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Wild Life in the West Highlands

A NEAT glass case, about two feet by one in length and breadth, enclosing an artistic representation of a mossy bank, shaded by gorse and brackens and overhanging a bend of a gravelly streamlet; on a little boulder in the stream two tiny creatures in black and white velvet; on the bank in life-like attitudes, eating, playing or resting, ten more 'wee beasties' altogether a triumph of the modern taxidermist's art. Here are six pairs, male and female, representing six separate well-defined species of our lesser mammals, all of them collected from less than an acre of the rough hillside on the border of a West Highland loch. Usually classed together as 'mice' by the casual observer, there is only one mouse proper among the six-the common or house mouse not being considered worthy of admission ; of the remaining five species, three are shrews and two are voles. These tiny, glossy, silky-furred creatures, alike in many ways and yet so distinct when we come to examine them more closely, are all around us, some one or other and often all of them wherever we are, if once outside of town or village ; and yet we shall hardly see them unless we search for them, and that with care and caution. They are but a timid folk, and not much abroad by day, so that, near neighbours as we may be, many of us remain for a lifetime unaware of their existence.

The two central figures on the little mound are really 'mice,' the long-tailed field mouse or wood mouse, Mus sylvaticus, and are doubtless the prettiest of the little company. Reddishbrown above, though varying much in tint, and whitish beneath, they are noticeable at once from their bright prominent eyes, long ears, and generally elegant form. The head and body measure some 44 inches and the tail nearly the same. Distributed widely over Europe, this mouse is plentiful all over the mainland of Scotland and the Inner Isles, and is also found in Orkney, but not in Shetland nor the Outer Hebrides. In winter it frequently comes for shelter to out-houses, barns, and dwelling-houses, laying up for itself a store of seeds, corn and such like, and it must be confessed that this pretty little creature is some times a nuisance in gardens when numerous; but it is very engaging, and surely, in spite of the gardener, we have room for it.

There is another member of the Muridae or mice occasionally, though rarely, found in Scotland-the little harvest mouse, Mus minutus, which has been reported from Midlothian, the eastern lowland counties, and even so far north as Aberdeenshire. This tiny creature, of much the same colouring as the last, but only some 22 inches in length, builds a wonderful nest of interwoven corn-stalks or grasses suspended between the standing stalks of corn or reeds. It has not been found in the west, so is unrepresented here.

The brownish, somewhat larger animal under the curled frond of springing bracken, with large, round stumpy head, small eyes and ears, and short tail, is often termed the short-tailed field mouse; it is no mouse at all but a vole, the field vole, Arvicola agrestis. It is plentiful, sometimes far too plentiful, throughout Scotland and the Islands, although again not in Shetland. It feeds on vegetable matter of all sorts, and is the animal that caused so much damage in 1890-1 as to induce the Government to appoint a Committee, under the chairmanship of Sir Herbert E. Maxwell, to examine into the question. Their report, although of great interest, was practically of a negative nature, as it was not found possible to refer the extraordinary increase of the voles to any one specific cause. These voles multiply very quickly under favourable conditions, as of weather and food supplies. The so-called 'Lemming-years' of Scandinavia supply an analogous case. It is often asserted that a principal cause of the vole plague has been the destruction by gamekeepers and others of the birds and beasts that prey on them ; yet similar outbreaks are mentioned in history as far back indeed as the year 1587, when the destruction of `vermin' to any extent was surely unknown. Wise Nature came to the rescue, as always ; for an extraordinary influx of birds of prey appeared on the scene, including numbers of short-eared owls; a singular circumstance being that these birds nested more than once, and laid up to twelve and thirteen eggs instead of five or six at most.

Sitting up in a characteristic attitude, feeding on a grass-stalk held between its little fore-paws, is another vole, somewhat smaller, neater and prettier than the last, the red or bank vole, Arvicola glareolus. This is of a reddish chestnut colour above and whitish beneath, with white feet and paws, the tail slightly longer than in the field vole and well clothed with hair, forming a tuft at the end. This vole was first described as a Scottish species by MacGillivray, and it is usually assumed that it had previously been confused with the common vole. It is, however, well to remember that it is quite possible that the discovery of a new species in a given district may be owing to the fact that it has only recently reached that locality ; and that former observers may very well have omitted it, for the simple reason that it was not then present there. The red vole resembles the field vole in its food and habits. Bell relates that he has known one of this species to kill and eat a shrew; it is a good climber, and has been accused of robbing small birds' nests of young or eggs ; indeed it may be said to be decidedly omnivorous in its tastes. This animal was a first record for Argyll, having been identified in 1904, and in some localities at least appears to be the predominant species in that area. Another British member of the vole family, the water vole, A. amphibius, often incorrectly termed the water rat, is common in the same district, although not in the very restricted area under consideration, and therefore unrepresented. The black variety of this vole, at one time thought to be specifically distinct, appears to be here predominant, as is indeed not unusual in the north and west.

