Am Bratach No. 321
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by Andy Summers
It is getting dark. The summer sun seems reluctant to leave but
eventually disappears over the Minch. The area is desolate and a silence
hangs over the woodland. The tourists who thronged the place in the
afternoon have left for their caravan or B&B. The only sound is the quiet
clucking of a blackbird settling down for the night. The full moon is rising
and trying to weave a veil of hazy bluish light around the forest, with
parts of sky visible through the inconsistent canopy of trees.
flowers of the wood sorrel and anemone have closed for the night and the
sweet scent of honeysuckle moves through the trees, but there is also a
nastier smell nearby: a half-eaten corpse lies on the woodland floor. Common
shrews are frenetic animals. They need to eat constantly, day and night, to
stay alive. Unlike mice and voles they are carnivores and will eat worms,
beetles and any other insects they can find. But this one now lies still and
lifeless. I suspect it has been murdered! But who has killed this poor
creature? A shrews main predators include foxes, stoats, weasels, cats and
owls. However, they have poison glands on the side of their bodies and so
many predators learn to avoid them. Shrews have six or seven young and
sometimes have four litters a year. By the autumn their population in
woodland can be very large.
I get down on my hands and knees and
investigate the crime scene thoroughly. Straight away I notice the cryptic
colours of a soft feather lying on the ground. The feather is barred with
rich ochres and umbers. Nearby, a creamy splash of bird droppings covers the
new fronds of bracken and a small ball of fur and feathers. I continue my
search and find an old discarded lemonade bottle. Bright green moss is
starting to envelope the sides and assimilate it into the woodland floor,
but the bottle is open and the sticky sweet smell inside has lured and
entrapped several creatures. I can see the bones of small mammals and the
hard carapace of several insects.
In a small clearing I see an
unmistakable small mound of loose earth. But this mole hill has a hole in
it, leading deep down into the ground. I can almost imagine seeing some tiny
footprints leading away from the mole hill. What is more obvious is the
track of another animal. The footprints are round, about the size of a two
pence coin, with four digital pads and no claw marks. The track leads off
past a strange yellow mucus patch in the undergrowth.
read the next paragraph, see if you can figure out what happened to the
shrew using all the clues provided. Which are the real clues and which are
just red herrings?
To work out what happened you must remember the
fact that shrews are poisonous. The tawny owl is one of the few predators
which can and will swallow a shrew whole and seem unaffected. The feather,
droppings and regurgitated pellet belong to the tawny owl, a common bird in
woodlands of the northwest. But this bird was more interested in the mole.
The fact that the mole hill had an uncovered hole suggested that the
mole had come out to feed on the surface to look for worms (something they
do sometimes at night, especially after it has rained) but not returned.
When moles return to the safety of their underground tunnels they will cover
up the access hole. Perhaps this one fell victim to the owl overhead.
The empty bottle is a red herring but can be responsible for the deaths
of many small mammals, who might climb inside and cannot get out. I once
found a discarded bottle with the bones of almost twenty mice and voles.
The real killer in this case was a cat. The distinctive tracks and
yellow vomit all point to the culprit being a domestic cat (cats withdraw
their claws when walking and therefore do not leave any claw marks). It
probably caught and killed the shrew before realising it was poisonous and
ended up being sick. Interestingly, peregrines and other birds of prey break
and only eat the head of a shrew. They seem to know not to touch the rest of