What we did when we found Harvest Mice at the Mill
If you own any amount of land in France, you also own quite a few brambles. They seem to grow bigger and meaner than they do in the UK, and somehow even the blackberries they provide don’t make them worth it.
We quickly realised that we were losing land to bramble growth at the rate of about half an acre a year. Something needed to be done about this, as the land we were losing was mostly grassland which is one of our most valuable habitats. To help deal with this problem, we invested in a new bit of kit. A flail mower. Normally mounted on the back of a tractor, this one has been rather handily made into a large lawnmower format, except that the cutting-edge is more of a rotating chain than whirling blades. Although the brambles need a good seeing to with a brush cutter first, once you get in there with this machine, they are quickly reduced to a fine mulch.
Discovering Harvest mice at the mill
As Nik started to enthusiastically try out his new toy, he started to come across Harvest Mice nests. These adorable round bundles of woven straw are used by the mice to breed and are left wedged in the brambles like a house out of a Beatrix Potter book. Harvest mice are rare in the UK, although somewhat less so in France, and we were delighted to find out that we had them. But as we worked, we kept coming across the nests and started to realise that we had quite a significant population – all living in our brambles and presumably feeding in our seed-rich grassland next door. We were comprehensively destroying their habitat.
Harvest Mice are tiny, hence their Latin name, Micromys minutus. An adult Harvest Mouse can weigh as little as a 2 centime piece. They live in long tussocky grassland, reedbeds, hedgerows, farmland and around woodland edges. They mainly eat seeds and fruits but will also eat invertebrates. Harvest Mice build a spherical nest of tightly woven grass high up in the tall grasses (or brambles in our case), in which the female will give birth to around six young. They have around two litters a year, most commonly in August. The French call them rat des moissons – moissons meaning harvest. They are the only mouse with a prehensile tail which they use to grip the wavy grasses and presumably the brambles – ouch!
Harvest mice at the mill – the solution and protecting them and their habitat
Wiping out species is very much contrary to why we moved to France in the first place, so we had a think about how we might slow down the march of the brambles without destroying their habitat and losing all our Harvest Mice.
Nik came up with a great solution to the problem. He started to leave long, thin “hedges” of brambles surrounded by areas of grassland.
We noticed that the nests the Harvest Mice at the Mill made tended to be at the edges of the bramble clumps, so have guessed that perhaps they don’t need very dense clumps of vegetation in which to live. As seeds make up a large part of their diet, they need high-quality grassland as well as somewhere to nest.
We were concerned that our grazing animals were doing too much of a good job and so have resolved to fence off these areas during the summer so that the habitat can be as good as possible for this particularly cute and adorable species of small rodent. We will let the animals back in in the autumn as the donkeys are particularly good at nibbling the new growth of the brambles.
We will let you know how we get on, with progress updates on the Harvest Mice at the Mill to come.