Am Bratach No. 321
July 2018

Nature’s call
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.

The 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 shrew’s 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.

Before you 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 the body.

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