Worcestershire Mammal Group

Promoting mammals in Worcestershire

A-harvest mousing we will go…..!

After our refresher day at Feckenham Wylde Moor on 30th September, I hope WMG members have been able to start searching for harvest mouse nests?  It is good to get out before the end of the year if you can, before wild wintry weather further flattens the vegetation!

A big part of the challenge of harvest mouse surveying, I have learnt, is identifying suitable blocks of habitat to concentrate upon: so many places are unsuitable because they are too mown, grazed or otherwise managed so that there is insufficient tall, grassy, sedgey or reedy vegetation in which harvest mice can weave their tiny, elevated nests.  I have been very fortunate recently in visiting two Worcestershire sites with abundant suitable habitat, and I found evidence of harvest mice at both of them!  Both are nature reserves, so not typical of most of our countryside, but I thought it was worth sharing my experiences in case it helps to guide you to your own successful search.

The first site was Avon Meadows Local Nature Reserve at Pershore, where WMG did some live trapping of small mammals in October.  On that visit we were struck by the abundance of tall, wetland vegetation at this lovely site (managed by Liz Etheridge of Wychavon District Council), so I looked forward to an opportunity for a nest hunt.  That soon arose in November when I chose Pershore as a place to meet up with an old friend for a walk and a chat, and I introduced him to the thrills of ‘swimming through long grass’, as harvest mouse surveying could be called.  There we found a harvest mouse nest in a tall stand of hairy willowherb with common reed; the delicate woven nest was just 7 cm across and suspended some 60 cm above the ground.  Although I knew what I was looking for, the discovery took my breath away and left me marveling at the aerial skills of our tiniest rodent that enable it to weave such a work of art two feet above the damp ground.

There is lots more suitable habitat to search at Avon Meadows, so we are planning another group event there on the morning of 15th December.

The second site I have been privileged to visit is the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust’s reserve at Hill Court Farm near Longdon.  With my colleague Charlie Long I searched just two fields in this huge site, where the main objective is to restore the wetland habitats that have been lost or damaged during decades of intensive farming.  Most of the vegetation suitable for harvest mice in these grassy fields is concentrated around the margins, where uncut headlands comprise tall, coarse grasses supported in places by blackthorn, wild rose and bramble spreading out from the gently-managed hedgerows.  The suitable vegetation here is mostly shorter than at Avon Meadows, so the bending over to search is more severe.  In a foolish and pointless effort to mask the growing pain in my back I imagine myself as an international rugby player competing for the ball at a ruck (picture the All Black flanker Richie McCaw 40 years on – grey-haired and wizened, but still determined to win the ball….); but it doesn’t work, so we had to take frequent breaks to stand up, stretch and enjoy the view of the Malvern Hills, marred only slightly by the sound of the M50 Motorway!

In all we found four perfect harvest mouse nests in just one of the fields at Hill Court Farm; all were tightly-woven near-spherical bundles of grass leaves 7-8 cm across and mostly 20 cm or less above ground level.  Some of the nests were still partly green thanks to the cunning harvest mouse habit of weaving in some grass leaves that remained attached to their stems so that they stay alive to help camouflage the nest (talking of ‘Staying Alive’, I find that frequent survey breaks to dance to the Bee Gees 1977 song of the same name are a good antidote to back pain).

Finding four nests was the result of about 6.5 person-hours of searching, so each nest took just over 1.5 person-hours to find; not a very impressive success rate, but we are relative beginners and doubtless there were some nests that we didn’t spot. It’s true that, depending upon the structure of the vegetation, the tiny nests can be very easy to miss if you are not right up close, so thorough searching is a slow process.  But each nest discovery is a delicious thrill, and we wouldn’t want it too easy, would we?!  Apart from a stiff back and a few scratches, the only downside to harvest mouse surveying is that one’s entire concentration is low down, so it’s easy to miss out on other wildlife sightings and the general countryside views; therefore, it is essential (and good for the back) to stand up every few minutes to take a look around and enjoy your surroundings!

Johnny Birks

3rd December 2018.