An addition has recently been made to our British fauna by the discovery by Mr. J. Millais of a distinct species of vole in Orkney ; but this is of course outside our limits.

The little mouse-coloured creature with the long-pointed snout peering over the edge of the bank belongs to a different family, Insectivora, and will at once be generally recognised as the common shrew, Sorex tetragonurus, which is to be found all over the mainland. As to the Islands, it has been reported from Tobermory and from Islay, but not from the Outer Islands. The shrews feed on all manner of insects, slugs and worms, and are decidedly carnivorous in their tastes and quarrelsome in disposition. Our superstitious forefathers believed that they were capable of injuring cattle by running over their limbs, the cure for 'such ailment being to stroke the affected parts with a branch of a `shrew-ash.' As we know from Gilbert White, a shrew-ash was a tree in which an auger-hole had been bored, into which a poor little living shrew was inserted and the hole plugged up! Such an ash existed at Selborne Church as lately as 1770, or thereabouts. A curious and as yet unexplained fatality seems to attend the shrew family in autumn, when numbers of them are yearly found lying dead on roads and footpaths, outwardly uninjured. If some of these were sent to a competent authority, such as the Royal Museum of Edinburgh, for post-mortem examination, the mystery might be solved.

A pair of very tiny animals sitting among the herbage in a little hollow always attract attention, and are generally supposed to be halfgrown specimens of the preceding species; such, however, is not the case. These little creatures, the lesser or `pygmy' shrew, Sorex pygmaeus, are the smallest not only of Scottish, but of European mammals; somewhat smaller than the harvestmouse mentioned above. Only some two inches in length of head and body, with a tail about the same in length, they are rather rougher in the coat, and especially in the tail, than the common shrew, from which they also differ in dentition; in colour they are much the same, somewhat lighter in the under parts, perhaps; but all the shrews are liable to considerable differences in colour.

There is still much to be done in ascertaining its distribution throughout the country. First 70 described by Jenyns in 1837, it is probably much more common than is often supposed. As has already been said, absence of records does not necessarily imply remissness or ignorance on the part of the older observers ; there is always the possibility that the species was not then present in a given area.

Meantime our little specimens, like the bank voles, are interesting as being the first recorded, in 1904, from this county. This little shrew has been found in most of the Islands, where it is almost certainly the prevalent species. A curious record for so tiny a creature is one in i897 from the summit of Ben Nevis!-but there always remains the possibility that it may have found its way there in the packing material of some goods carried up to the `Hotel' at the top. Another interesting instance is that of a specimen sent to the present writer in November, 19o8, by the head stalker of Coig-na-fearn deer forest with the following note:

`I think the enclosed is the smallest of our mice. It was got on its travels in Coig-na-fearn Forest at a height of not less than 2000 feet above sea-level, and crossing a piece of snow.'

On being sent to the Royal Scottish Museum the identification of the specimen as S. minutus (v. pygmaeus) was confirmed by Mr. Eagle Clarke, and recorded in Annals of Scottish Natural History for April, 1909. 2000 feet seems rather a terrible journey for such tiny legs and feet !

We come now to the last pair of the little denizens of our case, the quaintest and perhaps most interesting of all, and, judging from experience of visitors, certainly the least known. These are the little animals in 'black and white velvet' first mentioned-the water shrew, Cros-sopus fodiens. First recorded as an addition to our Scottish fauna by the late Dr. Scoular, who found it near Glasgow,, it is not uncommon as far north as Sutherland, Caithness and Orkney; but although reported from Arran it has not been observed in our Western Islands, nor in Ireland.

This is a larger animal than the common shrew, black or brownish-black above, with the under parts white, the black and the white meeting in a distinct line along each side; the tail is somewhat compressed, with stiff whitish hairs, the toes fringed in like manner. Living by streams and ditches, the water shrew is as much at home in and beneath the water as on land, diving and swimming after its food, consisting of every kind of larvae and insect, fishspawn and small fish. They eat any kind of flesh, and have been found devouring dead animals and carrion; they seem to be somewhat pugnacious, and not altogether an amiable race. When swimming underneath the water, their velvety glossy fur studded with pearl-like globules of air, they are really beautiful objects; but being, like the whole race, of nocturnal habits as a rule, and but occasionally abroad by day, it is not often that they are seen, unless very patiently looked for. A variety entirely darkcoloured used to be distinguished as a separate species, but is now regarded as merely a varying form; indeed the water shrew is subject to great differences in colour.

Possibly this account of some of our little neighbours, found within a few yards of the writer's windows, may induce others to take up the study of a very engrossing chapter of the wild life still around us.

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