Good news: we’ve had reports of three nests being found this week, all of which have been found in different parts of East Devon. The project is now in its third year and as you’ll see below, lots of the tetrads have now been checked in at least one location. The yellow squares are hectads where harvest mice have been found, the red ones have been searched but no nests found. The ones without any colour have not been surveyed at all. Are there any red or white ones near you?!?
After a successful search last week, we have organised a second session at Woodah Farm on January 19th. This is a Saturday, and we’ll be starting at 1pm, so hopefully it’s easier for everyone who works. You can book places by replying contacting email@example.com.
Two further training sessions have been organised at Northam Burrows: details on the poster at the bottom of this box, but please book through the email address shown at the bottom left of the poster (firstname.lastname@example.org). Thanks. (As places on the afternoon one filled up incredibly fast, we’ve decided to put on a second session earlier in the day as well running from 10.30am-12.30. Both sessions are identical.)
Finally (for now) we have a post-Christmas group survey session, at 11am on Saturday 29th December. You don’t need any experience to attend, or to have been on any of the training sessions, it’s just a chance to look for nests and chat at the same time. We’ll be meeting at Joney’s Cross carpark, opposite the entrance to the RSPB reserve at Aylesbeare and will be finished by 1pm. Booking is recommended by replying to this email. This event is by kind permission of the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust.
Have you signed up to our Harvest Mouse Newsletter? Just let Sarah know by emailing her at email@example.com and she can add you to the list. The newsletter contains news about surveys and searches. It also let’s you know about training days coming up.
In case you missed it, here’s the content of the latest newsletter:
Welcome to another update!
Thank you to everyone who has been out and about looking for nests over the last couple of weeks-please do send your records in, even if it is a nil-result. From personal experience over the last few weeks, I know you can do several surveys in lovely habitat, even in places where they were last year and not find any. This is useful for us to know, but then when you find one it’s even more exciting, so don’t give up or think it’s you not looking properly!
As always you can click on the weblink https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/MXP9QYL or click on the green button at the end of this email. The first three nest records received will be sent a free DMG Harvest Mouse Project Christmas card as a little thank you!
Training course dates
Our next session will be at The Donkey Sanctuary, Paccombe Farm, Friday 7th December, starting at 9.30 am. If you would like to come along, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are also another 2 sessions at Braunton Burrows: details on the poster at the bottom of this box, but please book through the email address shown at the bottom left of the poster. Thanks. (As places on the afternoon one filled up incredibly fast, we’ve decided to put on a second session earlier in the day as well running from 10.30am-12.30. Both sessions are identical. )
More sessions are in in the pipeline for January while there is still time to look for nests, as is a post-Christmas group survey session, at 11am on Saturday 29th December. You don’t need any experience to attend, or to have been on any of the training sessions, it’s just a chance to look for nests and chat at the same time. We’ll be meeting at Joney’s Cross carpark, opposite the entrance to the RSPB reserve at Aylesbeare and will be finished by 1pm. Booking is recommended by replying to this email. This event is by kind permission of the Pebblebed Heaths Trust.
Have you seen our Wanted poster? This is the best time to survey for harvest mice. Wrap up warm, wear some nice thick gloves, take a friend and go nest hunting! Let us know what you find. You need to know the grid reference (often available on your phone, or use a website such as www.gridreferencefinder.com) and when you searched. You’ll also need to submit the habitat type, how long you were looking before you found the first nest and (if you can) what grass species it was in. Please also take a few photos. If you have any questions, Please contact Saraha on her email – email@example.com.
We are looking forward to seeing you at the Mercure Rougemont on Thursday evening!
I hope you’ve had a good chance to check out our fabulous auction lots. We have been donated over 50 items, large and small, so there is something for everyone. From wildlife photography experiences, to guided walks, B&B stays, books and crafts there is so much to bid for. Remember – it’s all to raise money so that Devon Mammal Group can continue to help reserch and conserve mammals in Devon. We offer free training, hold talks and other events. The money raised in the auction is to help fund a further study of harvest mice inthe county.
How will the auction work?
We are holding the main auction, where many of our lots will go. You will be given a raffle ticket on entry which will be your number. You will need to refer to this number if you wish to bid on anything. Some of the lots will also go into a silent auction. You write your bids down for these items and the last one to bid wins. this is all annonymous (you use your lot number again). PLUS, some of our lots will go into the raffle, including crafts and artwork.
