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Nether Lochaber
Chapter LI


Welcome Rain in May—Plague of Mice in Upper Teviotdale—Arvicola Agrestis—Field-Mice in Ardgour—How exterminated—A Singing Mouse—Fanners' Mistakes—Mackenzie the Bird-Catcher.

After rather more than six consecutive weeks of weather so hot and dry and parching [May 1876], that we were all rapidly becoming hide-bound, brown-skinned, and sapless as so many Egyptian mummies, the rain came at last; came, too, not deluge-wise, and with a splash and a roar as is generally the case after such long-continued droughts, but calmly and softly as falls the dew of sleep on infant eyelids, and without a breath of accompanying wind. The earth, long agape with thirst, drank it in greedily, and vegetable and animal life alike rejoiced in the grateful quiet as well as in the copiousness of the blessed rainfall. You should have heard how, when the first drop began to fall, our wild-birds welcomed it. All at once, in wood, and copse, and hedgerow, they burst out into loud and gladsome song; nor did they cease when the rainfall was heaviest, as they usually do, but kept it up far into the night, the merle and song-thrush now and again breaking out afresh as if they couldn't sufficiently express their joy, even after we had retired to rest, and well pleased lay listening to the music of the raindrops as they fell plashing and pattering from the eaves. Even our least accomplished songsters took their share in this concert, and if they did not, simply because they c6uld not, sing as well as their more gifted companions, they made at least, as the Ancient Mariner has it, a pleasant "jargoning," therein, dear reader, teaching us all this lesson, that if our gifts prevent us from playing any great or prominent part in the orchestra of life, we are yet all the same to perform the parts assigned us as hest we may, and always cheerily and with a will. Next morning again was calm and mild and beautiful as a summer morning could be, while the country already looked so fresh and green and lovely that one could hardly believe that such a marvellous change had taken place in the course of a single night; so potent, in such circumstances, is the kindly touch of the Rain King's-magic wand.

The plague of mice in Upper Teviotdale is a very serious matter indeed, and the most energetic steps should at once be taken in order to check and, if possible, stamp out the evil. These little rodents multiply with incredible rapidity, and if they are to be fought a Voutrance and conquered, the sooner the campaign is opened, and the more vigorously it is conducted, the easier and speedier will be the victory. The short-tailed field-mouse is fortunately a rare animal in the Highlands, though we have occasionally met with it in the districts of Lome, Lochaber, and Badenoch. "We have also seen it on the lands of Drumfin, near Tobermory, in the island of Mull. Once seen, it is easily recognised again. Its colour, instead of being of the ordinary "mouse" shade of grey or brown, is red, or reddish ; its head is more bulletlike and rounder, and its snout blunter than in any of its congeners ; and its tail ends abruptly, giving that appendage adocked and stumpy look, as if by accident or design one-third of its proper length had been cut off in early life; and hence its common designation of short-tailed field-mouse. Every one who has tried to capture a common domestic mouse with the bare hand, knows to his cost how quickly and sharply it can bite; but the little field-mouse never once attempts to bite the hand that holds it. If pounced upon while running about in the rough bent grass in which it usually shelters, it no sooner feels itself fairly enclosed in your hand than it seems to become paralysed through sheer excess of terror, and you may handle it for a time and turn it about in all directions as if it were a stuffed specimen, without its once offering to escape or defend itself in any way. If, however, you let it slip from your hand to the ground, it is at once off and away, and, search for it as you may, you are never likely to see it again. For its size the Arvicola agrestis is a very powerful little animal, particularly strong in the neck, shoulder, and fore-arm, a provision whereby it is enabled to dig and burrow its way underground when necessary, with all the ease and rapidity almost of the mole itself. It is very fond of water, which it drinks often and greedily, and hence it is that it is never found at any great distance from a plentiful supply of its favourite beverage. One that a lady friend of ours kept for some months in a cage, drank, more or less, she assures us, during every half-hour of the day, and if its supply at any time happened to fail by any neglect or oversight of its mistress, the thirsty little toper squeaked querulously and nibbled angrily at the bars and wood-work of its cage until its water-dish was replenished. When it had drank enough, it frequently stepped into the dish, and frisked about in such a manner as to wet its breast and lower parts of its body thoroughly, when it would retire to a corner of its cage in which was a little raised platform, and, sitting up on its quarters, squirrel-wise, rub and cleanse its head and face with both paws in a very comical manner. It was fed on succulent grasses and lettuce leaves and endive from the garden, of which latter it was very fond. It also ate bread steeped in milk, and apples, both raw and boiled. It finally met the fate of most cage pets ; the cat got at it and killed it. We have only heard of one instance in which the Arvicola became so numerous in the West Highlands as to become a pest that was only got rid of with great trouble and no little expense. This was on the estate of Ardgour, in our own parish.

