormouse. It contains close up photos to help with identification.

3) Dormouse license! I’ve finally received my dormouse license. This post reflects on what this means, and  the journey to get this far…

2) 5 more recent posts that have made me think: This post links to 5 posts by other bloggers that have made me think. It includes reintroduction of large carnivores in the UK, the hunting act, hedgehogs, flooding, and Christian’s relationship with nature.

1) Plan to cull badger cubs shows the cull’s not about bovine TB: Like the River Otter beavers, the badger cull has been a saga with many twists and turns. This post discusses the recent announcement that the timing of the culls next year will be moved forward to when cubs are first emerging from the sets.


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.