Wildlife hides, I love them, I can sniff them out within miles and I can’t drive/walk past one without going in; probably much to the annoyance of Bill. The fact that there is one just 2 miles down the road from where we are staying is like all my wildlife Christmases at once. It’s a good one as well, this is the one all the customers keep seeing otters at, and there are plenty of seals to be seen, as well as the occasional visit from a sea eagle. The viewing windows are at varied heights, so everyone gets a fair view, which is really handy for me and my little legs. Bonus.
The hide itself is reached by a wooden boardwalk that zigzags its way through gnarled and twisted oak trees that bend to show you their leaves. Being raised above the forest floor gives you an excellent viewing platform of the many mosses and lichens that adorn the rocks scattered amongst heather, bracken and leaf litter. And shrews. I had my best common shrew encounter to date from my platform in the trees.
The clunk of my boots on the boardwalk wood reverberated louder with each step, it made me really self-conscious, you never want to be the noisy one at a wildlife hide and there is nothing worse than someone clunking their way along scaring off every animal within a 3mile radius. So, I stepped as lightly as I could, delicately treading on each board like they were liable to break at any given moment, trying to muffle my footsteps as best I could. From under the boardwalks something was less concerned with it’s volume levels and a very loud, rather frantic rustling rushed up to meet my ears, calling me to take a look. It didn’t take long for the movement to catch my eye, there were piles of leaves quivering one right after the other. Whatever it was that was working through them seemed to be doing so in a systematic fashion, it would work from the front to the back, under a decaying log and then back to front before starting the cycle again. I watched with intent, I was determined to catch a glimpse of whatever it was that was making such an impact on the forest floor detritus. Eventually a tiny figure emerged from a moss coated hole alongside the log, a flash of brown darted under the leaves tossing them aside before poking it’s head out and pausing just long enough to show off a long pointed, trembling nose. Mystery solved, it was a common shrew. From the noise it was making I was expecting a blackbird to find a blackbird throwing leaves aside in search of food, so I was surprised that one tiny individual could cause such a raucous. Ok, Mr Shrew, you’d got my attention. That was the only time it paused, for the rest of the 15minutes I spent watching it, it was relentless in it’s quest, it didn’t even flinch when it bumped into a frog that had been hiding amongst the leaf litter. I was mesmerised by this creature, I wanted to find out more: what was it doing in such a rush? What was it looking for so intently? How many of these noisy creatures are there in the U.K? It sent me straight home to dig out a good field guide and I’m glad I did.
Now, what do you reckon a common shrew’s territory size is? 1 dead tree branch? A couple of square feet? Or maybe the size of a small box room in a standard sized council house? They seem like they would be about right don’t they? Wrong! According to the Wild Guides Britain’s Mammals field guide, the common shrew’s territory size varies between 370-630 square metres. 370-630 square metres!? That’s roughly 70 x the size of the Iveco Daily van we live in. Seriously impressive for the 5.4cm – 8.7cm shrew; a tiny mammal that could easily rest in the palm of your hand and still have plenty of room to spare. Not only do they have a massive territory to defend from other shrews, but they defend it aggressively as well. Those high-pitched shrills that rise from swathes of grass and cow parsley along over grown verges, the squeaks that stop and make you stare at patches of quivering grass wondering what’s there in that hidden world, are shrews. Shrews going at it, defending their gigantic territories, shouting down any other shrew within it’s 630 square metres. Defending all the food in their patch because as well as being super feisty and in charge of a vast amount of space in comparison to their teeny tiny body size, these little creatures need to eat roughly 90% of their body weight a day - that’s a lot of food that needs to be found and consumed. No wonder they aren’t particular choosey about what invertebrates they snack on. Anything’s on the menu as far as these predators go: big elastic earthworms, slippery slugs, miniscule mites and unlucky woodlice are firm favourites. These guys are animals of extremes. I love them.
I wouldn’t have found out I loved them if I hadn’t been drawn in by the crunching and cracking of leaves that had been dried out in the uncharacteristically hot Scottish sun. If I hadn’t of taken the time to stop and watch, to let my eyes adjust to the scurrying movement amongst the cluttered forest floor, then I would have never got to watch this tiny earthen brown creature going about its business. And if I hadn’t of watched it busily bustling back and forth, darting through leaf litter and shrew sized holes in dead tree trunks then I would never have been compelled to find out more about them. It all started with one sense; hearing. I heard a noise and I investigated and it lead me not only to the creature, but then to books to learn more. Since that one common shrew encounter I have become more shrew aware. The slightest squeak or quiver of a grass blade sends me scouring the undergrowth in search of this tiny terror, and it’s paid off. Although they haven’t been quite as obvious encounters, I’m definitely more in touch with the estimated 42million population on the British Isles. Now I just need to find a way to photograph them, that’s going to be my next shrew mission.
Just one fleeting encounter brought on by nothing more than a rustling leaf got me thinking. Wildlife watching is more than just about the obvious, and whilst it is incredible (and usually a big aim of a wildlife watcher) to see an animal in all its glory, to witness its presence alongside ours, we would never have these encounters if it wasn’t for the little signs. The deer slots in thick mud, the patches of vegetation brushed aside to create a track, or the high-pitched squeaks emanating from dense overgrown verges. By paying attention to these then there will be so many more main events. And so many more animals to learn the territory sizes of. How much would we miss if it wasn’t for these clues?
I’ve visited the wildlife hide a few times since this encounter and every time as I walk along the boardwalk that shakes and thumps under my footsteps, no matter how lightly I step, my eyes are scanning the leaf strewn floor. I focus hard on rocks and the gaps between rocks and every bit of debris shaken by the passing breeze catches my eye. Looking. Searching for the shrew. I’ve not seen it since, I’ve not even heard it. There have been no frogs either, no matter how hard I look to try and decipher their caramel camouflage. But I know what to look for now, no rephrase that – I know what to listen for now. The scratch of tiny claws or the screech of tiny vocal chords are my clues that shrews are around. Doing what they do best. Being extreme.