Camera trapping in South Shropshire

Dooley (my canine chum) and I recently spent a fascinating day in a secret south Shropshire woodland, where we checked camera traps for evidence of the extremely elusive local pine martens.  Our guides were Stuart Edmonds of Shropshire Wildlife Trust’s Pine Marten Project and local naturalist David Pearce, who boosted the spirits of all involved when he photographed a wild pine marten in this very woodland back in July 2015.  Since then, Stuart and Dave have successfully deployed camera traps at many sites in an effort to keep track of the charmingly enigmatic Shropshire martens. However, the cameras and their batteries are not cheap, so funding is always a worry. Given that the project is run part-time with a heavy reliance on volunteers, it is remarkable how much it has achieved.

Save for occasional canopy-height calls of bullfinch, siskin, redpoll, nuthatch and a brambling (Dave is a skilful birder with remarkable hearing), the steep, north-facing woodland was calm and quiet as we clambered down to the first in a long, ragged line of camera traps set among the oak-dominated trees.  Stuart extracted the SD card and fed it to his laptop so that we could scan swiftly through the hundred or so 10-second video clips recorded since their last visit.  To any uninformed observer, we three men and a dog must have made an odd sight, squatting damply on the freshly fallen oak leaves and peering at the laptop screen to identify the mammalian ‘captures’: most abundant among the videos were grey squirrels, with wood mice (some could have been yellow-necks) in second place and the occasional fox and muntjac in joint third.

We repeated this operation at a dozen or more cameras, leaving me in awe of Stuart’s skills at species identification from the briefest of glimpses.  We viewed so many video clips in a short space of time that my memory soon became, literally, a digital blur; but I can recall some thrilling highlights: one camera focused on the gnarled base of an old dead tree that was a mustelid hotspot, with several visits by badgers, three records of a delicate stoat, and a brief early morning appearance by a chunky polecat just a few hours before our own visit (Dooley insisted he could still smell it, giving us a look that implied if only we recognised his scenting skills we would realise that camera traps were a waste of both time and money); other cameras seemed to be located in deer hotspots, where videos of the abundant muntjac (sometimes three at a time) heavily outnumbered the native roe deer, one of which posed close to the camera as if checking its immaculate eye make-up.

About halfway along the camera trap line, we hit the jackpot (and Dooley pretended he could smell our target species): a magnificent pine marten in winter pelage was filmed foraging among the leaf litter in the early hours of 23rd October 2018; as usual it was facing mainly away from the camera (typically the Shropshire martens seem keen to hide their distinctively patterned ‘bibs’ so as to prevent Stuart from identifying them); and just after the video started the animal was spooked by a noise to its right, causing it to look up suddenly and run up the trunk of a nearby oak tree.  On top of the excitement and relief that we had found what we were looking for, I was thrilled simply to be sitting at the very spot where an English pine marten had passed by less than four weeks ago.

Although this was the only pine marten that we recorded that day, over the past three years Stuart and Dave have gathered many video clips that confirm the species’ continuing presence in south Shropshire.  They have also amassed huge quantities of data on a range of other woodland mammals, some of which are tricky to detect by traditional methods; this is a valuable demonstration of just how much camera traps now contribute to our understanding of elusive species.  So, why not consider treating yourself or a loved-one to a camera trap for Christmas? I can guarantee that you will be pleasantly surprised by what it reveals!

If you want to learn more about the Shropshire Pine Marten Project, please visit its Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=shropshire%20pine%20marten%20project

And if you would like to donate to the project please visit

http://www.shropshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/pinemartenproject?fbclid=IwAR1kC0694uJ7RIXY7hh8STOH9o_S-AygmCR4AUmUWD2Syp2T5HWFVGh18cc

Johnny Birks

19/11/2018

Non-native Mammals Symposium

I am recently back from attending The Mammal Society’s autumn symposium on ‘Non-native Mammals in Great Britain’.  Generously hosted by the engineering firm Arup at their London offices, this was a gathering of amateur and professional mammalogists who were entertained and informed by presentations on the challenges arising from those exotic mammals that have become established in the wild in Britain – deliberately or accidentally – thanks to the folly of we humans.

