TRAVEL: First, catch your fieldmouse

Angela Wilkes took her daughter on a wildlife weekend at Flatford Mill. The animals proved hard to handle
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The Independent Culture
IT'S A real hands-on experience, the wildlife watch weekend for families run by the Field Studies Council at Flatford Mill in Constable country, south Suffolk. You certainly get to hold the animals (the small, nibbly variety, at any rate) which is probably what most mammal watchers secretly long to do.

All nine adults and children in our group found this part good fun, but it wasn't an easy exercise - especially when wearing thick, rubber washing- up gloves (proof against rodent bites and urine-borne disease) and fumbling in the base of a large polythene bag under the beady gaze of the mill's resident cat. No wonder the younger members of our party - three girls aged 10, one boy of 13 - were as jumpy as fieldmice. None of us found that grabbing a thumb-sized bank vole by the scruff of its chunky russet neck came naturally. These were a doddle to handle, though, compared to the pop-eyed woodmice: far smaller and so hyper that they made the voles look lethargic.

Mercifully, none of "our" mice indulged in their most gruesome escape ploy: jettisoning tail flesh and heading back to the woodpile flashing a length of bare vertebrae. Next move was speedily to weigh and sex each beast, taking care not to let it blow away in the stiff spring breeze. We all decided to let our tutor, an experienced biologist, do the final bit, scissoring an identifying snip of fur from flank or shoulder.

It may all sound like some demonic rodent persecution programme, but the live-trapping, baiting and setting out of metal boxes, in lip-biting anticipation of the next morning's "catch", turned out to be a highlight of the course - especially for the children. One assumes that the mouse that pauses for a quick face-wash in mid-examination is none too traumatised. In fact, Flatford Mill researchers point out that during their twice-a- year checks on rodent populations (for a national small mammals' survey) it is noticeable that some shrews, mice and voles get rather "trap happy". Some allow themselves to be caught, time and time again, for the sake of a free meal.

Our party arrived at Flatford on a Friday night, a pastoral haven after pelting rain and lorry spray on the A12 from London. We had taken one child, Katy, aged 10, on the course but left our five-year-old daughter with grandparents because she was below the minimum age (eight) advised by the FSC. The limit is flexible, but a child participant does need to be able to take some notes, join in classroom discussion and move very slowly and quietly "in the field".

We stayed for two nights in unspoilt, picture-postcard surroundings in Willy Lott's ancient, half-timbered house - as pictured by Constable. Katy found the chilly unisex loo too spartan and the trek to a separate bath and shower block unacceptable (she only ever managed a spit-and-promise ablution both mornings). But we adults liked the lack of mod cons in this unspoilt National Trust building. Our single beds were quaintly arranged around what had once been the kitchen's inglenook fireplace. As that obviously hadn't been in use for years, we were grateful for the electric fan heater we'd been given to supplement the central heating as it was an icy weekend.

Breakfast and refectory-style supper in the 18th-century mill were shared, elbow-to-elbow, with those on other courses. Next to us were girls doing A-level ecology. The TV cameraman and his wife opposite were brushing up their watercolour technique; others were exploring Suffolk villages or peering at slugs and snails. Work began immediately after dinner on our first evening - setting traps and going to the lab for a short seminar which soon revealed who the junior boffins were. The girls quickly ganged up, ostracising the teenage boy, but no doubt the dynamics of each group are different.

Breakfast tended to be somewhat rushed - not much leeway for latecomers. You have to eat fast, help clear away and prepare your own packed lunch. It wasn't exactly picnic weather that weekend, but we were thankfully allowed to skulk in the library and augment our sandwiches (a good range of both meaty and vegetarian fillings) with a hot drink. Our first day was an absorbing, well-judged mix of talk and walk, fieldwork and microscopic examinations in the lab, with a trip to the mill's mini weather station thrown in.

We looked at creatures great and small (my partner was lucky enough practically to trip over a large water vole during the lunch break), at bugs and mini- beasts trapped in cunningly hidden plastic cups overnight, at birds and rodents. We fervently trawled local brooks, our microscopes later revealing a whole animated world amid the wriggling grit in our nets.

By the time we'd had supper and a slide-show on Saturday night, we were happy to turn in at the shamefully early hour of 10.30pm. Sunday was equally entertaining; our only disappointment was having to abandon a long walk and botanic scavenger hunt on account of sheeting rain. Instead, back at the lab, we made and painted pond-life mobiles and woodland views in shoe-boxes, a triumph of co-operation between the generations.

One word of warning: take layers of waterproof and warm clothing even at this time of year. One of our number, back from working in Hong Kong and minus any thick sweaters, shivered all weekend; another got soaked through an inadequate cagoule. Seriously thermal undies proved a distinct advantage, particularly when lying stock-still bird-watching. !

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