It’s hard to be cynical while holding a pygmy shrew. It’s small and covered in velvet and has a questing little snout like the cutest shrunken elephant you can imagine. You find yourself wanting all of the universe’s moving parts to align to ensure that this little shrew’s life is constructed of interlocking cogs of joy. It’s lovely.
My cynicism was still intact when the prospect of a wildlife conservation holiday in the feral outlands of Suffolk first came up. As a native South African, my understanding of wildlife is somewhat different to that of the average British person, but I was curious to find out what conservation means in a Northern Hemisphere context devoid of baboons and buffalo.
Through Wild Days Conservation, I had the chance to spend a couple of days in the UK countryside, getting my hands dirty engaged in practical conservation work alongside nature experts. The emphasis is on learning by doing, teaming up with others to get a sense of how humanity is affecting everything else on the planet and what we can do to be better.
To that end, I find myself crouched in long damp grass in the frozen Suffolk dawn, checking on small-mammal traps we laid the evening before to help survey the rodent population. We created cosy little nests by stuffing the small cylindrical traps with straw and food and set them underneath logs and in thickets where the critters would emerge for nocturnal expeditions.
Three of the four I’ve laid turn up empty, while my colleagues in conservation have picked up two voles and a field mouse that are summarily weighed, measured and noted before being released back into the underbrush. I gamely open the last trap and poke around in the straw for a few seconds before a glorious, wriggly pygmy shrew tumbles into my hand. Our guide begins to tell me the facts (it’s quite rare, weighs four grams, lives for around 15 months, has a turbo-charged metabolism that requires it to eat constantly lest it starve to death in a matter of hours) but I’m lost in its beautiful, beady eyes.
That goddamn little shrew melts my heart and I find myself swept up in the general, wholesome enthusiasm of the weekend. I walk along a rainwashed beach picking up Werther’s Original wrappers, I roll muntjac deer poop between my fingers, creep upwind of a squirrel as if it were a lion, meditate while counting species of plant life, yank out invasive plant species with my bare hands, discover there’s more than one kind of moth and I find myself developing a deep, abiding love for bird-watching.
Searching for Dartford warblers and European stone chats while breathing in clean air flavoured by sea salt and gorse feels Zen. At on point, we crest a ridge to see a lone harrier threading between beams of winter sunlight along the coast like a burglar navigating laser detectors. I find myself caring in an entirely un-ironic fashion.
And I owe it all to shrew love.