Harvest Mice at the British Wildlife Centre
Matt Binstead is the Head Keeper at the British Wildlife Centre, near Lingfield, in Surrey. The British Wildlife Centre is home to over 40 species of animal that you can find living in the wild of Great Britain today. From the smallest harvest mouse, to the largest red deer, everything is housed in large natural enclosures to allow the animals to display their natural behaviour providing a ‘real life’ natural history lesson to those who visit. Specialising in British mammals, the Centre plays an important role in many captive breeding programmes with eventual release of animals back into the wild.
The British Wildlife Centre is home to over 40 species of animals you can find living in the wild of Britain today, specialising in mammals we display these animals in large natural enclosures allowing them to mimic as close as possible their wild behaviours. Closed during school term time we give exclusivity to pre booked school groups and tours to learn about British wildlife. During the year over 4,000 students, from reception age to degree students, will have been taken around, and hopefully engaged and inspired to want to care for our own wonderful wildlife. Our mantra of “conservation through education” continues when we open to the public at weekends and during state school holidays with a series of Keeper Talks, one every half hour, calling the animals out and talking about how they are doing and what we can do to help.
With all these animals on display it is perhaps surprising that one of our biggest stars is our smallest mammal… the harvest mouse. Even those who have an aversion to mice and rats are often endeared by this micro mouse, and remark about how special they are. Being as small as they are, and weighing little more than a two pence coin, their big personalities shine through. We have two enclosures on display, one in our “Hedgerow” section and the other in our reception area, where people queuing to come in can observe them while they wait. These are both set up with natural flora, selected seasonally from our nature reserve, to mimic their wild habitat throughout the year. This allows them to weave their own nests and climb through the grasses really showing off all their remarkable adaptations such as their opposable thumbs and prehensile tail.
I think being so rarely seen in the wild is what makes these enclosures so popular at the Centre. Their activity pattern is generally a few hours awake, a few hours dormant alternating through the day, and with a small group of mice in each enclosure it means it is very rare for one not to be active at any given point. The most common remark we get, apart from how cute they are, is surprise at how small they are.
Keeper maintenance is very low, daily routines to make sure the mice are all healthy, fed and watered take little time, meaning it is one of our easiest, yet most rewarding, exhibits to manage.
The British Wildlife Centre is involved with a lot of conservation work in actively breeding and releasing animals back to the wild. The harvest mouse is one of our key conservation species. Off display, away from the public, we have a breeding program of several pairs of harvest mice. These are kept in similar enclosures, but with minimal disturbance to encourage breeding. Each pair averaging around 5 litters a year, we breed around 200 mice a year. Some of these go off site to help with external releases, but the majority are released on to our 26 acre nature reserve.
Our reserve was created from redundant farmland, and is now a mosaic of wildlife habitat including woodland, grassland, wildflower meadows, wetland and reed banks ideal for harvest mice. Releasing the mice during the late spring and early summer gives them the best chance to thrive, and although rarely seen once established, winter nest searches always shows how successful they have been.
Off all the mice we release, only a small percentage will survive hence topping up each year, but this is what is expected with survival rate of wild harvest mice being so low. Unfortunately for them one of their main roles is to be at the lower end of the food chain… but it is their presence, along with other mice and voles, that attracts the stoats, weasels, barn owls, kestrels and many other predators that we see on our reserve today.
To find out more about what’s going on during National Mammal Week 2021 click here.