The Curious Tale of the Performing Water Vole

I’m thrilled to report that three pieces of my nature writing are to be published in an anthology later this year, so I thought I would celebrate with one of those pieces here. And any excuse to post photos and words about water voles suits me! So here they are:

As with many of the other native British species I’ve been encountering on my feral forays, I was familiar with water voles as a child. When I wasn’t hiding away in my favourite hawthorn tree, or trying to have Famous Five adventures when there was only one of me, I was forever poking about in streams with a stick, or skipping along river and canal banks.

It was along such banks I’d often hear the characteristic ‘plop’ as voles dropped into the water for cover. Occasionally one would see no need for cover and I would spot him (they always seemed male to me), hanging from reed stems or nibbling away at some water plant, showing his tiny yellow teeth. Sometimes just staring at me with equally tiny round black eyes, looking deep into my soul… or whatever my seven-year old equivalent of such a notion was. I fancied those I saw always appeared curious about who – or rather, what – I was.

But move on almost a lifetime, and it was a thousand years since I’d seen one. In part, this is because for a thousand years I’d rarely gone looking for one, but also because in many areas of the UK water vole numbers have become worryingly low. Water quality deterioration and poorly designed drainage schemes haven’t helped, but also poor Ratty (he’s the Wind in the Willows water rat) has been eaten in vast numbers by the voracious American Mink. This particular Yank may not be overpaid or over-sexed, but having been released from captivity in mink farms in the 1970’s, he’s most definitely and inappropriately over here.

Today, with various habitat changes and other initiatives including mink control projects and water vole reintroduction programmes, vole numbers are rising, and things are looking a little less bleak – at least in some places –  for this cutest of rodents.

Rutland Water Nature Reserve is one of the sites where there has been an active, and successful, reintroduction programme, and after many searches elsewhere looking for Ratty, I hoped I’d see one whilst I was there. It was late August and I was volunteering at the annual Birdfair event – in music festival terms, think Glastonbury – so free camping for me for a few quiet days after the chaos of the festival itself.

Vole-wise, I did all the right things during those few days: going out early in the morning, or the evening; choosing the right kind of watery environment – they prefer shallow and moving water – and keeping quiet and still whilst I watched. Four attempts, no sightings, although the fourth time I did hear that familiar plop noise so was fairly confident that one, at least, was present in that particular area. They tend to favour their own little territories, so on my last evening at the Reserve, back I went to the plop area.

It was warm and sultry, very still. The only movement seemed to be in the sky as it slowly weaved its pre-sunset colours. Above a row of distant poplars, a faraway plane travelled inch-by-inch across the sky’s pattern, marking an edge with its contrail. It was a perfect late summer evening: perfect for nature’s magic, though perfect too for midges, as I was to discover.

I crept slowly and quietly up to the little wooden bridge crossing the stream where I had previously heard the noise, and prepared to wait. Immediately, the wildlife I did not want to see closed in, and I wondered how I could waft away midges and other biting beasts whilst being simultaneously motionless. I couldn’t of course, so chose the latter, letting the midges have their fun.

As I stood there, silent and still, I began to have the experience I often have when outside in nature: that I am slipping out of everyday consciousness, leaving behind ordinary reality and my sense of daphne-ness in it. I lose all sense of time, though sense of place becomes more acute. It’s as if I become part of that place, not separate, not a human being any more. I am invisible, I meld into my surroundings.

At that moment, a shaft of late evening sun suddenly lit up one small leafy patch of a low branch where it entered the water. A circle of sunlight… a tiny spotlight. Showtime! Through my binoculars, I watched the circle, and into it moved a water vole, complete with waistcoat, cane and dancing shoes. Well, maybe no outfit, but he certainly gave a performance. He ran through a whole series of cute vole behaviours: face cleaning with both front legs, scratching with both back legs, a little leaf nibbling, and then, unbelievably – I must not be invisible after all! – he looked directly up at me, full on eye contact, for a good few seconds. I remembered those voles from my childhood: watching me, always as if they were interested in me, but this one was obviously not impressed at all with what he saw. He slid into the water and disappeared.

That was the point at which I returned to everyday reality and remembered I was living flesh and blood, and that there was not a lot of it left. The munching midges had homed in on my raised binocular hands and bitten them to shreds. I suppose I should have been thankful that at least my face was partially protected by hands and binoculars. I returned to my van, hands beginning to turn into balloons, but happy nonetheless. And in my dreams that night, the vole danced in the spotlight…

 

 

 

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