About seventy years ago, the late Colonel Maclean, grandfather of the present proprietor, planted the greater part of the woods that now make the place so beautiful—at this moment one of the loveliest spots iji all the Highlands. Shortly after the young trees were planted, the field-mouse made its appearance, and in a few months so rapidly increased its numbers, that they were on all hands declared a nuisance that must be got rid of at any cost. Their favourite food in this instance seemed to be the tender rootlets and bark of the smaller trees, thousands of which straightway shrivelled up and died away owing to the little rodent's unkindly attentions. Colonel Maclean, who was eminently a man of action, vowed that such a state of things was beyond all bearing, and must be put a stop to at all hazards. With a host of willing workers, he straightway set about what for a time appeared a hopeless task, employing every conceivable means that wit or ingenuity could devise in order to check, and if possible stamp out the mouse plague. Having heard of a plan adopted under similar circumstances in the Dean and New Forests in England, holes and trenches were dug in all directions, and pitfalls ingeniously constructed, in which very soon scores of the marauders were caught and killed every morning. The cats in every house in the hamlet, purposely kept for the time on short commons at home, were locked out at night and allowed to cater for themselves ; and they fell upon the rodents tooth and nail, doing such execution that they soon became sleek and fat as cats were never known in Ardgour before or since. At convenient spots large fires were kindled, on which cauldrons of water were boiled, kettles of which, as hot as hot could be, were poured into such burrows as showed signs of habitation, with a view to scalding the inmates to death. This was generally done in the early morning, to make sure of finding the enemy at home, for the field-mouse, like most of the rodents, is mainly a nocturnal feeder. The keepers had orders for the time to cease annoying vermin—so-called—of any kind, the result being that in a short time stoats, weasels, ravens, grey crows, hawks, and owls abounded, and these, you may believe, did yeoman service in the campaign; they were the cavalry that swept off the scattered fugitives. By such active measures the enemy was exterminated in a single season, and never again, so far as we know, showed face on Loch-Linnhe-side. It was Colonel Maclean's opinion that the mice were imported; that the first pair, or more, perhaps, were brought from the south in the straw and moss and matting in which the roots of the more valuable and delicate plants and trees were packed. From the above our Teviotdale friends may perhaps gather some wrinkles that may be of use to them in their efforts to relieve themselves from their field-mouse invasion.

