There are three species of shrew living in Britain – the water shrew, the pygmy shrew and the common shrew. Two of these you are unlikely to see but the third, the common shrew, may very well turn up in your garden.
The common shrew is dark brown with short, velvet-like fur. But its most noticeable feature is its snout. This is long and pointed and forever on the move, twitching as it sniffs the air for a possible meal.
Shrews are constantly on the go. Day and night they snuffle their way through the undergrowth hunting for spiders, worms or caterpillars. Despite their tiny frames, common shrews are violent little characters. They often fight one another over territorial rights. If you ever hear their high-pitched squeaks it’s a sure sign that two shrews have come to blows.
Common shrews are quite adaptable and can be found in many different habitats. But their first choice of a home is in woodland or long grass. Because their metabolisms run so quickly, shrews must eat every 3 hours or so. That means that they are very possessive of their patch. They won’t tolerate any trespassers and only come together with other shrews during the mating season.
The common shrew is classed as an insectivore, but it will eat plenty of other things besides insects – slugs, snails, even amphibians and small rodents. They have to eat 20 to 30 times their own body weight each day just to survive. That means that they have to be expert hunters – and they are. Their eyesight may be poor but their keen hearing and their powerful sense of smell lead them to prey hidden as deep as 12cm in the soil.
Because they live life in the fast lane, common shrews don’t enjoy long lives. It’s very rare for one to see its first birthday. Few mammals will kill shrews as they have foul-tasting scent glands and so do not make a nice meal. Weasels, stoats and foxes will take them though and cats often kill shrews just for sport. Owls and kestrels both have a poor sense of smell and so are happy to dine on shrew.
The common shrew is not endangered – at least, not here in Britain. It’s the second most abundant British mammal. Every hectare of woodland is home to about 50 shrews and there are thought to be around 40 million of them on our island. All shrews are protected by law and it’s an offence to hurt one.
If you love mammals then take a look at The Mammal Society. Their website has loads of info on British mammals and ways in which you can help them. After that why not try our free-to-play nature quizzes? We have more than 60, 8 of which are devoted to mammals. Go on, test yourself.