Around four inches in size, adorned in rich brown fur that maintains a regal sheen throughout, soft rounded features, expressive jet black eyes and a look which could launch a thousand ships; just what is it that captures the imagination of that most endearing of creatures; the irrepressible yet often overlooked water vole.
The plight of the water vole
Much has been written concerning the worrisome decline of the water vole across the UK, especially in the nineties when the population dipped by around 90%. For the most part this was due to the intensification of farming methods, predation and of course the never ending ‘creep’ of urbanisation. So it will come as no surprise what followed is now an all too familiar story of pollution and degradation of local wildlife habitats.
Fortunately though the plight of this plucky little character has somewhat improved; but despite the introduction of tighter controls together with focussed conservation efforts, numbers remain perilously low which is why water voles are now considered a priority species and protected under UK Law.
Rightly so; for the loss of this remarkable mammal through complacency or lack of action on our part would represent a final goodbye to an irreplaceable character in an ever diminishing cast which resides along the mosaic of rivers, thickets and banks in a place they call home.
But the water voles’ plight is not just the consequence of diminished habitat. They are by design a fragile species and are particularly vulnerable to attack from herons, foxes and stoats. Much has also been written about the American Mink which is not an indigenous species but nonetheless has decimated water vole populations, particularly in Scotland following their introduction to the UK in the 1950s.
Whilst flight is often their best form of defence, water voles all too often have to abandon their homes to the vagaries of predators, which undoubtedly in some areas have culminated in their rapid decline. The simple fact is it’s a tough and precarious life when you’re a water vole.
Signs of activity
Like us though, water voles are remarkably sociable creatures and home is a series of communal burrows and chambers dug within the sides of a shallow river bank, pond or stream. Signs of activity can be hard to spot; especially during the summer months when the banks are awash in lush vegetation and with burrow entrances no bigger than a tangerine, some of which are concealed under the water line; it’s easy to walk on by without a second glance.
Water voles predominantly rely on stealth to avoid detection and like to remain out of sight, so spotting them in the open is never easy. It’s no coincidence they will utilise dense cover with expert precision to traverse the river bank through a series of runs trampled down by their little steps over time.
Discreetly positioned piles of half nibbled grasses and shoots dispersed along these water vole super highways are their way of saying; “leave well alone, this is a tasty snack which I’m saving for later”.
Nonetheless, it’s always a good sign of activity and something to look out for. If you’re really lucky though, you might just hear the diminutive ‘plop’ of a water vole as it belly flops into the water. Calculated precision it is not, though thoroughly endearing it maybe; as water voles whilst very much at home in water are not the most graceful of swimmers. It’s a style that might best be described as a frantic doggy paddle; head and back exposed when out of your depth and wondering in a comparative state of panic you’ll make it to the other side of the pool.
The perfect habitat
The collage of streams and rivers which weave, merge and entwine the fields close to my home in the Suffolk countryside provide welcome pockets of inviting habitat for water voles. But as is often the case it’s the more secluded and sheltered locations far from prying eyes, that quite literally will reveal their hidden secrets. As I found myself late one summer waste deep in slow moving water along the banks of a sheltered stream, framed within the trees and thickets in a place a small community of water voles called home.
Surrounded by a patchwork of open fields and farm land, it was an area wholly undisturbed and might best be described as a veritable Shangri-La for water voles.
After all; if you’re a water vole what’s not to like? It’s a place far away from prying eyes with soft muddy banks which are a joy to dig into. A sumptuous setting in which to build a home, offering shelter and protection to raise your family; and in this regard you’ll be busy as the chances are you’ll produce anything up to five litters of pups in the year. Clean, slow moving water in which to forage; and a bountiful supply of fresh vegetation, berries, reed stems and seeds on which to feed that voracious appetite of yours. This latter point being of particular importance as you’ll devour anything up to 80% of your body weight in the day.
A chance to get close
Feeding is undoubtedly a major preoccupation for water voles and for the most part they’re very active during the day foraging along the river bank. But whilst they have an acute sense of hearing their eyesight is in fact poor; and if you keep very still the chances are your patience will be rewarded as they can often be observed in close proximity completely oblivious to your presence.
On one occasion when photographing these endearing creatures I found myself in utter disbelief as a water vole negotiated its way up my leg on to my shoulders, down my back; and then without so much as a passing thought simply ‘plopped’ back into the water.
Moments spent in the embrace of nature can remain ingrained on your mind and that endearing encounter was was one such occasion.
The face that launched a thousand ships
Perhaps this underlies my never ending fascination with water voles. It's that sense of vulnerability and their trusting nature which forms that intense connection. Let us just hope this fragile yet enduring character continues to thrive along the river bank for us all to enjoy. For now though peace remains in this quiet corner of nature in the Suffolk countryside. And for a time at least before the onset of winter we might watch, listen, wonder and reflect upon the face that launched a thousand ships; as the feather footed water vole goes about its business in preparation for the cold nights ahead.