No gardener wants to hear the patter of these tiny feet
ANOTHER LIFE:THE FIRST BROWN RAT I ever watched was dining at our bird table on a sunny morning. It looked the very picture of health, each hair shampooed and shining, its little ears perked up in furry shells. It sat comfortably poised on its haunches, holding an oatflake daintily between its paws like child making a biscuit last. Its eyes sparkled, its whiskers trembled in the breeze. Only that scaly, naked tail remained unforgivable.
Encounters since then have had a different and shuddersome tempo: the rat leaping across my hand from its tunnel in the compost heap, or the one in the airing cupboard, diving back to its escape route down among the boulders on which our house is set. How sad that rodents lose their innocence whenever they get too close.
In the tunnel the other morning, a rustle in the jungle of courgette plants froze me in midstep. Perhaps a wren? But what crept out from beneath the great saffron blossoms was a house mouse on its holidays.
Oblivious to my hulking silhouette, he reached up to find another seed among the starry flowers of chickweed – put little trousers on him and he could have posed for Beatrix Potter.
Gardeners do not actually welcome mice into their polytunnels. In her new and engaging memoir, Just Vegetating (Frances Lincoln, £18.99), Joy Larkcom lists a New Year’s resolution, “I will set mousetraps under cloches before sowing peas,” and from her greenhouse at Clonakilty, Co Cork, describes toasting the cheese with a lighted match to give it more flavour.
My father used to roll his peas in red lead to discourage thieving field mice (it worked, and we lived), but I go to the trouble of raising young plants in lots of yogurt pots perched high on slippery-sided plastic buckets, then setting them out in the ground. I will deal with the mouse (perhaps, indeed, mice) in due course, but meanwhile have been fascinated by its restless energy and lack of caution in broad daylight, sidling round my wellies to reach the next clump of chickweed, or munching along a seed head of grass as if it were a cob of sweetcorn.
A sad irony is that, while Mus musculus domesticus has quite deserted our house for the summer warmth of the polytunnel, its country cousin the field mouse, Apodemus sylvaticus, persists in sneaking underground to reach the cupboard under the kitchen sink, where a mousetrap waits next to the scraps bucket. Four in a row so far this month, each briefly mourned (they’re lovable), have been slung regretfully over the hedge for stoat or kestrel to dine on.
More is known about Mus domesticus than about any other mammal except us. There are at least five European and two Asian species lumped under the same name and another 14 Asian species in the same genus. A lot of them live wild for a lot of the time, but the west European subspecies of house mouse seems to have stuck with people and to need large human settlements to multiply.
A recent genetic study of British and Irish house mice found a major lineage of mitochondrial DNA (handed down through females) restricted to the northern and western peripheries of these islands and occurring also in Norway. What has been termed the “Orkney” mouse probably arrived here with the Vikings and would certainly have thrived in a medieval Dublin floored with woodchips, nutshells, spilt fodder and dung and since described as “a very large and rich compost heap . . . more than three metres deep”.