Tag Archives: pygmy shrew

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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Dormouse handling

I have been helping out on dormouse box checks for several years now, and for the last few years I have been working towards my license. Dormice are protected by law, and to disturb them in any way you need a license from Natural England. To get this you have to have been trained and have experience of handling dormice of all ages. This can take a while to accumulate if, like me, you mainly do sites with few dormice. Anyway, I now have the necessary experience, but needed to show one of my referees what I am like at handling dormice. I went on a check with him last month, but there were no dormice, so this month I had to try again.

The two sites I visited this month were ones I hadn’t done before. This added an element of treasure hunting / letterboxing / geocaching without gps to the process, trying to find inconspicuous wooden boxes in dense, tangled woodland. Just as well I like a challenge!

The first site was on the edge of a golf course. As well keeping out of the way of golf balls, we also had nettles as tall as my shoulders, brambles and dense, unforgiving blackthorn. The place wasn’t brimming with dormice, so it was a relief when Dave found one sitting on top of its nest in a box. We took the box off the tree, putting it into a large rubble sack. By the time we got the lid of the box off again, the dormouse had disappeared into its nest.

Cautiously I put my fingers into the cavity of the nest, to try to gently coax the mouse out. The nest was wonderfully warm, especially as it was quite a chilly morning, and the mouse was not keen to come out. I could feel some other warm, tiny bodies, and we realised there were young babies (pinkies who had not yet grown fur) with their mum. We didn’t want to disturb them anymore, so quickly and quietly put the box back on the tree and left them to it.

It was lovely finding a young family, but it did mean I still hadn’t had a chance to demonstrate my handling skills. We found no further dormice at that site, although I did come across a nest with three woodmice sitting on top.

So, I had to hope we would find some dormice at the next site. The chances were slim, as last month’s check had found none.

The second site started with some excitement, as the first box contained a pygmy shrew. These are tiny insectivores (smaller than the first joint of my thumb) with long, mobile, Womble-like noses. They have a very fast metabolism which means they need to eat more or less constantly.  It’s not the first time I have found them in dormice boxes. In fact, dormice boxes seem to attract a lot of wildlife, including mice, birds and insects. We often find moths, millipedes, slugs and other invertebrates in them, which is probably what attracts the pygmy shrews.

Most birds have finished nesting now, so dormice have less competition for boxes. Sometimes they build their nests on top of disused bird nests, and sometimes they just make use of the bird’s nest without much alteration. They seem to particularly like wrens’ nests, and who can blame them. Wrens fill the boxes up with moss, creating a large square cavity in the middle, not too dissimilar to a dormouse’s nest (although dormice tend to weave their nests out of strips of honeysuckle bark, leaves and other locally available materials). Wrens also keep their nests much cleaner than other birds (messy bluetits for example). So when I came across a wren’s nest with what looked like mouse droppings on top, I thought it was worth further exploration.

I was right. The nest contained a very lively male, who gave me a perfect opportunity to demonstrate my skills, catching him, sexing and weighing him, then returning him safely to his nest. It’s only my second dormouse of the year, so I was relieved to find I wasn’t too rusty. My referee was happy with how I did, so now I just need to fill in the paperwork!

British Animal Challenge: August update

I’ve been making the most of the summer this month, spending lots of time watching wildlife. I have been focusing on trying to see some new bat species, and a water shrew.

I have had mixed success with bats. A bat walk led to no new species, while an unaccompanied expedition in Devon found two new species, only one of which I could identify (soprano pipistrelle). A more recent bat walk was more successful, with three new species – more on that next week.

As for water shrews, I have spent quite a bit of time looking for them at a site I know they inhabit, but no luck so far. I think I may have heard one, but I haven’t seen one.

Apart from new species, I have also seen:

  • A hare
  • Common pipistrelles
  • Woodmice
  • A pygmy shrew
  • Rabbits
  • Hedgehog
  • Frog
  • Dormice

As for next month, I’m not going to have so much time for wildlife watching, as a work trip is taking me out of the country. But I do have a trip to the West Country planned, where I will try my luck with more bats and cetaceans.

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?