Drinkers, hangovers and harvest mice

15 November 2015 | Posted in Michael Blencowe
Drinkers, hangovers and harvest mice

"Well I woke up Sunday morning,

With no way to hold my head that didn't hurt."

Kris Kristofferson

Over the years I have tried many hangover cures. Harvest mice have never been one of them.

But on Sunday morning, after a Saturday night party, I was persuaded to join members of the Sussex Mammal Group as they undertook a harvest mouse survey. "The fresh air would do you good", they said. And so I found myself ankle deep in a marsh at Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Woods Mill reserve. The dim November light burned into my retinas. The ‘chak-chak-chak’ alarm calls from a gang of fieldfares rattled loudly around my brain as they passed overhead. I should have stayed in bed.

The chances of seeing a harvest mouse are minimal. These are tiny, secretive, sensitive mammals which are mostly nocturnal. The sound of a hungover man crashing around in a marsh would send them scurrying long before I got close. This is why the best way to survey for their presence is to look for their abandoned summer nests . These woven balls of grass built high amongst the vegetation are a harvest mouse's summer home. From this base they will head out on acrobatic feeding missions, climbing through grasses, reeds and bramble, hardly ever touching the ground. Finding a small ball of dead grass amongst lots of dead grass isn't easy, but my hangover-induced hypersensitivity threw my environment into painfully sharp focus and I told myself that this was an essential superpower for the harvest mouse hunter.

While slowly scanning the undergrowth other strange creatures appeared. On a bramble leaf I found another home made of dead grass; the larval case of a psyche casta moth. There were caterpillars too, still active and fattening themselves up in this mild weather. Most of them were healthy looking drinkers. The irony wasn't lost on me.

Drinker moth caterpillar

Psyche casta larval case.

A nearby blackthorn hedge distracted me and I snuck off in search of the eggs of the brown hairstreak butterfly. The elusive adult butterfly is on the wing in August and the wind and rain that we enjoyed this August seems to have given these butterflies limited chances to meet, mate and egg lay as I have not found the usual abundance of eggs on our hedgerows. The fruit of the blackthorn, sloes, had flavoured the gin which I was blaming for this hangover. Looking for a little white dot when all you can see is white dots in front of your eyes wasn't easy but eventually I found an egg.

Brown hairstreak egg on blackthorn.

And then, while scanning a bank on the edge of a reedbed, my vision seemed to become even more blurry. I soon realised what I was looking at was a small area where the grass had been blurred and tangled into a round ball: a harvest mouse nest. The nest's location was noted and its details recorded. Shortly after another nest was found not too far away. Harvest mouse nests were once common in English wheat fields a century ago but changes in farming practice means that they, and their inhabitants, have disappeared from most of the English countryside.These amazing constructions provide a snug, warm place of safety for these mice.

By now my hangover felt worse than before. The harvest mouse survey hadn't really helped - but it had given me an idea. I headed home, curled up in a ball, wrapped the duvet around myself and went back to sleep.

Harvest mice could be found in field margins, brambly edges, reedbeds and hedgerows across Sussex. If you find any of these woven nests we'd be interested to hear about it.

Thanks to Ryan, Jess, Kim, Natalie and Clare. And thanks to Laurie for the sloe gin.


  • Ginny:

    16 Nov 2015 17:10:10

    Great story Michael!

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