Talks covered the efforts of Red Squirrels United (the largest invasive species management programme in Europe, which unites more than 30 UK organisations committed to protecting red squirrels) to control grey squirrels and so reduce their impact on our native red squirrels; the four non-native deer species and their booming populations (as well as our two native deer species, which are just as invasive and out of control!); the impacts of edible dormice and fur-farm escapee mink on our native biodiversity; the problem of rats, hedgehogs and stoats on islands where they do not belong; and the threat posed by domestic and feral cats hybridizing with the Scottish wildcat.  We also heard about some ingenious solutions: fertility control is helping to limit the population of iconic feral ‘Kashmiri’ goats on the Great Orme in North Wales; pine martens are helping to reduce the populations of grey squirrels in parts of Ireland and Scotland, with benefits to red squirrel conservation; and a combination of coordinated trapping and the recovery of otters and polecats seems to have driven the mink into a population decline in many areas.

As ever, these conferences and symposia are about so much more than the formal presentations: the lunch, tea and coffee breaks are an opportunity to catch up with old friends and to make new ones; to hear about new mammal research discoveries (I was excited to hear about pine marten eDNA found recently in the Peak District); and to share news about the activities of local mammal groups such as ours, including plans for future surveys.  For example, following the recent publication of the Mammal Society’s eagerly anticipated review of the populations and status of British mammals, which revealed that many national population estimates had to be based on rather inadequate population density data, local mammal groups are to be invited to join in gathering essential information on the abundance of mammals across different habitats. So, watch this space!

Johnny Birks

13th November 2018

Spring Search for Small Mammals!

Taken from Flickr.

After surviving the mild (and often stormy) winter, the promise of warmer weather enticed the Worcestershire Mammal Group from their winter slumber.  After a bit of a stretch and a preening of whiskers, the group decided to welcome in the spring season by focusing on some of our most widespread mammals in the country….. small mammals!

Many British mammals can be considered ‘small’, but the term ‘small mammals’ generally refers to land-mammals which have a head and body length less than 130 mm long.  In Britain, this encompasses 11 species from the families rodentia (mice and voles) and insectivora (shrews), including the house mouse (Mus musculus), wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus), yellow-necked mouse (Apodemus flavicollis), hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius), harvest mouse (Micromys minutus), field vole (Microtus agrestis), bank vole (Clethrionomys glareolus), common shrew (Sorex araneus), pygmy shrew (Sorex minutus) and water shrew (Neomys fodiens).

Although these animals can often be seen scurrying across a path, or hanging from the jaws of fluffy (who probably cause it’s demise), the small and secretive nature of these animals makes it very difficult to survey for them.  Live trapping equipment (such as longworth traps) greatly increase the chance of encountering these mammals, and is definitely one of the best ways to find out what small mammals are in an area, and a great way to observe these fascinating animals up close.

The group decided to plan a small study to live-trap and identify small mammals in Trench Wood, a stunning Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and ancient woodland jointly owned by the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust and Butterfly Conservation.  The woodland is managed for migrant birds and butterflies, but the group wanted to see if the system of rides, tall herbs and grassland areas provided habitats for small mammals!

Credit to Poppy Morris.

Thirty-two Longworth traps were locked open (so nothing could be caught) and baited on the evening of the 7th of April.  Each trap was baited with fly castors and oats. The casters (fly pupae – often used by fishermen) were popped into the traps in case any shrews were caught. A fistful of hay was also pushed into the traps to ensure the unwilling prisoners were warm.  On the evening of the 8th of April, traps were set and re-baited.  The traps were placed along one of the rides, mainly out of sight from public, undercover.

Credit to Poppy Morris.

The next day on April 9th, 16 volunteers met early (8am) to ensure any captured mammals could be released ASAP, to minimize any stress.  Johnny Birks led the group, and systematically check each longworth trap.  Any animals that were present were identified, sexed and those that wanted to have ago at handling them, were provided with guidance on how to handle them safely – both for the mammal and the handler! Johnny demonstrated that if you hold a small mammal to your chest, it apparently calms them!

Credit to Caroline Hornberger.

Overall, the group had great success, with 3 Bank Voles, 11 Wood Mice and 1 feisty Yellow-necked Mouse captured.  Following the event, all records were sent to Worcestershire Biological Records Centre (WBRC).

A good morning was had by all, and a lot of mammaly fun!

Many thanks to the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust for allowing us to survey in their woodland, and to Dominique Cragg for arranging!

