“Hallo, Rabbit,” he said, “is that you?”
“Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.”
~ A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh
If you don’t like rats, look away now!
While I realise that a blog about rats might not appeal to everyone, I rarely get to see or write about mammals so, when these two rats came brazenly sniffing around for the seeds I was feeding to the birds at Cosmeston, I couldn’t resist taking photos. And once I have photos, a blog shall surely follow.
These are Brown rats (Rattus norvegicus), immigrants from central Asia that arrived in Britain around 1720. Of course, I don’t mean these two individuals arrived in 1720 – rats usually only live about a year in the wild – but their ancestors were sea-going rodents that just loved to sail the oceans wide and jumped ship wherever they docked. Nowadays, rats are more settled, and they’ll live almost anywhere – houses, gardens, parks, farmlands and farm buildings – you name it, there’s probably a rat in it somewhere.
They particularly like cereals – so, my bird seed would’ve gone down a treat – but they’ll eat pretty much anything, from small birds and their eggs to molluscs and food scraps. If you’re someone who hates these much-maligned creatures, remember that they too play an important part in the food chain, in particular as food for the owls and foxes that everyone loves.
I have only ever seen two shrews, both sadly deceased. Britain has two species of shrew, the Common (Sorex araneus) and the Pygmy (Sorex minutus), but I believe the ones I have seen have been Pygmy shrews. Though both species have brown fur on their backs and silvery grey fur on their bellies, and they are of a similar size, the Pygmy shrew has a tail that is two-thirds the length of its body, whereas the Common shrew’s is half the length. It’s a small distinction and I’m sure experts could point to more scientific methods of distinguishing one from the other but, for me, the tail has to be the telling point.
Pygmy shrews lead short but frantic lives. In their twelve to eighteen months of life the females can give birth to two, sometimes three litters of between 5 and 7 young. Though very few people ever see them, they are common in much of Britain, ferreting about frantically, in grasslands, woodlands, the fringes of arable fields and in the urban garden, for the small insects they like to eat. As you can see, they have tiny eyes but that relatively large snout gives them a keen sense of smell to help find their prey.
In case you’re wondering how I managed to get such detailed photos of this little Pygmy shrew, I brought it home with me. This wasn’t just to get photos – through someone I know who is doing a PhD in biosciences at Cardiff University, this little creature has been donated to science. Its details will help in the study of these often elusive small mammals, and it will be preserved and used as a teaching aid. I was sad to find such a gorgeous wee beastie dead but at least its death has not been in vain.
Of course, the ‘Ratty’ in Kenneth Grahame’s much-loved tale The Wind in the Willows is not, in fact, a rat, it’s a Water vole (Arvicola amphibius), as are the gorgeous little creatures in my photographs.
Water vole numbers have declined hugely in recent years, partly, it seems, due to predation by American minks and partly due to loss of habitat. Luckily for me, one hundred Ratties were recently reintroduced at one of my local country parks, and a few of them have made themselves at home in a location where they are easily visible.
You have only to be quiet and watchful to see them swim out from their hiding places amongst the reeds at the edge of a pond, nip off a leaf from the floating water lilies, swim back to the pond edge, and sit contentedly nibbling away. They are the cutest wee creatures!