Water Shrew by Michael Blencowe for Sussex Wildlife Trust
I love Jaws, the 1975 movie which sent three men out into the Atlantic on a fishing
boat in search of a marauding Great White Shark. There’s another aquatic monster
hunting in the ponds and shallow streams of Sussex. But to find a Water
Shrew…you’re gonna need a smaller boat.
Water Shrews weigh 15g and measure just 16cm. Unlike other shrews they have an
amazing ability to swim and hunt underwater. They’re covered in dense fur – vital
insulation against the cold and wet. This sleek wetsuit also traps air bubbles,
transforming the shrew into a furry Aero helping it stay buoyant. Powerful, extra
hairy hind feet propel this tiny torpedo through the water.
Water Shrews and Great White Sharks have a common feature that sets them apart
from their close relatives. They both have a striking demarcation between their
dark upperparts and their white underparts. Looking from above, their black backs
blend with the pond bottom or seabed. From below, their pale bellies make them
invisible in the sunlit water. It’s a submarine survival strategy that helps conceal
both hunters and hunted. And the Water Shrew is both.
With sharp, red-tipped fangs, a Water Shrew’s jaws are as fearsome as any shark’s.
But the Water Shrew has a trick up its teeth. It’s Britain’s only venomous mammal.
When it bites it injects a stupefying saliva which subdues its victims. In Jaws, the
grizzled skipper Quint (Robert Shaw) relates the chilling true tale of the torpedoed
WWII cruiser Indianapolis, which sank leaving hundreds of sailors adrift in sharkinfested waters. Well, my mate Barry was once bitten by a Water Shrew in
Newhaven and his finger went all tingly for about two hours. OK, it doesn’t
exactly compare, but the fact that a tiny shrew can make such an impact on a
human is pretty impressive.
Slice open a dead shrew’s stomach and rummage inside and you’ll find bits of
beetle legs, snail shells, and fishbones. They are relentless, frenetic hunters. If the
shrew goes without a meal for more than an hour it will die. What we are dealing
with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. All this machine does is swim and
eat and make little shrews. Between April and September, the mating of the shrew
can produce 2-3 litters of 3-15 young. They live a fast, brief life. Few of them will
survive for more than a year.
The best way to see a Water Shrew is to sit by a Sussex stream as the sun sets.
Bring a couple of friends and some Apricot Brandy, share some tall tales, and wait
for a shrew to strike!