Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Encounters 4 - shrew

Colby Gardens - photo from wikimedia commons 

The other day I saw a shrew. It was a fleeting glimpse, barely a few moments, and such a tiny creature - which leads me to think it was a pygmy shrew - that had I blinked I'd have missed it. At the time I didn't give it much thought  (believe it or not I was looking for snakes), but afterwards I began to consider it more carefully.

I can't remember when I last saw a shrew, and to be honest, I'm not absolutely certain I'd seen one in the wild before. I was fairly convinced I had - I recognised it instantly, and shrews are relatively widespread mammals aren't they?  But if you asked me to pinpoint when or where I'd be a bit stumped. It occurred to me that before last week, it's just possible I'd only seen pictures of them in books.

This shrew was in Colby Gardens in Pembrokeshire, snuffling for worms under a sheet of galvanised metal that I happened to lift up. In a way it was lucky I came along, because the sheets are placed to attract snakes which would happily accept a shrew-sized meal. Last spring, lifting the same sheet, I found the most gorgeous grass snake, chocolate brown with a golden band, like a collar round its neck (can snakes have necks?).

When I disturbed it, the snake had slid unhurriedly into the surrounding meadow, reluctant to leave its warm den. But last week's shrew took a more panicked flight, scurrying to an escape tunnel and wiggling its bum in a last goodbye. An extraordinary little thing I thought, ludicrous in its way, like a tiny vole with Pinocchio's nose. Next moment it was gone.

I'd always thought shrews were a type of mouse, but evidently they're more closely related to moles. And like moles they are fiercely territorial, only coming together to mate. They have the greatest ratio of brain to body size of any mammal, including humans - and they need to consume their own body weight in grubs every day. One web site I came across, claimed that if a shrew doesn't eat for two hours it will die (I presume the author means if  it goes longer than two hours between meals rather than actually eating for two hours!). And some species have venomous teeth, which no doubt the author of that website would wish me to experience for being so darn pedantic.

It occurred to me that most of our wildlife encounters are fleeting, especially of mammals. I'd guess the popularity of bird watching is at least in part because most of them will actually allow for a decent viewing. In contrast, I remember Jane lifting a flagstone in our garden and finding a nest of baby dormice - so as not to disturb them we replaced it immediately.  My lifetime's total of dormice watching: three seconds! Last year I saw my first polecat in years: five seconds. And then there was that weasel which ran across the road as I was driving...

It turns out that encountering a shrew is quite rare after all. They may be commonplace (pygmy shrews less so) but field sightings are definitely not. You need to be in the right place at the right time. And if you're lucky enough for that to happen - then unlike the shrew, which is virtually blind and relies on sounds and smell - try not blink.

9 comments:

  1. There were a lot of shrews in the last garden in France...and the dogs kept digging up nests of babies.

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  2. Hello Mark:
    What a wonderful sighting. We do believe that shrews are quite uncommon. Just occasionally we would come across one in the garden in Herefordshire and we certainly recall having in one instance to rescue one, unharmed in the event, from one of our cats.

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  3. I remember trying to evict a family of shrews from my living room when I had a smallholding in North Wales...they skittered across the old slate floor and hid under the dresser! The delights of my four acres paled into insignificance when they found the rayburn!

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  4. Rare indeed. My only encounters are limited to the small screen.

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  5. Lucky you! The only shrew I ever saw in the flesh was dead.:-( However, nearly 44 years ago we did look round in the kitchen of our very first house to see a stoat trying to pull the Christmas chicken carcass out of the waste bin! It had got in through the door to the barn which had been left open by mistake.

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  6. I really enjoyed your Shrew Sighting post. Beats Alien encounters all to heck..think the Shrew would be more interesting anyway. Have not seen one for ages in our garden as they seem to have gone the way of our rabbits sadly.

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  7. I have seen one once in our garden, when the old boy next door was alive and had rabbits, chickens and a noisy cockerel. I like wildlife, but do prefer it outside!

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  8. I also have seen a shrew, though it was a while ago. I think I was looking for slow-worms on a bit of waste ground when I was young. Slow-worms also like to bask under currugated tin and other heat-absorbing things, but if you lift such a thing, you won't see the slow worm until it it moves. Grass snakes are instantly visible because of how they lie, but you have to hold up the tin for several minutes if you want to see a slow worm.

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  9. Hey. On holiday in west Wales we visited the Pembrokeshire national park and encountered a shrew. First time I have seen a shrew! It was scurrying along heading for the gorse undergrowth. We were near the Waldo commemoration stone amongst the sheep. Such a delight to see.

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