Please Note: If you are thinking of using traps too, bear in mind that catching shrews without a license is illegal. Specialist licences are required from the necessary statutory agencies. In our case, the course leader (Johnny Birks) had a licence. 

River Survey 2016 – The results are in!

Common-otterThe results of the Worcestershire Mammal Group’s first summer survey are in!

A huge thank you to everyone who took part this year in our first ever summer survey, we had some great days out and excellent records with plenty of otter signs across the county. The Worcestershire Biological Records Centre have now collated the results, and you can read all about them on our web site at www.worcestershiremammals.org/river-survey-2016-results

Worcestershire Mammal Atlas 2007-2019

mammalatlasAfter the successful publication of Worcestershire’s Mammals by Worcestershire Recorders in 2012 displaying records from 1995 to 2007, we are calling for records as part of a three year push to collate mammal data for the following recording period of 2007 to 2019.

Worcestershire Recorders, 51df5c34514d3ab6e8623f8b52e817fa61049d39Worcestershire Mammal Group and WBRC will work together to encourage increased recording of all wild mammal species found in Worcestershire, all species are important to us – no matter how common they are (or are perceived to be). There were 433 monads (c.20% of the county) with no mammal records at all in the atlas so we would really like to get this blank space populated with a more accurate picture of species distributions.

red-fox-side-profileRecords can be submitted to WBRC directly in a method that suits you, by email, spreadsheet or via iRecord, we have special recording forms for download on our website that can be printed out and kept handy for noting your sightings. Worcestershire Mammal Group have a record submission webpage that comes straight to WBRC. We will be keeping our Facebook page updated with latest news and what to look out for across the mammal year so keep your eyes peeled and please send in your records.

If you have any queries or would like help identifying mammal tracks and signs you find then don’t hesitate to get in touch with us direct.  We look forward to publishing updated maps to show the progress.

WBRC October 2016

 

A boar-ing day? I don’t think so!

14606286_10154685888596952_5527850243572352063_nI apologise for the late blog post, but better late than
never! On the 22nd of October, several members of the Mammal Group met in the depths of the Forest Of Dean to embark on a wild boar walkabout. Wild boar ecologist Dr. John  Dutton very kindly agreed to lead us around the area, to look for signs of wild boar.

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Wild Boar Track

Sadly we did not encounter any live wild boar (some members found a road casualty after the walk though), but there was an abundance of evidence!

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Andy helpfully pointing out a gouge on a tree. Probably ‘tusking’ by boar.

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Wild boar mud wallow.

This included tracks, mud wallows, mud up trees (a scratch following a nice wallow) and hair. Boar hair is pretty distinctive, it interestingly sports a ‘split end’….. obviously not using the right shampoo then!

All in all though, it was a lovely autumnal day, spent in a nice stretch of woodland with like minded folk. The day ended with grub in the newly re-furbed cafe at Beechenhurst.

A big thank you to Dr. John Dutton for leading the walk, and to all those that came along. I hope to see most of you soon at one of our next events.

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Worrying about Rabbits!

Juvenile-rabbitI worry about our wild rabbits. Although not native to Britain they have been here for so long that they have become hugely significant ecologically speaking, as well as being serious pests of agriculture and horticulture. Their ecological value lies mainly in their role as food for predators, including some of our birds of prey, such as buzzards, and for our beleaguered rarer carnivores (rabbits comprise about 85% of the diet of our polecats), some of which are still struggling to recover from the effects of persecution by our ancestors; also rabbits are valued on some nature reserves as habitat managers, helping to maintain herb-rich grassland by their nibbling and browsing.

A talk by Brian Boag at The Mammal Society’s 2016 Spring Conference in Staffordshire revealed worrying evidence of the potentially devastating impact of a new and virulent strain of rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV): Brian reported on huge declines from about 2008 onwards in rabbit abundance in parts of Scotland and Northern England, with an associated 17% decline in buzzard numbers in Scotland. The trouble with RHDV (unlike Myxomatosis) is that it kills rabbits relatively quickly and they tend to die out of sight, so the effects of an outbreak can be easy to miss if we are not keeping an eye on local rabbit numbers. My worry is that we could easily lose our wild rabbit populations without even noticing. So I decided to start my own very simple monitoring, and anyone can join me if they wish!

