Wildlife - the house mouse

House mouse

House mouse - Credit: Archant

Cute, furry, little creatures or a scampering menace, Paul Hobson becomes reacquainted with some familiar wildlife from his past

House mouse

House mouse - Credit: Archant

When I was a university student I shared an old, badly maintained, terraced house with three of my friends. It wasn’t exactly like The Young Ones but there were many common themes! Our kitchen would never have made it into any house and home magazine, unless it was the ‘before’ picture. We had an amazing plethora of cohabitants that shared our food and warmth. Silver fish loved the damp cupboards and a small colony of cockroaches basked in the tropical warmth behind the cooker. Even the rock-hard winter of 1978/79 didn’t deter them. The carpets were home to legions of wood lice and at night you could hear the scampering and scratching of the house mice. I must admit that at the time none of this bothered me at all, though I did freak out a bit when a mouse ran across my bed one night. It never entered our minds to get rid of any of our ‘friends’, in fact we deliberately left fried egg bits out for the cockroaches!

How times have changed. I guess owning and paying for my own house made a big difference! Recently I started a new photographic project working with house mice. Initially I thought that I would be able to find them everywhere but I actually struggled to find some until I realised the world of the house mouse had changed. When I was at school I worked on a farm at weekends and during holidays and I remember that it was plagued by rats and mice. After we had bagged the grain after harvesting, there were always some spilt leftovers lying around – great food for the smart rodents. Traps were everywhere and a population of feral cats tried to keep the mice down, but they still seemed to be able to keep their population high. Farms are not like that today and hygiene is taken far more seriously, with grain stored in large aluminium silos. Homes, too, have changed. Central heating is now the norm and many of our homes are efficiently sealed units with few opportunities for our furry friends to enter. The introduction of large plastic wheelie bins has meant there are no longer bags of rubbish left on the street which has removed one huge larder that mice loved to exploit. It might seem that we have won the war against this little furry animal.

I suppose though that we will never eradicate house mice entirely: true we wage an eternal war on them but they have a number of neat strategies that will always allow them to bounce back given the chance. They are incredibly adaptable and can learn to avoid traps and can become immune to many of the poisons we throw at them. If we provide a new, abundant food source they can breed incredibly rapidly, producing up to ten litters per year of six or seven pups each time. In high population densities they can change their social structure and females, even unrelated ones, can rear pups communally. They really are geared to be able to increase their population rapidly when the chance is given to them.

Centuries ago we had a number of methods to control them, though the tried and tested ‘mouser’ is still probably the most effective. Yorkshire quaking grass, dried and bunched, was thought to drive mice out of the home, and crushed, bruised hound’s tongue was used to remove them from farmers’ barns. I don’t know if either was actually effective.

House mice originated in Northern India and followed man and his new farming methods across the globe entering Europe around 1000BC. We have lived cheek by jowl with them for thousands of years and as they spread so did our dislike for them. Today we believe that they carry disease, and in many cases this is true, though no plagues were carried by mice – rats were the culprits. There are few diseases, if any, that mice carry that kill humans, though some will make us ill. Conversely, recent research has suggested that children exposed at a young age to old-fashioned pests and their droppings are less likely to develop asthma and allergies later in life.

We have incorporated our small furry friends into parts of our culture. Perhaps the best known are the three blind mice, the ones who have their tails cut off with a big carving knife by the farmer’s wife. The nursery rhyme is thought to represent the tale of Queen Mary I, who with her husband Philip II owned large estates, hence ‘farmer’s wife’, and had three Protestant bishops, including Thomas Cranmer, executed for plotting against her.

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As I have progressed with my project to photograph house mice I have rediscovered the love for them I felt in my days as a student. True, I don’t want to have a house full or spot the tiny black droppings everywhere, but I have developed the greatest regard for their strategies to survive in our world, where often every hand seems to be turned against them.