Today it was announced that after 25 years the Harvest Mouse has returned to Selborne. Over 150 nests have been spotted after the tiny rodent was reintroduced to the village by local farmers and landowners. This is a particularly special event for us, as it was Gilbert White who first identified that the Harvest Mouse was a separate species in Selborne in 1767.Here is the letter White wrote to fellow naturalist Thomas Pennant on the 4th November 1767.
‘I have procured some of the mice mentioned in my former letters, a young one and a female with young, both of which I have preserved in brandy. From the colour, shape, size, and manner of nesting, I make no doubt but that the species is nondescript. They are much smaller and more slender than the mus domesticus medius of Ray; and have more of the squirrel or dormouse colour: their belly is white, a straight line along their sides divides the shades of their back and belly. They never enter into houses; are carried into ricks and barns with the sheaves; abound in harvest, and build their nests amidst the straws of the corn above the ground, and sometimes in thistles. They breed as many as eight at a litter, in a little round nest composed of the blades of grass or wheat.
One of these nests I procured this autumn, most artificially platted, and composed of the blades of wheat; perfectly round, and about the size of a cricket-ball; with the aperture so ingeniously closed, that there was no discovering to what part it belonged. It was so compact and well filled, that it would roll across the tame being discomposed, though it contained eight little mice that were naked and blind. As this nest was perfectly full, how could the dam come at her litter respectively so as to administer a teat to each? perhaps she opens different places for that purpose, adjusting them again when the business is over: but she could not possibly be contained herself in the ball with her young, which moreover would be daily increasing in bulk. This wonderful procreant cradle, an elegant instance of the efforts of instinct, was found in a wheat-field, suspended in the head of a thistle.’
A beautiful description of this previously unnoticed species, shows us just how observant and detailed White was in his writings. White makes a second mention of the rodent on this very day 248 years ago, on the 22nd January 1768 only a few months after first categorising the Harvest Mouse, or micromys minutus.
‘As to the small mice, I have farther to remark, that though they hang their nests for breeding up amidst the straws of the standing corn, above the ground; yet I find that, in the winter, they burrow deep in the earth, and make warm beds of grass: but their grand rendezvous seems to be in corn-ricks, into which they are carried at harvest. A neighbour housed an oat-rick lately, under the thatch of which were assembled near an hundred, most of which were taken; and some I saw. I measured them; and found that, from nose to tail, they were just two inches and a quarter, and their tails just two inches long. Two of them in a scale, weighed down just one copper halfpenny, which is about a third of an ounce avoirdupois: so that I suppose they are the smallest quadrupeds in this island. A full- grown mus medius domesticus weighs, I find, one ounce, lumping weight, which is more than six times as much as the mouse above; and measures from nose to rump four inches and a quarter, and the same in its tail.’
Gilbert goes on in the letter to talk about a horrible cold and frosty winter that makes the past week for us look mild! The discovery of the Harvest Mouse is one of many notable observations that White made during his life, White is considered by many to be the father of ecology and inspired other such scientific figures such as Charles Darwin. His great work The Natural History of Selborne, of which these letters come from was published in 1789 and has never been out of print since, making it one of the most published works in the English Language.
In 2011 Harvest mice were released onto the grounds of Gilbert White’s House, known locally as The Wakes by Dr. Steven Havers.
To find out more about harvest mice in Selborne see the BBC news story!