In his new se­ries, Pa­trick Barkham cel­e­brates the long­stand­ing res­i­dents that make up this coun­try’s rich fauna

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In his new se­ries, Pa­trick Barkham cel­e­brates the long-stand­ing res­i­dents that make up this coun­try’s rich fauna. This month: shrews

IT IS A MAM­MAL, not a ro­dent, has a nose like a minia­ture anteater, mi­nus­cule eyes, soft downy fur and must eat its own body­weight in food ev­ery day to sur­vive. The ex­tra­or­di­nary char­ac­ter of the shrew is of­ten over­looked – eas­ily done when you’re Bri­tain’s small­est mam­mal. The pygmy shrew is a tiny crea­ture that fits com­fort­ably in the palm of your hand and weighs no more than a 20p coin.

If you have ever en­coun­tered one of these, or its larger rel­a­tive, the com­mon shrew, it will likely be be­cause it has been pre­sented to you as a gift by a pet cat. In­ter­est­ingly, the rea­son fe­lines are so gen­er­ous with these an­i­mals is due to their smell, as re­vealed by bi­ol­o­gist Pro­fes­sor Jeremy Searle:“the scent of male shrews will stay on you for a long time. When I be­gan study­ing them, it was lucky I al­ready had a girl­friend.” This odour makes shrew flesh un­pleas­antly pun­gent for mam­malian preda­tors, and so cats rarely eat them.

Searle’s in­ter­est be­gan as a bi­ol­ogy un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dent on an ex­pe­di­tion to study the shrews of Swe­den. He had to feed earth­worms to cap­tive shrews be­cause, un­like mice or voles, they are in­sec­tiv­o­rous, de­vour­ing worms and, oc­ca­sion­ally, other small mam­mals, too. While on the trip, Searle stopped by a com­post heap and spot­ted a shrew par­tially hid­den in the un­der­growth. Af­ter care­fully trap­ping it, he dis­cov­ered that, by sheer chance, he’d caught a taiga shrew, a species that was new to Swe­den. “I knew I was blessed and des­tined to work with them from then on,” he laughs. “Maybe I’m pe­cu­liar but they are at­trac­tive to me. They are very dif­fer­ent from ro­dents be­cause they have these long noses and a planti­grade gait, which means they walk on the soles of their feet. And they look a lit­tle bit ar­chaic, which I find ap­peal­ing.”


There are scores of species of shrew around the world but just three in Bri­tain: the pygmy, com­mon and wa­ter shrew. These short­sighted an­i­mals, which are most of­ten found among the

roots of hedges, wood­land or in long grass, are more closely re­lated to moles than ro­dents and their lives are de­fined by a des­per­ate need to eat. “They are fast-food an­i­mals,” Searle ex­plains. Un­like her­biv­o­rous mam­mals, which have a long gut through which they slowly ex­tract nu­tri­ents from food, shrews have a short, sim­ple tube-like di­ges­tive sys­tem. They need lots of high-en­ergy food, which passes quickly through them. Day and night, and in all weathers, they scurry in their search for sus­te­nance, us­ing their whiskers to nav­i­gate, as­sisted by their con­stant twit­ter­ing – some­thing they use to echolo­cate, in a sim­i­lar way to bats. This en­er­getic lifestyle fur­ther in­creases their me­tab­o­lism.


It is this ur­gent re­quire­ment for food that makes shrews ag­gres­sive, and has given them a dis­tinc­tive cul­tural sta­tus. Wil­liam Shake­speare’s The Tam­ing of the Shrew is a rather misog­y­nis­tic com­edy in which Petru­chio woos and ‘tames’ Kather­ine, the ‘shrew’ who is a strong-willed, stub­born wo­man. ‘Shrew’ has been used in a pe­jo­ra­tive sense in English, mainly to de­scribe a bad-tem­pered, nag­ging har­ri­dan since the 11th cen­tury. In the 18th cen­tury, the term was de­fined by Sa­muel John­son to mean “a clam­orous, spite­ful and rude wo­man”. This seems some­what un­fair on the lit­tle shrew, but Searle re­veals it may be rooted in our an­ces­tors’ close ob­ser­va­tion of the real an­i­mal. “In the breed­ing sea­son, a fe­male that is not in the mood for mat­ing can be­come very angry with an in­ter­ested male. You don’t want to leave them to­gether in cap­tiv­ity – the fe­male would prob­a­bly kill the male,” he says. “Shrews shout at each other and when you catch them, you will of­ten see scars on their tails from fights. They will also eat each other. These an­i­mals need food all the time – they don’t think too hard about what it is.”


