Sunday, 18 November 2012

Best laid traps of mice and men

bank voles like jumpers
Mid-November is no time to be surveying the British countryside for small mammals. Especially when it involves setting and checking humane traps before dawn and after dusk around the marshy edge of a lake, in waterlogged clay. And when you’re looking for our tiniest (and rather elusive) mammal: the harvest mouse. Probably in the wrong place.

Mr Amiable
There are compensations, undoubtedly. The midday trapping shift brings sunshine and bank voles, smaller cousins of the watery variety immortalised as “Ratty” in Wind in the Willows, and surely our most amiable little furry critter. Most will happily sit in your hand, nestle into a jumper, or even crawl into your hair, posing patiently for photographs.

Susy loves voles
Woodmice prove the most frequent visitors to our traps, so much more wriggly and bitey and almost impossible to photograph unless you’re happy to settle for a brownish blur with whiskers. I have to admit to a soft spot for them, though. They are feisty little beasts, adaptable and determined survivors in our degraded countryside.
Field vole, darker with v short tail
In case you’re alarmed by all this talk of trapping, let me assure you that each creature is handled expertly and minimally, before being returned to the spot where it was found – in one piece. A few decades ago it was common practice to clip off selected toes of small mammals in order to recognise re-captures. Thankfully, this is now illegal.

I could write an entire post about the different types of traps we use, but I can already sense you reaching for the mouse (no pun intended) to click away to another site. Suffice to say that volunteers – yes, we’re not even being paid for this – are perfectly happy with Longworth traps. 

Help! I'm not the target species
Trip traps, allegedly favoured by harvest mice - though we never had the chance to find out - are cheap smoked plastic constructions which look to me like a family-sized toothbrush holder. They require a daub of sticky bait supplied to us in the form of peanut butter mashed up with maggots and seed – perhaps worth marketing as a sandwich filler. (It has to taste better than the “sandwich spread” my mum put in my packed lunches for school).

hair vole
But whoever designed the Sherman trap deserves serious retribution in another life, perhaps reincarnation as a woodmouse. Very like an Ikea flat pack with instructions only in Swedish, but all on a miniscule scale, it takes true determination to assemble in the dark with wet, cold fingers, by the light of a headtorch.
Susy & Alison at work

A big thank to the Surrey Wildlife Trust and their volunteers: Jo, Emma, Sheila and Nicky, who travelled to the Common from far and wide to help us out.

So, harvest mice, I hope to meet you on the Common one day and admire your golden fur, feather-light body and prehensile tail, unique among British mammals. But I think you had the last chuckle this time…
harvest mouse nest?
Afterword: Having penned this post, I went for a sunny walk on the Common this afternoon and found what I think is an abandoned harvest mouse nest on another part of the Common… Just too maddening!

1 comment:

  1. Better luck next time... And loved the photo captions.