Thursday 18 December 2014

Harvest Mice

During my childhood in Kingsley the local Harvest Mouse population was healthy, I know this, because there was ample evidence of their presence in the form of their ball shaped nests in corn fields and around the hedges bordering corn fields. In addition to this they were easily seen in Bill Lamport's barn. The barn, which stood at Jude Farm, beyond the Straits opposite Kingsley Nurseries. In those days, and I don’t remember the year, the barn was relatively new. It stored bales of straw. Sitting quietly upon the bales, it would not be long before those tiny and, in my view, enchanting, little creatures appeared for the watcher to observe.

The Harvest Mouse, as a species, was first discovered / recorded by Gilbert White. Gilbert White, of course, wrote White's Natural History of Selborne which featured the wild life of his parish just a few miles from Kingsley. White being the vicar for Selborne for many years. Like many of his class of the day White wrote. There are many classic works written by vicars over the years but White's Natural History has sold and been published more than any other book. Indeed, I recently read that White's book has only been surpassed, in publishing terms, by the Bible. Quite an achievement.
I have numerous editions of the book in my collection and I am pretty certain the reason the book has obtained such a following is due to the fact that White's powers of observation were faultless. Well almost so, he did rather mess up with swallows, which he thought hibernated in the mud at pond sides during the winter months. Not withstanding this the rest of his work was very accurate. Clearly Selborne had a good number of harvest mice and White found them.

For the most part these little creatures live in and around corn fields, they feed upon the grain and nest amongst the stalks of corn. Like a lot of things, modern farming techniques dealt quite a blow to these mice. Combine harvesters had a huge impact upon Harvest Mouse numbers. It would, however, appear that they adapted to the challenge by building their nests in tall grass and hedgerows. I have no idea what the current population in Kingsley is like. I have a feeling that a lot less corn is grown in and around the village nowadays so who knows ?

During the time of which I write there was a well known T.V presenter and writer by the name of George Cansdale. George specialised in all things to do with animals and pets. He wrote several books of which his Book of Pets was a treasured possession of mine. Sadly long lost. Unlike many pet books this one dealt alphabetically with all sorts of animals, not just the normal domestic varieties. Of course, times were different, and catching wild animals for pets was nothing to be frowned at them. Most village boys had, at some time, caught fledgling birds, lizards, newts and tiddlers of all sorts. Keeping tadpoles was an annual event for many of us and some actually went to the extent of catching grass snakes. Not I, I hasten to add, I have never had much of a liking for snakes. So, the point being, for country children catching and keeping various species of wild life was not unusual or illegal. In George’s book he went into the detail of how to catch and care for all manner of wild things, including the Harvest Mouse. These tiny creatures, he wrote, quickly became tame and got used to being handled. This I can confirm to be the case, unlike other mouse species, these little beauties did not bite very much at all especially if the person holding them handled them with care and didn’t hurt them. Although I caught many I didn’t keep them as pets it was fun just to catch them and then let them go. I once had a black and white mouse bought from a pet shop and it spent most of its short life trying to find ways to die, so mouse keeping lost its appeal for me.

So, dear reader the next time you find yourself in a straw barn in or around Kingsley sit quietly for a few minutes, listen and be patient. These little creatures, in spite of their tiny size make quite a lot of noise so you generally hear them before you see them. The wait and the patience is well worth the trouble. Scampering about and using their, comparatively, long tails to climb they provide a delightful and captivating display. I hope they are still around Kingsley and that some of you get the chance to see them.

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