The “Han­ni­bal Lecter of the small mam­mal world”, the shrew’s vo­ra­cious ap­petite was wit­nessed by the nat­u­ral­ist Mike Pratt, who spot­ted a greater white-toothed shrew “chew­ing on a rab­bit leg, blood and fur spat­ter­ing all about” on the Channel Is­land of Alder­ney. The three Bri­tish species be­long to a sub-fam­ily called the red-toothed shrews: their teeth are tipped with colour due to a de­posit of iron in the enamel that hard­ens them so they can chomp through tough in­sect ex­oskele­tons. But there is an­other group known as the white-toothed shrews. These have a slower me­tab­o­lism and their teeth are white be­cause they don’t need to crunch so many in­sects. The greater white-toothed shrew lives on sev­eral Channel Is­lands, hav­ing been ac­ci­den­tally in­tro­duced there by hu­mans. Shrews are smart trav­ellers: pygmy shrews have also hitched a lift to the Orkney Is­lands but not Shet­land – yet. “Pygmy shrews get ev­ery­where,” Searle says. “Peo­ple quite of­ten find them in their at­tics. They are

slip­pery lit­tle an­i­mals and very good climbers. It’s not sur­pris­ing that they get into boats.”

Stow­away pygmy shrews have also reached Lundy in the Bris­tol Channel, where they’ve been stud­ied by Nathaniel Le­gall, one of a young gen­er­a­tion of shrew sci­en­tists. “Shrews are not a ‘rock­star’ group of mam­mals. They are tra­di­tion­ally as­so­ci­ated with be­ing quite vi­cious, and peo­ple say if you hold them they’ll bite but I haven’t ex­pe­ri­enced that,” he says. “They are fan­tas­tic to study be­cause they are so dif­fi­cult to study. The chal­lenge of fol­low­ing this ninja-like mam­mal def­i­nitely ap­peals to me.” UR­BAN RES­I­DENTS

Sur­pris­ingly, shrews are found in cities, too, and Le­gall, a Lon­don Wildlife Trust ranger, is now record­ing com­mon and pygmy shrews on Waltham­stow marshes in east Lon­don. In west Lon­don, 100 Lon­don Wildlife Trust volunteers make up Vole Pa­trol, which hu­manely traps and records small mam­mals, in­clud­ing com­mon and pygmy shrews, in Eal­ing, Houn­slow and Hilling­don. “They’ve got a cool per­son­al­ity – feisty, not that dif­fer­ent to my­self,” says Vole Pa­trol leader Huma Pearce, who stud­ied tree shrews in In­done­sia. “They are sur­vivors, con­stantly on the move.”

For all this tiny mam­mal’s fear­some rep­u­ta­tion, shrews are best known for one en­dear­ing trait: the shrew car­a­van. If a white-toothed shrew mother senses her ba­bies are in dan­ger, she will in­struct them to each take an­other’s tail, form­ing a train of young – akin to chil­dren hold­ing hands on a school out­ing – and will then lead them to safety. “It’s the shrew equiv­a­lent of a game of ‘fol­low-my-leader’,” Nathaniel Le­gall says. “That’s pretty cute.”

The pygmy shrew (this page) is smaller and has a nar­rower snout than the com­mon shrew (pre­vi­ous page and op­po­site)

A wa­ter shrew (this pic­ture) for­ages for food in rivers and ponds; ju­ve­nile com­mon shrews (below left) have lighter-coloured coats un­til their first moult

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