Rodents: small, furry and in a hurry

Aime Rankin, PhD student writes:

Anyone with a pet dog, cat or rabbit will know the joy that furry animals can bring. But did you know that there are little fluffy creatures all around us?

Bank vole. Credit Jack Ashby
Bank vole. Credit Jack Ashby

Britain’s most numerous mammals are shy, very energetic and an important part of the ecosystem. I am of course, talking about rodents! While some rodents get a bad reputation as pests for living within our homes, most rodents prefer a secretive life away from humans.

From squirrels to beavers, there are 18 rodent species in the UK. Here are some common rodents that you can spot from your window, as well as some less well known rodents too.

Grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis

Easy to spot

Grey squirrels are now a familiar sight to many, although this hasn’t always been the case. They were introduced from the USA in the 19th century and are considered an invasive species in Britain.

You’ll see them scampering from tree to tree looking for their favourite food, nuts and large seeds. They save some of their food for later by burying it in the ground and their fantastic spatial memory and sense of smell helps them to find their hidden treasure months later in Winter and Spring.

This easy spot is worth 1 point for #OpenYourWindowBingo

Click the image to find out more…

Grey squirrels are very successful in Britain and are outcompeting our native red squirrels. You can find out more about squirrels in Mammal Watch.

House mouse, Mus musculus

Easy to spot

House mice thrive wherever there are people, but despite the name, they would much rather live in your garage or shed than in your house.

They like to nibble on grain, roots, fungi and sometimes insects, only coming into our homes for food if they are very hungry or cold.

House mice breed more than any other British rodent and can have up to 10 litters a year!

Wood mouse, Apodemus sylvaticus

Fairly easy to spot if you live near a field or patch of woodland

Wood mice look similar to the house mouse, but have more reddish-brown fur, much bigger ears and a pale coloured tummy.

They make complex underground burrows that have different chambers for sleeping and food storage. Wood mice love seeds and will often discard the juicy flesh of fruit to get at the pips inside. They prefer woodland and field habitats, but can also be spotted in nearby gardens.

Brown rat, Rattus norvegicus

Easy to spot in urban areas

Brown rats find it very easy to adapt. They can be spotted all over the UK, but are particularly common in urban areas. Not being fussy eaters, they will munch on everything from insects and seeds to human leftovers.

They are incredibly social animals and live in large groups made up of smaller ‘clans’. Rats also enjoy a good laugh with each other and emit very high-pitched ‘giggles’ when being tickled or while playing games.

They are often portrayed as dirty animals because urban populations can live in sewer systems, but their hygiene routine is actually more thorough than most humans! They spend hours each day grooming themselves and other rats in their group to keep fresh and tidy.

Black rat, Rattus rattus

Difficult to spot

Black rats are much darker in appearance than brown rats and have been largely wiped out from the UK. They were introduced to Britain around 2000 years ago, hitching a lift with the Romans.

Black rat. Credit Jack Ashby
Black rat. Credit Jack Ashby

They are often wrongly accused for spreading the deadly ‘black death’ plague which took many human lives during the Middle Ages. In actual fact, the disease was caused by a bacterium which spread via flea bites.

These days, black rats are only found in a handful of small populations in certain coastal areas and docklands and so are unlikely to be spotted in your garden. They are much less hardy than their brown rat relatives, preferring to remain indoors and are also more picky, favouring a vegetarian diet.

Bank vole, Myodes glareolus

Easy to spot

There are several vole species in the UK. They are stockier in appearance than mice and have shorter, more hairy tails. Bank voles are our smallest vole, and the one you’re most likely to see in your garden.

They like to eat fruit and nuts (blackberries and hazelnuts are particular favourites) and are incredibly agile and energetic – you might just see them helping themselves at your bird table!

Field vole, Microtus agrestis

Difficult to spot by
Field Vole.
Credit Sam McMillan / CC BY-NC 2.0

Field voles are the most numerous mammal in the UK with a population of 75 million! Despite their numbers, they are difficult to spot.

They are an important part of the food web, providing meals for owls, foxes, stoats and kestrels. To avoid their numerous predators they like to hide in tall grasses and the undergrowth.

Water vole, Arvicola amphibius

Difficult to spot

Water voles are our largest vole species and live along streams, ditches, around ponds and lakes. They are expert swimmers and eat the lush vegetation that grows around the water. They are also good diggers, burrowing their homes into the side of the riverbank. You can often spot a burrow by the neatly nibbled ‘lawn’ of grass around the entrance.

