Ways of weathering winter

Fart bugs may be easily fooled -- but not dozy dormice


I had to attend a college graduation ceremony and an Environment Ministry meeting in Tokyo; otherwise I could easily have made it in a day from Okinawa to northern Nagano Prefecture where I live. As it was, the trip from that balmy Pacific isle to my home amid the snows of Kurohime took me until nearly 8 at night the next day.

I had been away for more than six weeks, so the heat at home had been turned down to save energy. But then, anticipating the return of a delicate creature now adapted to sub-tropical clime, my staff had cranked it up again.

The warmth was nice for me, but very confusing for the hundreds of shield bugs that hibernate in the cracks and crannies of this aging wooden house.

In Japanese these are known as kamemushi (literally, “turtle bugs”) because of the shape of the carapace. Around here, though, we call them heppirimushi (literally, “fart bugs”), on account of their most unpleasant defense system. When bothered, they spray from their back ends a pungent, clinging stink, rather like a cross between gasoline and crushed coriander.

When I went up to my bedroom, there were at least 30 of them on the covers and pillows, another dozen on the curtains, and various patrols were exploring the walls, floor and ceiling. It is very hard to sleep with these things around. They tend to take off on short, annoying, buzzing flights, often aiming at my face, and if a bug starts creeping all over my face when I’m in bed, I will always try to swipe it off — with very unpleasant results.

So, with a few curses, and armed with sticky tape and tissues, I had to get rid of most of them before dossing down.

In the morning I walked down the gravel lane to my dojo-study, and there in my workroom were thousands of tiny fruit flies — and a battalion of fart bugs. It had warmed up and started raining in the night. The rain falling on snow produced mist, and this made all kinds of insects think that spring had come. Then turning on the stove in the study had made it worse.

The day after tomorrow though, I’m off on another lecture spree for a couple of weeks, during which time the temperature will drop in the buildings. When I come back I’ll have carpets of little dead things to clean up. Ah, the joys of living in the countryside!

The older I get the more I feel the urge to migrate during the dark, cold months. I used to think it would be nice to hibernate like a bear, however we humans do not have the bear’s ability to retain muscle tone and bone density after long periods of immobility. I wouldn’t want to be like a fart bug, either; getting fooled into thinking spring had come and getting up, wandering around, making a bother and stinking the place up. Yet it does seem to get harder to emerge from bed in winter.

This is the time of year, when the temperatures vary between wet-cold and freezing, that I give a thought to our dormice. The Japanese dormouse (Glirulus Japonicus) is the most geographically isolated of the family, as dormice are not found in temperate eastern Asia. Here, too, it is a specially protected species, and I am very pleased that we have a few resident in our Afan Trust woodland near my home.

Dormice are called yamane in Japanese, which I thought was a good name, combining yama (mountain) and ne (sleep). On checking the kanji, though, the “ne” bit turned out to be “mouse” — rather silly, I think, as there are all kinds of mountain or woodland mice in Japan.

Dormice are not mice, but are actually intermediate between mice and squirrels, with 20 teeth and furry tails. Long, flexible toes and hind feet capable of turning outward at right angles make them excellent tree climbers, although they go to sleep around October and don’t wake up until it’s properly warm. However, their soft, dense fur, varying in color from a pretty orange-brown to gray, and large dark eyes definitely qualify them as kawaii (cute).

A few years ago, when Canada’s most famous wildlife painter, Robert Bateman, was in Japan, we were changing the thatch on the hut by the charcoal kiln. A little furry ball fell out and rolled on the ground. Even when picked up, it didn’t wake. We took a pot with a perforated lid, lined it with soft grass and put the dormouse in, leaving it at the back of the hut, protected from weasels, feral cats and anything else that might find it a tasty morsel.

At that time, Bateman was on Yakushima Island, which lies south of Kagoshima Prefecture in Kyushu, and I really wanted him to come and visit. When I phoned he said his trip was all booked up. Then I said, “Bob, what if I told you that I could put a live Japanese dormouse in the palm of your hand?”

So he and his wife came to stay with us, to sketch the dormouse, and to wander the woods. It was early spring and the little chap was still all curled up and fast asleep.

Dormice really are very casual about where they sleep. They often nest in hollows in trees, old woodpecker holes and such. Sometimes we find them in our bird boxes, other times they just roll up in some old dry leaves and snooze away, which must make them very vulnerable.

It is, by the way, quite illegal to even touch a dormouse in Japan unless you have a special permit. We carry out research and have a permit, however, so I don’t think I’ll get prosecuted for rescuing the one that fell out of the old thatch. Of course, if we’d known he was there we would have waited until the end of the next summer to do the job.

When I was a boy in Britain I rarely found dormice, but I was always fascinated by them, especially when I read that the Romans used to keep them in special jars, fattening them up with nuts and honey for the table. There must have been plenty of dormice in those days — and lots of deciduous woods for them to live in.

Well, with the Afan Trust, at least we’re doing our bit here in Nagano Prefecture!