Happy new year everyone! Before we plunge into whatever the new year has in store for us, I find it helpful to reflect on the year that’s just gone. It’s been a tough but interesting year for me work-wise, but on a personal level I think there have been more ups than downs. Some of the most memorable moments have been wildlife related – the hedgehog walking past our toes when we sat in the garden at dusk; snorkelling with seals; finding dormice for the first time at my dormouse monitoring site; winning the Surrey Wildlife Garden awards, and seeing some species in the wild for the first time.
2015 was a mixed year for my British Animal Challenge. I targeted reptiles, amphibians and bats in the first half of the year, but didn’t make any progress on those. The second half of the year was much more successful. I saw red squirrels and lesser white-toothed shrews during my trip to the Isles of Scilly. And, after lots of attempts and many hours, I finally managed to see a water shrew and some harvest mice.
This takes my total up to 50 – not quite halfway there. I’m doing well with some classes:
5/7 British insectivores
Others I’m still a long way off, particularly bats, amphibians and cetaceans.
I’m not sure what my focus will be for next year, as I haven’t worked out where I can go on holiday. But I live in a good place for reptiles and bats, so that’s probably a good start. And I’d love to see an otter in the wild…
Whatever’s in store for the year ahead, I hope we all have a wild and wonderful 2016.
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?!
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.
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?
This is my diary of the wildlife where I live in Oxfordshire, and sometimes the places I visit. I am a 15 year old young naturalist with a passion for British wildlife, especially Badgers and Hares. I have been blogging since May 2013 and you can read my old blog posts at www.appletonwildlifediary.blogspot.co.uk