Tag Archives: The Wind in the Willows

Pilgrimage to the River and the Wild Woods

I spent last week following in the (fictional) footsteps of my heroes: the Mole, the Rat, the Otter and the Badger. I suspect The Wind in the Willows is one of the reasons that, as a child, I first fell in love with wildlife. So imagine my excitement when I realised that the holiday cottage I’d booked was half a mile away from the river that (is said to have) inspired Kenneth Grahame’s classic.

I couldn’t resist spending some of my holiday re-reading The Wind in the Willows. I’d forgotten how lyrical some of the writing about the countryside was, and the strong thread of melancholy that runs through the book, behind the more boisterous adventures of Mr Toad.

The village of Lerryn nestles on a fork of the creek that joins up with the Fowey River. From the village to the next branch of the creek, the river is bound on both sides by woodland.

Lerryn (don't ignore the signs!)
Lerryn (don’t ignore the signs!)

The river itself doesn’t look very water vole-y: the daily inundation of salt water means there’s not a lot of plantlife in the water. But it’s definitely suitable for messing about in boats on, and there are some good hidden picnic spots along the river.

While the river isn’t very suitable for Ratty, it looked perfect for the Otter. I spent my walks along the river looking for confirmation of this hunch – spraint on stones or tree trunks sticking above the edge of the river, or pawprints in the mud. I didn’t find any signs, but it just felt like there must be otters using that stretch of river – it would be a waste not to.

Further inland there were signs of Badger. A well-used animal path even went through the garden of the cottage where we stayed, so I set up my trail camera – more on what footage I caught in a few days…

It was a beautiful place to spend some time, and, once winter is over I’m sure it would be wonderful for messing about in boats (I agree with Ratty on the subject of boats). While I didn’t have as many wildlife encounters as I was hoping for, it felt like there was plenty of wildlife around, hiding in the shadows. I’m sure I’ll be back.

 

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Weasel words (or in praise of weasels)

Weasels have a bad press. Their name has come to mean some sly, sneaky and treacherous. Their most prominent depiction in popular fiction is (together with stoats) as a gang of vicious, mean ruffians, taking advantage of poor Mr Toad’s foolishness to take over Toad Hall.

With their pointy teeth and carnivorous diet, they are certainly fearsome predators, but I think their reputation is rather unfair. If they were bigger, perhaps people would respect them more. The larger members of the mustelid family (badgers and otters) are (generally) regarded with affection. Compare how they’re portrayed in The Wind in the Willows with the poor stoats and weasels. Yet otters are no gentler than weasels.

While weasels are pretty common in the UK, and active both day and night, people are largely unaware of them. I remember being amazed how small they are, the first time I saw one. In fact, a sub-type of the common weasel is the smallest carnivore on earth. The type we get here in the UK measures just 18cm (females) or 22cm (males) in length, and weighs just 70g (females) or 125g (males).

Despite their diminutive size, weasels are effective hunters. Their diet is largely made up of small rodents (voles and mice), but they can also dispatch rabbits. A weasel can run carrying prey that weighs half their own body weight. Pretty impressive.

Last weekend I attended a fascinating course on smaller mustelids, run by the Wildwood Trust. Before now I’ve not spent much time thinking about small mustelids. I was amazed by how little we know about stoats and weasels, which are both pretty common and widespread. This lack of knowledge may partly be down to their poor reputation. The difficulties of surveying them doesn’t help, either.

The limited data we do have suggests that, while they are common, their numbers have been declining in recent decades. They’re not a protected species, so can be trapped and killed by gamekeepers. Secondary poisoning from eating poisoned rats is also a problem, along with predation by cats, foxes and birds of prey. They’re also vulnerable to parasites. Starvation is probably the biggest cause of death for weasels, and they are very dependent on the population of small rodents.

At least now, with the advent of cheaper DNA tests and camera traps, we may be able to find out a bit more about them. I’d certainly love to learn more, as they’re fascinating creatures.