So, as well as the raffle ticket we give you on arrival, remember to buy more raffle ticket for your chance to win selcted lots!
The evening will also include a short talk from Pete Cooper, who is the Harvest Mouse Project Officer, on the work he has been doing over the last few months. Harvest mice are rarely seen. Only a handful of records had been recorded in the last few decades. We have been assessing their distribution across the county since last autumn. We have managed to vastly increase the number of records for this species in Devon. We have managed to cover a lot of the county. See the map.
Come along and join us for a fantastic evening, bring a friend and enjoy the auction on Thursday evening.
When: 29th March. Viewing from 7pm, auction starts at 7.30pm.
Where: The Rougemont Hotel, Queen St. Exeter EX4 3SP
We are delighted to be able to invite you to a very special event. We are holding an auction on 29th March in aid of the Harvest Mouse Project. This project has been doing great work to map the distribution of harvest mice across Devon. We have trained over 100 people in how to carry out surveys for harvest mice.
If you would like to read more about the Harvest Mouse Project, please see our website page. You can also read our blog posts.
The auction is going to be held at The Rougemont Hotel in central Exeter (see details below). There will be a main auction AND a silent auction, plus a raffle, of course.
The evening will kick off with a talk about the Project by Project Officer, Pete Cooper.
It’s free entry and there’s no need to book.
The auction lots
We have created a gallery of the auction lots which you can peruse before the event itself (we keep updating it – so keep checking). There are descriptions of the items, and remember to make a note of the auction number of any that you like. All the items have been kindly donated by some wonderful and generous Devon Mammal Group members and supporters. We’re happy to answer questions about the lots.
The lots include some beautiful pieces of original art work, holiday lets, events, crafts, guided tours and more. There is something for everyone.
I’m coming towards the close of the harvest mouse survey season, and by far one of the best parts of the job has been seeing the sheer enthusiasm for the species in the volunteers and colleagues I’ve worked with. Whether it has been meeting our captive ambassador mice (the first they have seen the animal for many, and a surprising realisation of how small they are), or delight at uncovering a nest in a place they were least expected, there’s no doubt that it’s very difficult for harvest mice not to win people over.
As a result, this has lead to a common recurring question, particularly among those who own or manage land; “What can I do to help harvest mice?” More than once during this job, I have met people who had a sudden pang of guilt when they realised they had or were going to start cutting away a prime piece of harvest mouse habitat under their stewardship.
Unlike the far more strictly protected dormouse, there is little published work or legislative impetus for managing land with harvest mice in mind. In addition, some of the best breeding habitat for harvest mice is commonly regarded as ‘messy’ by land managers and is earmarked for cutting back or grazing off. One volunteer notably remarked at a training day that cock’s foot grass, one of the best species for harvest mouse nest building, was regarded by their colleagues as ‘the enemy’!
Unfortunately, management beneficial for other target species is not always great for harvest mice. Butterflies are notorious for this, and what is regarded as brilliant for rare species that love short swards can be anathema to the mice!
Luckily, we have made some of the people we work with think twice about cutting after the discovery of harvest mouse nests, and pushing this educational-advisory work is something we’d like to look at in the future. For now however, here is my key advice for all land managers who want to keep the little guys in mind. It is entirely unofficial and based on what relatively little we know about harvest mice and my own observations rather than any peer-reviewed research, but every little helps!
Learn the key nest species
As long as it is dense enough to weave a nest around themselves and the stem is relatively stiff but can be split lengthways, harvest mice don’t seem to be too fussy about which grasses or reeds they weave breeding nests from. However there are a few key species that are far more likely to be used. Cocks foot, reed canary, purple moor, reed sweet-grass and common reed are all fairly typical, so ensuring you have thick, continuous clusters of these species will increase your chances.
Cut as late as you can
In a triumph of common sense, harvest mice are generally breeding when warm temperatures and plentiful food means it’s sensible to do. Generally this means April to late September/early October, but in very mild years they can go all the way through to the start of December.
This means that by the traditional start date for cutting of 1st September, successful harvest mouse mothers might still be able to push out a litter or two, while mice born earlier in the season will be getting on with rearing the next generation already. Holding back until mid-Autumn once mice have dropped down closer to the ground may leave some with itchy feet, but the critters will thank you for it.
