Tag Archives: insectivore

The shrew hunter: part 1

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.

The bit of the pond water shrews have been spotted
The bit of the pond water shrews have been spotted at

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?

hawker dragonfly
My tormentor – a hawker dragonfly of some kind?

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.

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British animal challenge: insectivores

Having set myself the challenge, I now need to work out how to see every species of British animal in the wild. This post is the first of a series I have planned, looking at how to see the different groups of animals, starting with insectivores.

As the name suggest, the 7 species in this group (hedgehog, mole, common shrew, water shrew, greater and lesser white toothed shrews, and the pygmy shrew) are insect eaters. I like to think of  them as the Wombles group. They all have, long, pointed, sensitive, mobile noses to help them find food, just like the recycling residents of Wimbledon Common. Apart from the spiky hedgehog, they all have short, dense, velvety fur, which, at least in the case of the mole, can lie flat in any direction to help them move backwards and forwards through tunnels.

Hedgehog and hoglets
Hedgehog and hoglets

Regular readers to this blog will know that hedgehogs are already ticked off my list, as they are regular visitors to our garden. I’ve also seen pygmy shrews foraging in dormouse boxes (although I haven’t got any photos of them yet). So that leaves the other 5 species to find.

This challenge is still new to me, so I haven’t quite worked out the rules. I have seen a wild mole, but sadly it was dead. Does that count? Similarly, I’ve seen dead common shrews. It will be much more satisfying to see them alive, so they stay on my list of species to find.

This may be quite tricky. Moles are one of the most common British animals, but, as you know, they live underground, and don’t come up to the surface often. The internet’s not much help on this – a quick search for moles in the UK brings up a long list of exterminators, but not much useful advice for watching them. I’ve seen plenty of evidence of moles, but no snouts pointing out of molehills. It’s not really the sort of animal you can ‘plan’ to see. The best time to look may be in June or July, when the young moles are dispersing above ground to new territories. I’m just going to have to keep an eye out in places with signs of mole activity, wait and hope for a lot of luck…

Common shrews live up to their name: there are estimated to be around 41.7 million in Britain. Despite this they may still be difficult to spot. Like all shrews, they need to keep active nearly 24 hours a day all year, as they need to eat at least 80-90% of their own body weight in food each day. Apparently listening out for their high-pitched squeaks can help you spot one, but again it will involve making sure I spend lots of time paying attention in the right sort of habitat.

Water shrews, while rarer than common shrews, may be easier to spot. The key is finding a nice stretch of unpolluted chalk stream, with lots of bugs for the shrew to eat. Watercress beds are another good place to look. This may call for a trip to the watercress beds of Hampshire, as although the River Mole goes through the chalky north downs, it’s pretty polluted.

The greater and lesser white toothed shrews are going to require travel a little further afield. The greater can be found on some of the Channel Islands, and the lesser is found on the Scilly Isles (some call it the Scilly shrew). I’ve never been to the Channel Islands before, but this seems like a good excuse. Going to the Scillies will be no hardship, since it’s my favourite place on earth.

Now I just need to find time to do all this… It’s starting to look like it could be a full-time job, if only I could find someone to pay me to do this!

Do you have any suggestions of good places to look for water shrews?