I’m not entirely sure why I chose water voles as my first target for the British Animal Challenge. These shy rodents are perhaps best known as the boat-loving Ratty, from The Wind in the Willows. Perhaps that had something to do with it: it’s one of my favourite books, and I always yearned for the carefree lifestyle of Ratty, messing about on boats, although in my heart I think I’m more like Mole.
I’d never seen one in the wild. Devon, where I grew up, is not a strong-hold for water voles. In fact, few places in Britain are these days. Their numbers have been decimated in recent years through a combination of reduced habitat for them (they like clean rivers with plenty of vegetation and banks they can burrow in) and the rise of the mink. They’re now one of the most endangered British mammals.
Like Devon, Surrey’s not a great place to see them. But the British Wildlife Centre have carried out a reintroduction in their nature reserve, so I thought that would be a good place to start.
My first expedition got off to an auspicious start. The sun was shining, and it was the warmest day so far this year. My friend Helen had kindly agreed to keep me company on this expedition, which meant we travelled in style (until I had to try and get out of the car, which was not a graceful performance!).
Shunning the temptation of visiting their captive animals, we headed out to the wetland nature reserve. A lap of the boardwalks gave me plenty of signs that water voles were around. Piles of tic-tac shaped droppings in several places were a good sign (with some of them looking quite fresh), as were cleanly chopped lengths of vegetation and pringle tube sized burrows in the bank. So we picked a likely looking spot and kept watch.
Water voles are by nature quite shy, so trying to see them in a nature reserve frequented by noisy children was asking a lot. An hour passed with no characteristic ‘plops’ of water voles diving, or buoyant rodents passing by. We adjourned for lunch.
Part way through my afternoon shift and I was beginning to get a bit discouraged. There were plenty of signs, but what if the water voles kept well out of the way of the board walk until the visitors had all gone home? I hadn’t worked out a Plan B.
At one point I did hear a plop (or was it a splash?), and saw a dark shape disappear beneath the water. But I couldn’t tell if it was a water vole, or just a fish, and I couldn’t spot it again.
Then it got quiet – the other visitors were lured away from the nature reserve by talks about the more spectacular otters, deers and wildcats. Suddenly I was the only person on the reserve, and the quiet was only broken by the geese and passing aircraft.
Then I saw it, a small, plump rodent swimming calmly and quietly from one bank to the other. I soon lost sight of it in the vegetation, and didn’t get a chance to take a photo. But I had seen my first wild water vole!
I stayed around for another 40 minutes, hoping to get another sighting and a photo. But no luck, so I went pay a visit to the otters and rejoin Helen.
So, I’ve seen a water vole! My first expedition was definitely a success. I hope they all are!