Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country: Now is the time to search for the unseen and overlooked – the tiny mouse of cornfield and wetland

Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country: Now is the time to search for the unseen and overlooked – the tiny mouse of cornfield and wetland
Harvest Mouse Peter WolstenholmeHarvest Mouse photograph by Peter Wolstenholme

The diminutive Harvest Mouse, a mammal sadly rarely met with today, is Europe’s smallest rodent. This pretty animal with soft golden-brown upper parts and a white underside was only recognised as a separate species in the early 1800s. It was ‘discovered’ by the famous naturalist clergyman, Gilbert White. Spending most of its short life in the flimsy canopy of reedbeds and cornfields, it has the remarkable adaptation of a prehensile tail. This clever evolution, and its small size, allows the mouse to live a sure-footed life in habitat unavailable to competitors or to predators. In prehistoric times, they colonised England along great riverbanks from Europe in a landscape before the North Sea closed. Their favoured habitat of reed beds and reed grass lined great meandering rivers as a corridor into England when climate eased and sea levels rose. By the nineteenth century, this charming little mouse had crept out from its wetlands, the still extensive Yorkshire Fens, to inhabit abundant cornfields and hay meadows of a farming landscape. Indeed, this became the typical habitat even up to the 1970s. The, as intensive farming turned cornfield and hay meadow into industrial production units, the poor mouse simply could not cope. In many areas, the animal was believed extinct; and of course, its original home in wetlands and reedbeds had already shrunk beyond recognition. However, in the 1980s, it was realised that in tiny patches of relict reed-grass there was a thriving population of Harvest Mice.

Today, the mouse is benefiting from new wetland nature reserves across Yorkshire. Its populations fluctuate dramatically from year to year and from place to place; but that is its natural strategy – a boom bust cycle. Surprisingly too, the Harvest Mouse is both aggressive and territorial. They will stand up on their haunches, chatter and even box each other. It is not unknown for a loser to have the end of its tail or even a hind foot bitten off as it makes a hasty retreat. Similarly, if a female is disturbed with young in her nest then quite often she will eat them. The breeding nests are wonderfully constructed balls of dry grass and other vegetation, occupied from spring through to late autumn. By now, the animals will be on higher ground and in more loosely built temporary nests. Therefore, November onwards is a good time to search carefully the reed-grass wet meadows for last year’s breeding nests. Who knows, you may be lucky and find a new site. Take care not to get the nest material and the mouse hairs in your eyes as they can cause a nasty allergic reaction.

Poem by Donna Jones MBE, written April 2012

HARVEST MOUSE

Have you met one recently,
Golden brown on white underbelly,
in the flimsy canopy of relic reed-beds and cornfields?
An unseen denizen of arable meadow, cornfield and marsh.
Sure footed it fled the Fens to farmland;
Boom and bust.
Breeding nests of dry grass balls;
Spring to autumn homes.
Have you met one chattering, high on their haunches
In sentried look out for Weasel, Stoat and Brown Rat?
With predators, drought and chill,
Urbanization, wetland drainage
We count your wanderings amongst low waters and dry marshes;
Your prehensile tail gripping today for all its worth.

Thanks to Donna for that – written in response to my Sheffield Star column.

Ian Rotherham, Writer, Broadcaster, Professor of Environmental Geography, Reader in Tourism & Environmental Change

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