Star Species – The Mammals


The unfortunate thing about shrews is that they only live for about a year and the most common sighting of one is of a corpse, found lying on a path. These are most commonly found in late summer and early autumn when the adults are dying as the young of the year force them out of their territories. They are distasteful to predators which is why they are often left where they die. The site holds small populations of Pygmy, Common and Water Shrews.

The Pygmy Shrew is a tiny animal and the smallest to be found on the British mainland. Its fur is a paler and greyer brown than that of the Common Shrew, and its ears are more prominent.

The Common Shrew is found in tussocky grass and thick ground vegetation, like the Pygmy, and its fur is a warm, dark brown.

Water Shrews are the largest British Shrew with dark blackish fur. Normally their underside is whitish, but they can be blacker below than above. If it is a corpse and the teeth can be seen they are usually of a reddish colour, which will distinguish them from the other shrews. They are not necessarily confined to a water habitat but are definitely more common near water and can swim well. All three shrews have a longish, pointed snout and short tail. They eat close to their own weight in insects every day and have a very high metabolic rate so that they starve to death very quickly if unable to find food. They are very aggressive to other shrews and their high pitched squeaks often give away their presence as they squabble over territory.

Stoat and Weasel

These two are best treated together as many views are so brief that the the exact species is not always identified. The Stoat is the larger of the two animals, its body rich brown above and cream below, with a long, black tipped tail. It can move over the ground with sinuous grace or caper like a mad pet dog. They can kill animals as large as a rabbit and have been seen ‘hypnotising’ hares, but the rabbit’s death is anything but quick as it can take up to twenty minutes for an inexperienced animal to accomplish by biting through the neck. It then pushes and pulls the corpse one way and the other, jumping repeatedly over it, to get it into cover so that it can feed in peace.

The Weasel is a smaller animal, the female about half the size of the Stoat, the male about three quarters. They are a similar combination of brown and cream with a much shorter, untipped tail and with slightly more ‘clockwork’ movements than a Stoat. Their main prey is normally voles and mice, though they can take young rabbits. They are quite inquisitive and sometimes approach quite close along a path before diving into the undergrowth.

Both species are regularly seen on the site.

Harvest Mouse

This beautiful mouse has golden brown fur and a long prehensile tail and is small enough to run up grass stems to collect seeds. It’s presence on the site has been established only from finding the round, cricket ball sized nests. They build summer nests in stalks of grass or reeds and winter nests amongst brambles. So far nobody has reported seeing one on site.

Roe Deer

This is the smallest of our native deer, about the size of a large dog, and has been seen on several occasions on the site. Its summer coat is a rich, reddish brown but in winter it is a duller, greyer colour with a large white rump patch. The nose and muzzle are black They often lie up in thick cover during the day but their footprints in mud often give them away. The Roe Deer is a useful mammal to have on site as it browses trees and shrubs, including Brambles, and a slightly larger population would be a useful ally in keeping the scrub under control.