Harvest Mice in ‘Vanishings’

‘Vanishings’ will be out this month. We had to pause it while we got the illustrations just right but it’s almost there now. In case you don’t know here’s the cover:

Here is another creature from the book: the harvest mouse.

To see harvest mice in the wild would be a miracle: they are so fleet, so sensitive, so rare.  I first met them when I visited Derek Gow’s re-wilding breeding centre in my search for water-voles (the subject of my last post).   They are so enchanting they make you gasp and smile..never sitting still for more than half a second.  Busy, busy running up and down grass and corn stalks using their tail to balance and grip and racing along the ground to climb another tall stem and then disappearing (to my disappointment) into some undergrowth and (much to my delight) re-appearing to ascend and descend and climb and run while stopping very briefly to polish their whiskers.  I don’t know how anyone gets a photograph of them and I gathered that the ones kept at Derek Gow’s establishment are actually film stars and are used to make films and photos (as well as breeding them for release into suitable habitats in the wild.)  

Photo of Harvest Mouse

I couldn’t stop thinking about them and they kept running up and down the circuits of my brain for days afterwards. I’d see them in my sleep as I grew very alarmed to read they are rapidly diminishing due to agricultural practices. 

John Clare wrote of them:

I found a ball of grass among the hay
And proged it as I passed and went away
And when I looked I fancied something stirred
And turned again and hoped to catch the bird
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheat
With all her young ones hanging at her teats
She looked so odd and so grotesque to me
I ran and wondered what the thing could be
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood
When the mouse hurried from the crawling brood
The young ones squeaked and when I went away
She found her nest again among the hay.
The water o’er the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

Seamus Heaney describes this poem as ‘seven couplets wound up like clockwork and then set free to spin merrily through their foreclosed motions’.

Gilbert White described the nest as ‘a wonderful procreant cradle’ – which he rolled across a table. And despite the nest containing eight little naked and blind mice, the nest rolled ‘without being discomposed’!  He measured and weighed them so we know he was talking about harvest mice and not any other kind. 

I met them again in my water vole search at Seaton Wetlands as the bird-ringers were keeping some in their room.  I couldn’t take a photo of them either!   This led me to attend a day’s training with the Devon Harvest Mouse Project where I learned the best way to find harvest mice is to find their old nests.  Because you will probably never ever see one in its natural habitat!   So I went on a day’s training and 30 + eager harvest mousers gathered to search for nests among large clumps of grass (purple moor grass or cocksfoot). You only look in winter because they won’t brook disturbance and they start breeding pretty early in the year and then just carry on. These nests are amazing spherical structures, often at the top of clumps of grass, made of woven grass and firmly attached to the vertical stems. The nests start off as green, but fade to brown as they age, so are easier to see in the autumn. They also start off as very small and tight, but expand as the babies grow, meaning that they can only be used once. You can watch a video of them and read more about them here.

Here is a comparison of size nests, the small one is a wee daytime roost (still tightly woven) and the larger one (still very wee) is a breeding nest.

In that location in an old meadow on the edge of Dartmoor there were lots but I have hunted high and low on this edge of Dartmoor and never found a single one. What’s more no one even knows where they go in winter as they don’t hibernate.

Here is my poem which was published in Pennine Platform , Issue 87.

Micromys Minutus

I found a ball of grass among the hay John Clare

Vertical tightrope artist

in a swaying world

                        she whisks

to the quivering seed head

             hardly bowing under

             mouse-weight.

Cheeks filled with grain

            she sprints head-first

down the stem

            depending on

thumbed hindfeet

long claws and a tail

coiling to grip and balance 

among flux and risk

to her nest-purse  

plaited between stalks

and with no discernible door.

About Rebecca Gethin

Rebecca Gethin is a poet and a novelist. Cinnamon Press published her third collection, All the Time in the World in 2017. Another pamphlet is forthcoming with Three Drops Press. Her second novel, What the horses heard, was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2014. Her second poetry collection - A Handful of Water - was published by Cinnamon in 2013. Her first - River is the Plural of Rain - was published by Oversteps Books in 2009. Her novel Liar Dice won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award in 2010 and was published in 2011. She lives on Dartmoor and writes occasional pieces about wildlife and nature. Her poems appear in a variety of poetry magazines and in several anthologies.
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2 Responses to Harvest Mice in ‘Vanishings’

  1. coastcard says:

    Such a beautiful cover…

  2. Thank you. The book is out this week!!! (Zoom launch tonight during an open mic or late in july. )

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