Spare and rotate areas of land for cutting
Nature is a dynamic process, with different species occupying unique niches that are created through variation in the landscape. This is true even on very small scales, and ensuring that some grass is left uncut, or is only done so every other year, can go some way towards this.
Theoretically at least, by adopting this instead of an ‘all or nothing’ policy, you can have both your harvest mouse and pearl-bordered fritillary cakes and eat them! (Actually, don’t do that. PB Frits are protected for a start.)
Steady on the grazing
In places where I’ve not found harvest mice, over-grazing seems to have been a significant factor. Purple moor grass tussocks, normally perfect for nests, are nibbled down right to the stump by ponies. At one wildlife trust reserve managed particularly for rare butterflies (them again), I may as well have given up when I saw it was grazed over its entire area by sheep, which are essentially a living lawnmower.
While a full-blown harvest mouse recovery project would be recommended not to utilise grazing, that’s not to say they’re entirely incompatible. It is however a very finely tuned balance of stocking, timing and scale. As few animals as possible, over a large area and a limited window of time will give the tussocks for nest plants the best chance of survival.
Much like in the previous step, ensuring there are areas where stock are fenced off will allow the dense vegetation required by harvest mice to grow, so long as these aren’t isolated island-like within a wider grazing zone. Sometimes natural exclusion zones are created by thorny vegetation. In one wet heathland site I surveyed grazed by ponies, a thick cluster of gorse protected non-grazed purple moor grass that were full of nests.
Create new habitats
Of course one of the best things to do is to create entirely new harvest mouse friendly habitats. Bigger is better, so if you have a field or several with no idea what to do with it, why not allow it to grow wild? Provided it is well connected to the surrounding landscape (such as through hedgerows or stream banks), harvest mice are likely to find it quickly enough, and these large swathes of habitat are increasingly rare for an animal often limited to field margins and verges. Harvest mice will also prosper in reedbeds, culm grassland and heathland to name a few examples, so if you have the right kind of ground for these habitats they are all worth trying.
One of the easiest things to do is maintaining field margins that are rich in dense, tall tussocky grass. Ideally these should be at least six feet in width, and while these are cheaper to keep in arable situations, can be used in grazing situations by fencing off the required section.
While we are discussing management for harvest mice, in nature nothing should be considered in independence, and of course the proper, ‘messy’ grassland harvest mice is appreciated by so many other flora and fauna trying to hang onto our countryside. Some of the best field margins for harvest mice I’ve seen was created as a wild food source for the nationally rare Cirl bunting. Likewise, if you decide to create, spare or alter the way you look after your land, rest assured it’ll be more than just harvest mice thanking you.
We have two final training sessions based in North & East Devon coming up, so if you’d like to learn the skills if you haven’t already, refresh your abilities or want to recommend them to others, please confirm your interest in either of the workshops by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. Both workshops will feature short talks on the project with the opportunity for hot drinks, and the chance to see real harvest mouse kept by DMG committee.
SATURDAY 3RD FEB, 10.00AM – Beer Mill Farm, Clawton, North Devon. An opportunity to search for harvest mouse nests in a culm grassland site that has had positive nest records.
FRIDAY 9TH FEB, 10.00AM – Wildwood Escot. Another visit to what has been a very successful site for nest records in a swathe of rough grassland within a small area of wetland.
Both events require wellingtons (ESSENTIAL in particular for the North Devon event!), warm/waterproof clothes and thick gloves.
Please let Pete know you wish to attend by emailing him at email@example.com.
As you may know, we recently did a bit of filming with BBC Spotlight. It’s no longer available on iPlayer, but the lovely people at Spotlight have made it possible for us to share with everyone. Thanks to everyone who helped on the day and to all the Harvest Mouse Project Surveyors. Want to sign up? Get in touch!
Thanks to BBC Spotlight, Wildwood Escot and Devon Biodiversity Records Centre.
Imagine you’re a farmhand living about a century or so back. The last of the summer warmth is just eking through to the end of September. Your back is aching and your limbs sweating as you carry bundles of wheat into the barns and start arranging them in ricks.
With your mate out in the field gone off to fetch something from the farmyard, you take the opportunity to have a quick break, and rest your stiff body back against one of the ricks. Just as you start to relax in the cool shade of the barn (with all the dust in your nostrils blocking the smell), suddenly the wheat-mattress beneath you starts to move! You jump back in alarm, and looking back at your former rest-spot you realise it is absolutely teeming with tiny, sandy-coloured mice, frolicking through the rick where their nests remained hidden within.
