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A tale of the unexpected

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

The summer before last, just as we were about to scoot out on our morning dog walk, Owen found a tiny body lying on our front step. Living next to a lane where people drive far too fast, killing hedgehogs, grass snakes, newts and birds, we’re used to picking up crushed little bodies but this one looked unscathed. With jet-black eyes half closed and warm honey-coloured fur soft as a cloud, it wasn’t just beautiful, it was also an extremely rare and an unexpected find here on the edge of Long Ashton. It was a juvenile harvest mouse.

Classified by the Mammal Society as ‘near-threatened’ in Britain as a whole, this was the first time ever that I’d seen a harvest mouse. And to find it dead in our garden was a bitter-sweet pill indeed. None of the fields nearby seemed hospitable for harvest mice since, like so much agricultural land throughout the country, profound changes in practices in the last few decades means harvest mice have little habitat in which to thrive. And, like many other small mammals their numbers continue to decline.

As we examined the tiny corpse, we realised it could only have been killed by a cat. But the mystery as to where it had come from remained.

In the 20+ years, we’ve lived in this house, our back and front gardens have turned from a ‘green desert’ of carefully manicured lawns within leylandii-hedged ‘compartments’, to a voluptuous and exuberant wilderness from spring to autumn.

Less than a half-acre, the garden overflows with native trees such as birch and hawthorn with billowing hedgerows of hazel, roses and alder-buckthorn. Nodding heads of snakeshead fritillaries (pictured below), bluebells, wild garlic, cuckoo flower and pulmonaria give way to carpets of cow parsley, angelica, monkshood, field scabious and common spotted orchids. In the late summer, you can literally get lost in waving forests of purple and yellow loosestrife, indigo-blue powder puffs of devil’s bit scabious and splashes of crocosmia sparkling like orange embers.

Seven ponds of varying size are homes to water shrews, great crested, smooth and palmate newts, plus a host of dragonflies and damsel-flies. Swags of ivy provide pollen, nectar and shelter for a host of insects. Honeysuckle breathes life into the night as moths feed from the flowers.

Along with being a high carbon emitter, Britain is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. So, by leaving the garden be, we’re cutting down on the use of carbon-emitting, gas-guzzling power tools as well as providing food and shelter for a host of tiny creatures.

To watch a brimstone laying eggs on one of alder-buckthorns, bullfinches feed on rosemary seeds, a cloud of China mark moths emerging at dusk from the ponds, or finding a lesser horseshoe bat flying past our heads is deeply rewarding. Larger animals, like moorhens have even made a home there, thrilling us with their wild, sharp cries until the male was killed by a feral cat and the female hurriedly left the garden the same day. Sadly, no moorhens have graced our garden since.

However, the tale of the harvest mouse shows some of our residents can go completely undetected. A few months after we found the body of the young harvest mouse, Owen was carefully tidying parts of the garden. As he carefully parted a patch of wild grass stems, he found a beautifully woven harvest mouse nest, just about six inches from the ground. They’re so rare that reintroduction projects of harvest mice are going on in various parts of the country including Somerset and Northumberland.

Despite a careful search this year, we've not seen any harvest mice or found nests. But gardeners are nothing but optimistic and we hope they return soon. However, our tale shows – with a little bit of luck – you can create a refuge for the most unexpected of guests who will arrive under their own steam.

And, in case you're wondering, we don't have cats and always drive slowly on lanes.

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