Walking along the hollow way – a sunken, tree-lined path that cuts through the coastal grazing – we were stopped in our tracks by a continuous high-pitched chittering. It was a curious sound, reminiscent of bat echolocation or cricket stridulation.
Our eyes roamed over the bank in search of the source of the increasingly strident vocalisations. Although numerous rodent burrows could be seen among the oak and field maple roots, there was no movement at any of the tunnel entrances. We heard a scuffle of paws in the leaf litter, but our vision was obscured by the lush overlying vegetation – brambles, holly, ivy, rosettes of dock, sticky skeins of cleavers, the arrow-shaped leaves of lords-and-ladies, and a froth of cow parsley.
Suddenly, two velvet-coated shrews tumbled down the slope, landing at our feet. The creatures were locked in battle, rolling and writhing, as both combatants jockeyed for a throat-hold.
As one animal momentarily pinned its adversary to the ground, I was able to identify them as pygmy shrews. Though superficially similar, the pygmy shrew has a smaller, more streamlined body, pointier snout and proportionately longer tail than the common shrew. Both species have grey-brown fur, but the pygmy shrew’s is two-toned, with a dark back and pale underbelly, whereas the common shrew has a tricoloured pelage.
Pygmy shrews are widespread and common, with the British population estimated to be around 8.6m, but it’s rare to encounter these secretive creatures – unless, of course, you own a free-roaming cat. Foul-smelling and -tasting secretions from scent glands on their flanks make shrews unpalatable to predators, so they are often killed then the carcass abandoned.
These tiny mammals are aggressively assertive, defending territorial boundaries and fighting for mating rights. The mating season occurs between April and August, so we were almost certainly witnessing competing males.
The tussle was so frenetic, it felt as though we were watching the action on fast forward. Slipping from its rival’s grasp, one shrew uttered a single shrill note and turned tail, skittering into the labyrinth of runways through the undergrowth. Tail swiping from side to side, the other gave chase.