And writing of the field-mouse reminds us that amongst our own domestic mice there is at present what is generally, if somewhat erroneously, called a "singing mouse." About a fortnight ago it attracted the attention of a young lady, who heard it at midnight, and thought at the time it was the twittering of some bird at her bedroom window. It was afterwards heard by others, and finally by ourselves, as we sat up late one night writing. That it was not a bird we were certain, and guessing the truth—for years ago we had become acquainted with the notes—we watched and waited until the " jargoning" seemed to proceed from a closed press immediately behind our chair, which we gently opened, and had a glimpse of the performer, who vanished, of course, but soon again began its voluntary, or involuntary rather, behind the wainscoting in another corner of the room. It was, in short, a "singing mouse;" an involuntary music, however, with which the poor mouse would gladly dispense if it could. Birds, as we know, are sometimes incited to song by sheer rivalry and rage; sometimes by poignant sorrow for the loss of a mate, or the despoliation of a nest of its treasure of eggs or callow young; but as a rule a bird sings from pure joyousness of heart and exhilaration of spirits. When a mouse "sings" it is owing to a laryngeal disease, a sort of fungoid, growth in the throat, which obstructs the breathing, causing the animal to emit the notes which have been foolishly called " singing," and which, the clearer and more bird-like they become, only in truth indicate the more advanced stages of a malady which invariably ends in death. Our attention was first directed to this matter by a distinguished comparative anatomist, the late Professor John Reid of St. Andrews, whose curiosity as a naturalist was unbounded, only equalled by the untiring patience and care and caution with which, step by step, he wrought out his conclusions. It is difficult to describe the " singing " of a mouse thus affected to those who have not heard it for themselves. It may be said to be in the main a half-whistle half-wheeze, now and again interrupted by some rapid clicking notes of a somewhat metallic ring, as if a small bit of stick was being smartly and rapidly, but very lightly, struck on the very extremity of the treble string of a guitar or violin. Our " singing mouse," in whom, poor thing, we were all much interested, has not been heard for a night or two; it has probably gone the way all mice, as well as men, must go when respiration becomes impossible.

An amusing paragraph is at present going the round of the papers about a farmer who, having ordered a hogshead of nitrate of soda for agricultural purposes, got hold somehow of a hogshead of sugar instead, which latter, in ignorance of its quality, he sowed broadcast over his land. Now, at length aware of the mistake, he is said to be waiting and watching with much curiosity as to how the saccharine crystals turn out as fertilisers. The story, which may be true enough, reminds us of an amusing mistake of. a somewhat similar nature into which one of the crofters in our neighbourhood very innocently fell some years ago. He had attended the Fort-William June market, and amongst other things brought home with him, on his return in the evening, two small parcels, one containing one pound of turnip seed, the other the same quantity red clover seed. Next morning he was up bright and early, and as an exercise that might perhaps help to drive away a headache, not uncommon on such occasions, he resolved, the day being favourable, to sow his turnip and clover seeds. He commenced, and, very unwittingly you may believe, sowed the turnip seed broadcast among the barley braird, and the red clover seed in the drills prepared for the turnips ! The blunder was only discovered several days afterwards, when the seeds began to sprout after their kind, and matters were rectified as the case best allowed; but poor Donald never heard the last of the joke, which, when followed beyond certain limits, used to make him exceedingly angry.

Mackenzie the bird-catcher, facile princeps the king and head of his order, called upon us to-day, and made us a present of the bonniest little redpole we ever set eyes upon. Its colouring is exquisitely beautiful, differing from the usual plumage of the species in having several little snow-white spots irregularly sprinkled over the coverts of either wing, and its neck and breast of a mingled shade of pink and crimson of exceeding richness, that makes it far and away the handsomest bird of the order we ever saw. At first we took it for a foreign bird, or a bird that had been artificially painted in order to deceive us, and it was only on handling and thoroughly examining him that we became convinced that the bird was a genuine, though curiously coloured, specimen of its species, and that we had it before us just as it was captured some days ago in Glentarbet, near Strontian. Of all our cage-birds, the redpole (Fringalla Unaria, Linn.) is perhaps the soonest reconciled to loss of liberty and prolonged captivity. Our little pet, whose cage hangs almost within arm's length of us as we write, seems perfectly happy, and is already singing with all his might, a goldfinch in another cage "beside him busily scolding him all the time for having the impudence to sing so well, or sing at all, in interruption of his own louder and clearer notes. Cage-birds properly treated are a great amusement, and, if you pay them due attention, evince in a very short time a degree of intelligence so remarkable that you only wonder, philosophising craniologically, how so much of it can find lodging-room within their little heads.

Mackenzie is commissioned to go to Norway and Sweden this summer in search of a lot of crossbills, grossbeaks, and other birds, for a wealthy gentleman in the south, who is a great bird-fancier. Let him only once get to their habitat, and Mackenzie is just the man to lay salt on the tail of any bird that flies.


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