They defend their burrows by flooding ‘u-bends’ within the tunnel network, blocking the way for stoats and weasels. Unfortunately Water voles are under threat within the UK, due to habitat loss and fragmentation as well as predation by the invasive American Mink.

Recent conservation efforts however, have managed to increase their distribution and the water vole is now protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Harvest mouse, Micromys minutus

Difficult to spot

Harvest mouse, micromys minutus. University Museum of Zoology collection. Copyright University of Cambridge
Harvest mouse.
University Museum of Zoology collection

Harvest mice have ginger fur with a pale tummy and are very small (weighing as little as a 2p coin!). They live in the south of the UK and prefer rural areas with lots of tall grass.

They’re incredibly agile and are unique amongst British mammals in having a prehensile tail, which they use like an extra arm to hang from grass stalks. They are good architects and build distinctive ball shaped nests of woven grass, high up in the tall vegetation.

Discover more about this mini-marvel here: Animal Bytes, Harvest Mouse

Hazel Dormouse, Muscardinus avellanarius

Difficult to spot

Hazel dormouse.
Credit Björn Schulz / CC BY-SA

The hazel dormouse has ginger fur and a very fuzzy tail. They live high up in the trees of southern England and only come out at night, making them very difficult to spot! They spend the year fattening themselves up on nuts and berries then hibernate throughout winter.

This adorable rodent is unfortunately under threat within the UK due to loss of ancient woodland and hedgerows. They are a protected species under the Wildlife & Countryside Act and current conservation efforts are focusing on improving woodlands and reducing habitat fragmentation.

Red squirrels, Sciurus vulgaris

Difficult to spot in the south

Photo by Pixabay

Red squirrels have ginger-red fur, fluffy tufts on top of their ears and an outrageously bushy tail. They like to eat pinecone seeds and prefer to live in areas with lots of trees. They are amazing aerial acrobats and spend about ¾ of their day dashing around the tree tops.

Although widely distributed in Scotland and the North of England, they are now largely extinct in the south.

Invasive grey squirrels are larger and more robust than our native reds and so compete more successfully for food and shelter. Grey squirrels also spread a disease called ‘squirrelpox’, which doesn’t harm greys, but is deadly to the red squirrel.

Red squirrels are protected under the Wildlife & Countryside act and conservation efforts are focusing on controlling grey squirrel numbers and creating more red squirrel-friendly habitat.

“I haven’t seen any red squirrels on this yet, but maybe I’m not being patient enough! – Balmoral Castle Squirrel Cam

Eurasian Beavers, Castor Fiber

Difficult to spot

Beavers are large rodents which live near rivers and floodplains. They are perfectly suited to swimming with their webbed feet and flat paddle-like tail. They are also fantastic lumberjacks, using their enlarged set of front teeth to fell trees.

Beavers can alter the water they live in by constructing impressive wooden structures called ‘dams’. The dams slow down the speed of the river and create deeper patches of water that beavers feel safer in.

Beavers are an unusual sight, but many hundreds of years ago they were a common species in Britain. They were hunted to extinction for their fur, meat and bizarrely, perfume.

Beavers have recently been reintroduced into the UK and are breeding successfully in Argyll, Devon and Cornwall.

Why we should care for rodents?

Rodents can be pesky if they pay your house a visit, but most species prefer a life outdoors. For the 58 rodent species critically endangered by habitat destruction, climate change and invasive species, us humans are the real pest species.

While your local rodents are busy at work, they actually provide many services which are useful to us and the environment. Their active lifestyle is perfect for plants who need animals to carry their pollen to other plants.

Across the world, many fruit trees rely on rodents for seed dispersal – travelling around in the tummy of a mouse is the perfect transport for some pips! Rodents are also a great food source for your favourite predators: owls, foxes and many more. Some rodents can even create new habitats. When beavers build damns, they flood the surrounding land to create lush wetlands full of biodiversity.

Rodents truly are the secret furry workforce of the UK. So next time you catch a glimpse of a mouse scampering about, imagine all the important work they’re up to.

See more wildlife camera shots here: WildlifeKate, live cameras

Discover more about British mammals from The Wildlife Trusts: Mammals

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