A watery encounter

Water shrew © Niall Benvie/2020VISION

I am very lucky to be able to spend time in quiet, secluded locations where wildlife encounters occur. I always carry a camera and this often pays dividends when least expected.

I was reminded of one such occasion, the other day, when I caught a fleeting glimpse of one of our least seen aquatic mammals, the water shrew. This glimpse stirred a memory from a few years ago when I was watching the world go by....

I was sat under the shade of an old willow, its limbs all tortured into woven shapes, as if reaching out to feel the trickle of the clear stream water that flowed in front of us. As I let my mind wander with the babbling sound the water made as it flowed over the gravel below, my eyes caught a movement across and to my right. Years of watching wildlife has taught me to resist the instinctive urge to move my head towards the unfolding scene, but to let my eyes focus in and stay still.

My patience rewarded as a dark black velvety figure came into view. Its nose was twitching vigorously, long slender whiskers working in unison, helping to locate a meal, as this little wetland mammal has tiny almost redundant jet black eyes. It worked its way jerkily down the bankside, disappearing behind a blanket of green water cress only to re-appear closer to my streamside seat.

Water shrew © Jon Traill

Water shrew © Jon Traill

A meal presented itself and my watery friend sprang into action, grasping a large brown moth between its front feet and instantaneously holding the prey in its jaws. A meal and a half for this diminutive mammal, I was stuck in its miniature world and so close the white underbelly shone out, a stark contrast to the silky dark upper body. A long tail fringed with hairs trailed behind it and all the while that twitching nose unable to slow down.

My companion, the water shrew is rarely seen, but as the name tells us, it is most often found close to streams and ponds. It is the only British shrew able to dive and seek out underwater prey such as shrimp and caddis fly larvae; it will even tackle small fish and tadpoles. Stiffened tail hairs and bristles along its back legs are adaptations to help it dive and swim and a toxic saliva also helps it subdue its prey.

As with many wildlife encounters, this was and my world in miniature scuttered away amongst the water weeds. The encounter may have been a fleeting one but it lives long in the memory, stirred and brought alive in the mind's eye in a quiet moment sat watching the watery world pass by.