On Harvest Mice

It’s been so long since my last post, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d joined some no doubt disgruntled hedgehogs or adders in hibernation. Since the inspiring launch of the youth conservation movement in Cambridge back in September, I’ve promptly followed up my nature writing workshop at the event with, well, a complete lack of nature writing (bar very slow progress on the book. But that’s another story, literally). Things happened since, nature things, I promise, but university.

Of note however was the best use of my student loan since the end-of-first-year garden party. Last month I welcomed two new room-mates free of rent, a pair of female harvest mice Micromys minutus. Being a naturalist with a penchant for our fellow mammals, and having cared for these fascinating creatures for some time as part of my volunteer duties at the New Forest Wildlife Park, they were a natural choice of companion.

The animals were bred by a private keeper back in Cornwall, and have settled in very well to their vivarium, which is furnished with stalks and shoots for climbing, and a thick layer of hay and aspen shavings – already this is peppered with holes and burrows like swiss cheese, leading to hidden and no doubt very cosy nests. Going up is where they’re truly at home however, and they have proven to be the most efficient distraction from study as you admire the incredible bio-mechanics of their prehensile tail and almost supernatural nimble feet on the most thread-like of branches.

Although I currently just have two ladies, long-term I would like to go into breeding them. It is where it gets complicated however – mix too many of different genders, or keep the young in with Mum & Dad for too long, and the sweet demeanours that steal the souls of anyone who beholds my pets becomes a ferocious rodent equivalent of Luis Suarez. This can be avoided with careful management however, and ideally I would want to use the offspring in educational outreach – they’re very active, engaging, and yes, cute, a rare insight into the secretive world of British mammals, and potentially quite threatened in this country.

The trouble with harvest mice is we don’t really know enough of their distribution to know if they are in trouble. An early mammal society survey in the eighties suggested they were in decline, but new search methods developed since then could potentially gain a more accurate insight of the data – so the organisation is now keen to get as many people as possible out in search of signs of these charming animals. You can find out how to get involved here.

I myself have been doing my part on Fishlake Meadows, a wetland site where I’ve been conducting a long-term mammal monitoring project over the Summer. Traditionally, harvest mouse surveys are undertaken searching for nests in Winter, but this isn’t so efficient during my survey season. So I tried out the rather ingenious ‘bait cane’ method, only really tried out last year in Cheshire for the first time, involving bamboo canes, plastic cups and tape in the hope of getting poo (god bless mammalogists). By sticking seed in the cup, tied halfway up the cane in the understorey of the reed-bed, a couple of days later any harvest mice that came for a nibble will have left droppings like calling cards, which can then be sent off for analysis. Of my 20 canes, over half had droppings which looked very much to me like harvest mice (the only other possibility really being wood mice, which would’ve been larger). I can’t be certain until they’ve been analysed, which unfortunately is still being sorted out (the poo is in my student house freezer currently – yes, my friends have been notified), but I’m confident this will be the first record of the species for the site.

IMG_8327The harvest mouse survey, and later room-mates, have been but two highlights of a great wildlife 2014 – more on which to come soon. But for now, I leave you with the first poem I’ve written in donkeys years, typed in a spur-of-the-moment five minutes while observing my mice go about their business.

Hidden, hurry, scurry, scatter,

Harvest mouse sleekly writhe,

Through the tangle bramble vine.

For do not tread beyond your cradle,

Or barn owl and weasel will take you to your maker.

But in this world unseen,

A woven home will suit you better,

And see the light as a gift to enjoy,

Time may be short, but by thy whiskers,

Run and wonder, nibble, slumber.

One thought on “On Harvest Mice

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