Monday, 19 March 2012

Guilty by association?

We found a pygmy shrew in the garden this morning. Dead of course. The live ones are too quick and too small to reveal themselves that easily.

This shrew had been killed by one of our two cats, teeth marks on the belly and head betraying their guilt. It had been bitten - but not chewed. Apparently shrews don't taste good to cats - they hardly ever eat them. These tiny mammals pack a punch, a toxin in their saliva, which may affect the flavour - though it doesn't put off the owls, stoats and foxes that usually predate them. We're obviously spoiling the cats.

Besides the shrews we get the occasional mouse, vole (or even bird), brought in as an expression of affection or prowess. Of course I'm always sad to find these little presents on my doorstep. It seems such a waste. But it does give me a chance to get a close look at animals that are usually just glimpses of movement or colour out of the corner of my eye.

I've never seen a live pygmy shrew, for example. But today I could hold it in my hand, the smallest mammal in the UK, and feel its dense, satiny fur. It was donkey-brown above, with a pale, creamy-grey belly, needle-sharp claws and that long, pointy snout. Its eyes looked too far forward on its head, as if they were perched on the sides of its nose, and its mouth and teeth sat on the underside of the snout like a tiny vacuum cleaner. But it was exquisite.

I'd read that the tips of its teeth were red - a deposition of iron to toughen them up to get through the tough carapaces of the beetles and other invertebrates that they consume in vast quantities. I peered closely, using my inverted binoculars as a makeshift hand lens, but they looked brown to me. Their teeth need to be tough. Because they're so tiny pygmy shrews need to eat their own body weight in food every  24 hours. And they're too small to hibernate, so they have to do it 365 days (and nights) a year.

When I'd finished looking at it I put it back in the hedgerow opposite the garden. I hope that something that appreciates the perhaps acquired taste of pygmy shrew will find it, and make its demise a little less pointless. And I hope that by sharing what I saw with you I can also atone in a very small way for the sin of owning, and  loving, cats!

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