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The ubiquitous rodent

Posted in Animals, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 28 June 2011

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This edited article about British wildlife originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 979 published on 13 December 1980.

harvest mice, picture, iamge, illustration

Harvest mice

It was night-time. The grocer had shut his shop, turned out the lights and gone home. Now, almost invisible in the gloom, a grey shape stole out from its hiding-place and scurried over to the sack of potatoes left on a table. Nibbling through the material, it soon found the vegetables inside and bit hungrily at one potato, then another, then another. Soon potatoes rolled out of the torn sacks and onto the floor.

When the horrified grocer surveyed the destruction next morning, he soon knew who the “thieves” had been. Marauding mice had been responsible, and they had left their droppings everywhere as a calling card.

Mice do a great deal of damage to human property. They certainly seem to eat almost anything, but it is their teeth, rather than their appetites, which cause the problem. Mice have an insatiable need to gnaw.

All rodents – which in Britain include mice, rats, squirrels and voles – have two pairs of long front teeth, or incisors, which are especially adapted for gnawing. They are well coated with enamel and never stop growing as long as the animal lives. A rat’s incisors can grow twelve centimetres a year, if they are not constantly worn down. By gnawing on hard things, the rodent keeps it teeth down to size – and as sharp as chisels. The British red squirrel has no difficulty in gnawing a hole right through the hard shell of a nut, while we humans take a risk every time we crack even relatively soft nuts with our teeth.

For the mouse, these little tools are amazingly effective. They enable it to eat not only food like berries, nuts, fruits, vegetables and almost any human food available, but also anything made from plants – like ropes, hay and clothes. Candles, soap and wood are just a tasty nibble to a mouse. Nothing at all seems safe from rats, which will gnaw concrete, lead piping, sheet aluminium and earthenware drainpipes.

Mice may not be welcome guests in human homes, but we have little choice. The habitat of the house mouse is precisely what its name implies – anywhere that men have made their homes. The house mouse is well adapted to finding holes and cracks in buildings, where it can hide and make a nest of shredded material.

Its small body is only about eight centimetres long, with a tail as long again, and is well camouflaged with brownish-grey fur. Its large ears, bright eyes and pointed nose are quick to sense trouble. Like other mice, it is an agile climber and swimmer, and few obstacles will impede its search for food and shelter.

House mice are champions at survival. They seem able to live in most conditions – even the grim world of a cold store does not deter them. In a temperature which never rises above -10∞C, in the pitch dark, they eat frozen meat, make their nests from hessian wrapping, and grow fat and healthy.

As the house mouse frequents towns, so the long-tailed field mouse, or wood mouse, tends to keep to the woods and fields. It lives in burrows just below the ground, and emerges mainly at night to feed on acorns, berries and all kinds of edible plants. Long-tailed field mice live in groups, and keep communal food stores for the whole colony to eat in winter.

The plump-looking harvest mouse is only about five centimetres long, but it has something unique among British rodents – a prehensile tail. The tiny reddish-gold rodent uses this to grasp corn-stalks and twigs, rather like a fifth leg.

The dormouse is well known to readers of Alice in Wonderland, but it has now become quite rare in Britain. Dormice, which live in trees and are more nearly related to squirrels than to other mice, get their name from the French word dormir, meaning to sleep. Very apt it is too, for these large mice hibernate for about six months a year. In the autumn the dormouse fattens to about twice its springtime weight. Then it weaves a soft, grassy nest and curls up to sleep until the next spring.

Oddly enough, where their fellow rodents, rats, are almost universally disliked and feared by humans, mice get off very lightly. To call someone a “rat” is a nasty term of abuse, but to tell someone they are a “mouse” is merely to say they are very timid, shy, perhaps self-effacing. In fact, house mice are very aggressive creatures, only too ready to do battle with mice of other species. And mice carry diseases dangerous to man just as rats do.

Both rats and mice cause an enormous amount of damage. They eat man’s food stores, and their droppings spoil what they do not eat. They weaken buildings by gnawing on beams. They destroy furniture and books, and have even caused floods and fires by gnawing through water pipes and the coverings of electric cables. One estimate assesses the damage done by rats and mice in Britain alone at £25 million a year.

Part of the problem is that there are so many of them. There is probably one rat for every man, woman and child living in Britain. One of the reasons for their huge numbers is that mice and rats breed very quickly indeed. House mice start to breed when they are six weeks old, and produce several litters of between five and ten babies a year. Thousands of mice can be bred from just one pair in twelve months.

Why, then, have people not been squeezed out of their homes by teeming hordes of mice? Luckily for us, mice have a very high mortality rate. Of 100 mice born, about 95 will die before they can start breeding. Unfortunately for mice and rats, they are the chief prey of a very large number of other creatures, such as hawks, owls, stoats, cats, dogs and crows. And men, too, take their toll with traps and poisons. But those that survive are able to produce enough of their kind for the next generation.

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