This would’ve been a common sight in the farming life of rural Britain for centuries; long before Hampshire naturalist Gilbert White scientifically described harvest mice for the first time in the 1790s.
The name ‘harvest mouse’ easily conjures up the image of the animal tumbling and snuffling its way through ears of wheat and barley. Something that’s been asked to me on occasion therefore is whether I go looking for these animals in the crop; yet today you’d be very lucky indeed to find these animals in the centre of farming activity. So just why is that the case?
Before the advent of agriculture, these animals would’ve likely been most abundant in the floodplain marshes that proliferated on major river systems. While many of these would’ve been drained over time (and harvest mice can still be found in surviving or restored wetlands), the new farmland that was created provided a very suitable alternative. And when that crop was bought inside, the harvest mice revealed themselves in huge numbers. Farm buildings would’ve also been handy winter refuges, and there’s even record of harvest mice taking up residence in meat curing sheds where they earned the moniker of ‘bacon mice’!
So what went wrong? You might have guessed it, but it’s simply down to the fact we changed the way we farmed. Harvest was moved to much earlier in the year, often when the mice were still at the peak of their breeding season. Crops were sown mechanically in ordered lines, with each plant much further apart, leaving few dense clumps suitable for nest building. On top of all that, this new dawn of the combine harvester resulted in mowing from the edges going in rather than out from the centre, giving harvest mice no chance of escape.
Post-war intensification of agriculture resulted in so much of our wildlife declining, and it appears likely that the same happened to the harvest mouse – or at least it had to adjust the way it lived alongside us. Nowadays, it’s the patches of rough grass left to go wild, the margins of fields and the roadside verges, the reedbeds and marshes, where harvest mice can still tease out a living.
The question is, how many of these ‘messy spots’ still harbour the animals? Does the isolated nature of many of these areas, or perhaps poor connectivity between them, have an impact on how well harvest mice are doing? The answer is that we don’t know, simply due to so few people looking. This is exactly what we are trying to rectify here in Devon.
Unless there are significant changes in farming policy, it seems unlikely harvest mice will ever be as abundant within the crop again. But the crucial link between this animal and rural communities can still be maintained if we are willing to maintain these slightly wilder corners of the landscape, and in some cases make small changes to the way it’s managed – just cutting the verge a bit later in the Autumn can make all the difference. So while the harvest mouse may no longer strictly be part of the harvest, there’s no reason it can’t remain a familiar denizen of the countryside.
To sign up as a harvest mouse nest searcher, send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also donate to our project to help us extend our work throughout the winter by providing a donation at https://www.justgiving.com/campaigns/charity/devonmammalgroup/harvestmouse.
We’re just over one month into the Harvest Mouse Project, and heading into peak nest finding season. In mild conditions the mice will still be using their breeding nests right into October, and some of the first nests we found were indeed very solid and likely still in use thanks to the mild conditions of late.
However, the winds of winter are drawing in, and young harvest mice will be scattering out from their homes and scurrying away into the wider countryside. This leaves their nests still intact, but without the risk of us possibly disturbing any residents. Although we’ll be running the project throughout the winter, as the weather worsens the nests can get increasingly damaged through the season, so from now through December is a great time to go looking.
We already trained up our first cohort of nest spotters at our October training day at Meeth Quarry. Nest spotter extraordinaire Derek Crawley travelled all the way down from Staffordshire to share his wisdom and technique with our volunteers, which was rewarded with 8 nests spotted around the site.
This is a very good number for any survey, but it was just beaten in the records so far by a survey I undertook with the team at Wildwood Escot the week after. There we found 9 nests, with the first five spotted in the space of about two minutes! We’ll be returning here on Friday 17th November for another training morning as well as our first live trapping session – please feel free to e-mail me if you wish to attend.
Many of our surveys so far have been on Devon Wildlife Trust reserves, among them those that include culm grassland. The culm is an ecologically unique habitat to this part of Britain, and it also happens to be ideal for harvest mice thanks to the long swards of purple moor grass. We’ve managed to find nests on some culm reserves, but in a lot of cases we’ve found it’s almost too good a habitat! The dense structure makes finding nests especially difficult, and coupled with the large area some reserves cover, it can become an almost literal case of a needle in a haystack.