RabbitsFor me, as I go about my work and play mainly in Worcestershire and Herefordshire (but also when I go further afield by car or train), at the end of each day I designate it as either a ‘rabbit day’ or a ‘no rabbit day’ based upon whether I saw a wild rabbit; and accordingly I put an ‘R’ in my diary to identify each ‘rabbit day’. Currently most days have an ‘R’ in the diary because live rabbits have been pretty easy to see, either grazing on roadside verges as I drive past, running across roads at night as I drive home from a survey, or sun-bathing outside their burrows as I walk on the Malvern Hills first thing in the morning. So if I keep my eyes open and keep up my simple recording I should be able easily to spot a sudden disappearance of rabbits from my ‘home range’.

If you want to do something similar it would help to spread our effort across a wider area. You don’t have to restrict yourself to just spotting live rabbits; you could include fresh road casualties and fresh field signs (droppings, scrapes, fur, fresh burrows etc); but I like the simplicity and immediacy of recording live bunnies!

Pawprints and Poo

Spring had well and truly sprung after a record-breakingly warm March when the Worcestershire Mammal Group met for its second survey outing in a chillier April. Despite a worryingly unsettled Saturday seeing rain, sleet and hail threatening to dampen our efforts, a cool but thankfully sunny Sunday prevailed.

With an enticing title like “Pawprints and Poo” its easy to see why so many people couldn’t resist donning their wellies to embark on a short riparian ramble in the Worcestershire countryside to seek out the telltale signs of riverside-dwelling mammals.

After tirelessly scouring the counties’ waterways (thanks Poppy!) Sapey Bridge near Whitbourne was chosen for its soft substrates and ample parking. Sapey Brook is a tributary of the River Teme; a national stronghold during the time when otters almost became extinct in the UK. While our hopes may have been high that we’d find evidence of this elusive mammal thankfully the water wasn’t, so we were able to gain access to some promising  stretches of brook, with previous records from the mid-west of the county suggesting we were in the right area:

Reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. Crown copyright and database right 2016. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100047731

Reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO.
Crown copyright and database right 2016. All rights reserved.
Ordnance Survey Licence number 100047731

 

Surveying under bridges presents a very different habitat to the open fields of our first outing to Feckenham Wylde Moor, so after Johnny shared his knowledge on what to look for and where to find it the first round of volunteers was split into two groups; one to peer under the bridge, and the other to scour the banks of the busy brook.

Johnny introduces the first group.

Johnny introduces the first group on a bright and sunny Sunday morning. Photo: James Hitchcock.

Seeing good examples of well-chosen photographed mammal signs is one thing, but finding and identifying them whilst simultaneously not falling in the water and disturbing the evidence is a different skill entirely.

Poppy doing an excellent job of maintaining our low participant fatality rate near the water.

Poppy doing an excellent job of maintaining our low water-fatality rate. Photo: James Hitchcock.

Thankfully our dedicated volunteers were soon able to find our first confirmed otter sign, paw prints in the sandy substrate under the bridge:

Two otter paw prints close together

Two otter paw prints close together. Photo: James Hitchcock.

In addition to the otter tracks was what were most likely brown rat prints, even if we were quietly hopeful they might be water vole (we can dream!). Also in attendance were probable moorhen prints, and one eagle-eyed volunteer also found a rare Bristly millipede in amongst the moss on the river bridge, quite a find!

Meanwhile the second group headed off over the nearby field that followed the brook by some more substrate and on up to a weir. Despite some funny looks from some worried-looking sheep (it was Sunday and we were nearly ready for lunch), brown rat prints were found again, as well as a sight of scent marking, again from an otter!

An otter broadcasts its presence to other wildlife.

An otter broadcasts its presence to other wildlife. Photo: James Hitchcock.

Further up towards the weir the second group caught sight of what appeared to be a mammal trail: a thin worn path through the undergrowth up the steep bank…

 

As the morning group’s session came to a close we were delighted that some of them decided to join us for lunch. Following the mornings’ activities beer and roast beef outdoors had never tasted so good, and we may well have stayed there if not for the afternoon session 🙂

Fewer in number but no less keen, we stayed as a single group and revisited the bridge before heading back up towards the weir. After further investigation Johnny confirmed that it was likely that the mammal trail was from otters, and was able to identify the place at the top of the weir where they probably entered/exited the water:

The place where otters might enter/exit the water.

