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Striking Gold!

Posted: Thursday 22nd October 2015 by Nature Notes

Striking Gold!© Amy Lewis

On Tuesday morning I allowed myself a sigh of relief as I held up the plastic bag in the chill and misty dawn in a wet meadow along the River Wey in Shalford.

We are using our proven trapping methods to collect genetic material from small hair pulls from each animal we capture

There, nestled between lengths of straw, pieces of apple , seed and broken half-consumed casters, was the prize that had eluded us for four weeks; a small golden mouse!

The Surrey Harvest Mouse Project Phase 2 is now looking at the relatedness of harvest mice populations in meadows along the River Wey in Surrey.

We think that if harvest mice populations are closely related, it may indicate that good habitat connectivity already exists. If they are not related, we may be able to use this as a baseline to monitor our efforts to improve habitat connectivity.

We are using our proven trapping methods to collect genetic material from small hair pulls from each animal we capture, which will be analysed by our project partners at the University of Brighton. Although others have looked at DNA to identify harvest mice from other species using fecal samples, it will be the first time harvest mouse DNA has been analysed for differences within harvest mice populations in the UK, with only one other project internationally based in Taiwan!

Why is habitat connectivity important?

Wildlife populations are continuing to decline and we need to spend much more effort working not just on nature reserves but between them, making connections to allow species to move through the landscape, especially in order to adapt to changing conditions as the climate warms. 

So we work to make nature reserves bigger, better and more joined up. My work in the Living Landscape team at SWT focusses on making connections between the wildlife sites we and others manage and building the evidence for the work we do through research.

How do we know we are achieving our aims?

One way is to monitor wildlife species which are sensitive to habitat fragmentation - the break-up of their habitat due to pressures of development and increasing intensity of land use.

We know already animals like bats, water voles and butterflies are good indicator species of landscape connectivity, but I wanted to find out whether harvest mice could also be an indicator.

The second phase started out with two-week long stints at our two best sites from Phase 1- Burpham Court and Riverside Nature Reserve (thanks to Guildford Borough Council). 

60 Longworth traps were set up on a grid of trapping points spaced 20m apart, measuring 50x60m. At each point two traps were set, one on a platform in the ‘stalk zone’ and one on the floor. 

By the end of the first week at Burpham and with no captures I was wondering what I was doing wrong, The second week at Riverside we still had no harvest mice but a haul of other mammals including pygmy shrew (same size and weight as harvest mice) and, equally as exciting, we caught water shrews (the UK's only venomous mammal!)

However, we are 9 harvest mice richer after two mornings at Broadford Meadow, Shalford. We need between 15-20 animals per site for the genetics to work so we are on course for success at Broadford! 

In our final week this season, we will be at Thundry Meadows where we have always found good numbers. A comparison can then be made between at least two geographically separated sites. We intend to continue the project until Autumn 2017, should funding be available.

The project has been made possible by the stirling efforts of two of our Rangers, James Herd and Ben Hapgood who enacted our Living Landscapes vision by running 65 miles across Surrey linking up some of our Wildlife Reserves and rasing £5,000.

We have also generous support too from The Spear Charitable Trust. We still need funds to cover the full costs of genetic analysis and are awaiting the outcome of a recent funding application.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the support of the amazing volunteers from Surrey Mammal Group and Surrey Wildlife Trust.

Jim Jones

Living Landscapes Projects Manager

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