We’re looking at ways to monitor the sites after the grass has been cut or burned to see if this makes finding the remaining nests any easier. Additionally, we hope to engage local farming representatives that steward much of the culm in North Devon with our work, raising not just awareness but hopefully action to ensure these animals can thrive in this valuable habitat.
So with peak season now underway, it’s the time to get trained up! Each week we’ll be hosting informal training mornings looking for nests, and sometimes running live traps. As previously mentioned, the next one will be at Wildwood Escot this Friday from 10am. The remaining dates in the run-up to Christmas are:
Location & Time: Loddiswell Village Hall, 10am, Saturday2ndDecember2017
Come and learn about our Harvest Mouse Project from project officer Pete Cooper, who will give a short talk on harvest mice in Devon and how you can get involved, and the chance to meet ‘Withnail’, a live captive harvest mouse acting as an ambassador for the project! This will be followed by a nest search in nearby Andrew’s Wood DWT reserve.
In this entry we introduce our new project officer, Pete Cooper. Pete’s job over the coming winter will be to co-ordinate volunteers, lead surveys and try and find as many nests over Devon as possible!
It’s a pleasure to be working with Devon Mammal Group on this project, especially considering that I have spent a disproportionately large time for someone my age working with mammals! I’ve been a naturalist since I could walk, and working with wildlife is all I have wanted to do. I have just completed an MSc in Biodiversity & Conservation at the University of Exeter Penryn Campus (which involved collecting and picking apart vast quantities of otter spraint!), but in my free time I have done a large body of work with both wild and captive mammals. Often this has been with organisations such as New Forest Badger Group, Derek Gow Consultancy, and Cornwall Wildlife Trust.
Harvest mice in particular are a species I’ve been very familiar with. This goes back to when I first saw a colony zipping confidently around their tank at the New Forest Wildlife Park as a young child, and where I later learned skills in their captive care when I volunteered at the Park for two years. This in turn lead to me keeping my own harvest mice as education animals, as their relaxed and curious nature makes them ideal ambassadors for the more elusive members of our wildlife when I take them out to talks and events.
I’ve carried out too many small mammal trapping surveys to count by now, and wild harvest mice have featured, but they are elusive! Generally the time I’m running traps has been during the spring/summer when the animals are above ground in the shrub layer. To work around this, I have placed traps on posts a few feet above grounds in reedbeds. This has proved successful, but the capture rate hasn’t been high, which is typical of the species.
Although I hope to do some trapping over the course of this year’s project, nest searching is a far quicker and simpler method that will ensure definitive ‘tickbox’ answers as to where we can find harvest mice in Devon. And we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. For example, we have very few records from North Devon, but there is plenty of suitable habitat such as culm grassland which is known to be favoured by the mice. By confirming records in 10x10km2 ‘tetrads’, we can see whether harvest mice are well spread over the county, or becoming more isolated and fragmented in their range.
One of the things I’m most looking forward to is bringing people together for the harvest mouse; whether that is volunteer nest searchers, or farmers and landowners that can be made more aware of this animal and the requirements it needs.
The association between harvest mice and the human influence on the countryside is there to see in the name; how can we let an animal that once shook the corn ricks due to their sheer numbers during the harvest fall into obscurity? It’s my hope that my time in this role can galvanise even more people to speak up for our smallest, and possibly most charming rodent.
We are really excited to announce that Peter Cooper is going to be running the Harvest Mouse Project this winter. Peter will be leading training events and surveys over the next few months. To kick the project off we will be starting in North Devon with a talk and a training day with Derek Crawley. Derek visited us last year and led a fantastic harvest mouse training day at Stover, where we found twenty nests! Keep an eye out for how to book your place this year. We hope that everyone involved in the training day will continue to be involved in this project. We want to get as many people out looking for harvest mouse nests as possible. With a regular set of training days planned across the county there will be one to join in with near you. Let’s get this under-recorded small mammal back on the map!
Devon Mammal Group is launching a Harvest Mouse Project this autumn. It is difficult to know how Harvest Mice are doing in Devon as there are not many records of them. It is therefore not possible to know if they are in decline. We hope that by looking for nests and setting small mammal traps in suitable habitats, we can get a better idea of where they are and how they are faring in Devon.
To launch the project we have set up a training day for any members who might be interested in joining us in our search for the Harvest Mouse – for more details see here: Events