The place where otters might enter/exit the water. Photo: James Hitchcock.

From there we followed the trail down-river to find some older spraint and a moss-free piece of stone wall where they’d likely made a well-worn path.

Further down and across the brook there was a promising-looking stone sticking out of the water with grass growing on top. On closer inspection it yielded the freshest spraint yet, which we took turns to sniff to try to identify the characteristic sweet-musky smell, often said to be like jasmine tea.

The freshest spraint of the day!

The freshest spraint of the day! Photo: James Hitchcock.

With that the afternoon came to a close, however the end of our second survey session was also the beginning, as many of you raised your hands to help with surveying for mammals near the bridges and waterways of your local patch.

Those that did will have received an email with more information, in particular it’d be useful to know where you plan to survey so we don’t duplicate effort. If you’d like help choosing a site or would just like to let us know where you’re looking please reply to the email or use the contact us page. When you do find something, don’t forget to record it via our records page.

If you didn’t raise your hand, or couldn’t make it on the day, but would still like to help, please check out our riparian survey page and get in touch, we’d love to hear from you!

Croome Crawl

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Having been tipped off about some potentially suitable harvest mouse habitat in the lovely grounds of the National Trust’s Croome Court, who wouldn’t want to follow this up? Okay, so it may not be  the prime time for surveying, but with cattle rapidly munching their way through the tussocky grass, it was an opportunity that I couldn’t let slip by, especially as I was eager  to try out my newly acquired set of harvest mouse surveying skills!

The National Trust were contacted and were more than happy for a visit to be made and even suggested some other possible areas to look at. So, without further ado, I contacted a few budding harvest mouse friends (friends of mine that is rather than the harvest mice!) which resulted in a merry band of six volunteers.

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It looks like a harvest mouse nest!

On Saturday 30th January, which was a lovely sunny afternoon with a refreshing wind to blow the cobwebs away, we all met up at Croome Court.   We strolled down to an area known as South Park towards Croome River.  With our posterior’s elegantly pointing towards the blue sky, we began our search – we would have been on our hands and knees crawling but we all would have ended up with very soggy knees!  The tussucky grass seemed to cling to the rushes which were scattered across the damp terrain.  Many field vole nests were found right at the base of these tussocks which were characterised by neatly chomped grasses forming a cosy ball of warmth at ground level.  We continued our search towards the water’s edge where a couple of possible harvest mouse nests were found.  After a few group musings, prods and pokes we felt reasonably confident that they could indeed be harvest mouse nests!  Strands of woven grasses still attached to the grass stems themselves, elevated at ankle/shin level gave a good indication that our evidence base and verdict were probably correct.

Harvest mouse Credit: Dennis Brown

Time flies when you’re having fun so we didn’t get to see the other areas but we did notice a few other wildlife sightings which made the afternoon even better. A flock of around 20+ pied wagtails were enjoying a feast of insects thanks to the resident cattle.  Circling round with finesse and  with wonderful synchronisation a mini-murmuration, if you can call it that,  made up of around 100 starlings gave us a small but delightful display before settling in an old oak tree.  A male stonechat was also seen with its black head and orange-red breast which seemed so much brighter under the sun’s influence.  A heron was also spotted flying overhead with its unmistakable curved neck.  As we sauntered back to the cars discussing cold noses and sniffles (!), we spotted a flock of around 20+ redwings and were then surprised to see a kestrel perched in a tree looking at us as we looked at it.  It didn’t seem too bothered and was probably relieved that we were finally leaving so it could resume its search for a tasty field vole or two!

A very pleasant afternoon was had by all topped off by a much needed cup of tea at Croome tearooms. I’m sure this will be a great place to revisit later in the year so we can survey the other areas and hopefully find some more harvest mouse nests.

Thanks should go to the National Trust for kindly giving us permission to survey for20160130_140017 harvest mice and thanks to Gary, Nicki, Jean, Sandra and Andy for joining me in the Croome crawl!

 

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