The wood mouse, also commonly known as the long-tailed field mouse, is probably Britain's most numerous mammal. Found throughout the British Isles it is our most common and widespread wild rodent. It lives mainly in woodland and fields but is highly adaptable and can be found in most habitats as long as they are not too wet. Wood mice are nocturnal but may occasionally venture out in daylight.
The wood mouse has sandy brown fur, darker along its back, with a pale greyish under side, big protruding eyes, large ears and feet and a long tail. It weighs between 13-27g and has a short lifespan, with few adults surviving from one year to the next.
The wood mouse has a mainly vegetarian diet, eating seeds, nuts, fruits and buds, but when these are scarce, it will also eat snails, earthworms and insects. It is a great hoarder of seeds and nuts and packs its underground chambers with a supply to help it survive the winter. A male mouse usually forages nightly over an area about half the size of a football pitch and our summer wildflower meadow provides plenty of grass and wildflower seeds for our resident mice.
The wood mouse digs a system of burrows with areas for storing food and a nesting chamber for the young. Several adults may live together in the same network of tunnels resting during the day and emerging at night to forage for food. They are very active, running and leaping kangaroo-like on their large hind feet and can climb well, often using places such as an old bird's nest high on a tree branch to feed on berries they have collected. In winter if the weather is very cold they can sometimes go into a state of semi hibernation underground to conserve energy and survive food shortages.
Breeding begins in March. The female can produce up to 4 litters a year of 4-7 blind, naked babies in a nest chamber lined with leaves, moss and dry grass. By the time their eyes open at 6 days old they will have a full coat of soft, dark brown fur. At 3 weeks old they are pushed out of the nest by their mother to make room for the next litter. Breeding may continue over the winter if a good food supply, such as a heavy acorn crop, is available.
The wood mouse is an important source of food for many nocturnal animals, so it is very wary and prefers dark, moonless nights, using its large eyes and ears for finding its way about. Its predators include foxes, weasels, owls and domestic cats. Wood mice are important prey for tawny owls and when numbers are low, owls may fail to breed.
Churchyards are usually areas of ground that have remained uncultivated for many years, and as such they have the potential to be havens for wildlife where plants and animals can thrive among the graves and monuments. Indeed, until the 20th century they were wild, un-mown places, alive with bees and butterflies, occasionally even grazed by sheep! In the 21st century properly and sympathetically managed churchyards can again become places of wild beauty and tranquillity, surrounding us with the comforting reminder of the ongoing life and vitality of God's creation even amidst the sadness we feel at the passing of our loved ones.
The seeds of the Churchyard Conservation Project were sown early in 2013 when, while looking at ways we might try to encourage new people to come along to church, and with the added asset of an enthusiastic zoology graduate embarking on a career in conservation and ecology, we hit upon the idea of organising a bird box building session in the churchyard, which we advertised with posters around the village, and which proved to be a huge success.
2017 was the fourth year of the project, and things are starting to develop nicely. The Yellow Rattle, a semi-parasitic annual plant introduced as part of our management plan to control the vigorous grasses, is working well, and in the areas where it has established itself the grass was noticeably shorter and tidier for longer this season. This has allowed the wildflowers to gain a foothold, and as a result we have seen the spread of existing plants such as Meadow Vetchling and Birdsfoot Trefoil, as well as some exciting new plants popping up for the first time including Field Scabious and Peach Leaved Bell Flower. As the flowers have established we have also seen a rise in the numbers of pollinating insects and at least two new butterfly species that we haven’t seen before in the churchyard.
In June we held a Churchyard Open Day to celebrate Cherishing Churchyards Week. Although it was a dull and windy day we had a steady stream of visitors who came along to see what we are doing in our churchyard. We started the day early with moth and small mammal trapping, identifying many moths and insects, a wood mouse, two bank voles and a comparatively rare yellow-necked mouse which was a particularly exciting find. A group of young mums organised a Teddy-bears’ Picnic for the children and Julia Lucas displayed the results of her research into some of the graves and monuments, sharing some fascinating details about the lives of some of the people buried here. During the day, a group of ecologists carried out a detailed survey of the churchyard, recording over 75 species of plants and nearly 70 birds, animals and invertebrates – not bad for a single day!
Our efforts to create a place for nature to re-establish and flourish, providing habitat for a wide variety of species of plants and wildlife, are starting to take effect, and following the success of the open day and looking to the future as we move into the fifth year of the project, we feel we are nearly at the point at which we are able to invite the local schools to come and use the churchyard for science and natural history projects.
We are, as always, so grateful to our wonderful team of volunteers who come out in all weathers to our three working parties in March, July and November – they are the real heroes of the Churchyard Project which couldn’t run without them! Thank you, everyone, for all your continued support!