Tag Archives: water vole

Vole patrol part 2

Surrey Wildlife Trust’s quest to find out if water voles are functionally extinct in the county continues. Which means I spent some of my bank holiday wading through a brook, looking for burrows, feeding signs, droppings and pawprints.

It was a beautiful day, and a beautiful site to survey. A small brook running through farmland, with earth cliff banks covered in brambles dripping with ripe blackberries. The stream itself didn’t have any vegetation in it, but the water was clear, the banks easily burrowable, and there was plenty of vegetation along the banks. So not entirely unlikely habitat for a water vole. In fact, we know there used to be voles here, hence we were surveying this site.

Tanners Brook
Tanners Brook

Charlotte (a fellow volunteer and my partner in crime for this survey) and I donned our waders, buoyancy aids and set off, stick and clipboard in hand. The survey involves one person wading in the river, looking for water vole signs (or mink, rat or otter for that matter), while the other keeps pace along the bank, drawing a map as she goes. We took it in turns to do the fun bit (the heat of the day made the cool water appealing, even though my waders were slightly leaky).

Disappointingly (but not surprisingly), we didn’t find any signs of water voles. There were a few holes too small for a water vole, and a few much to big. But not pringle tube sized holes, no vole droppings, no feeding lawns… I guess the good news is that we didn’t find any mink pawprints or droppings either.

Water vole populations have disappeared from 94% of their previous sites, the fastest decline of any British species. The last confirmed sighting of a water vole in Surrey was eight years ago. Surrey Wildlife Trust aim to survey around 200 sites where water voles have previously been reported. They’re also asking members of the public to report any water voles they spot in Surrey. There’s a handy ID guide on their website (which is useful as it’s easy to mistake a swimming rat for a water vole – in fact, the wonderful Ratty from The Wind in the Willows is actually a water vole).

The intrepid vole patrollers have so far surveyed 84 sites. But we haven’t found a single water vole sign. Plenty of mink. And rats. But no water voles.

The information from all these surveys will help Surrey Wildlife Trust work out how best to help water voles in the county. This may include predator (mink) control and possibly re-introductions, if there’s still enough  suitable habitat in our crowded county. Our neighbours, Hampshire, still have water voles. I hope one day we can see them in Surrey again.


Vole patrol

Water vole numbers have plummeted in recent decades. The decline has been one the steepest of any British mammal (an unenviable position). They’re now absent from 94% of their former sites. Here in Surrey, the last reported sighting of a water vole was six years ago. But have they disappeared from Surrey completely?

A sighting from a decade or two ago indicated that there had been water voles along the stretch of the River Mole that I survey for Riversearch. Yesterday I set out, with Alex from Surrey Wildlife Trust, to see if there were any traces of water voles remaining.

I have to admit that I was skeptical. While my stretch of the River Mole has escaped some of the modifcations that drive water voles away (concrete banks impossible to climb or make burrows in), it’s still not promising water vole habitat. There’s not a huge amount of vegetation in the river, and the Mole isn’t renowned for its water quality. (There’s a sewage works just upstream from my patch, and it starts life at Gatwick airport, which is hardly auspicious).

The survey involved one of us (Alex, since she possessed some very leaky waders) getting into the river, and walking along a stretch looking closely at one bank for any signs of water voles (burrows, pawprints, droppings, feeding lawns). Meanwhile, I followed along the top of the bank, drawing a map of key features.

The 100m stretch we surveyed had steep earth banks, and was lined with trees. The river was mostly fairly shallow at this point (0.5m). Sadly there was no sign of any water voles. And, even worse, there were lots of signs of mink. The rise of mink (an invasive non-native species) has been another key contributing factor to the decline of the water vole, as mink are excellent hunters and small enough to fit in a water vole’s burrow, leaving them no safe place to hide.

Mink and heron(?) prints in the silt by the River Mole
Mink and heron(?) prints in the silt by the River Mole

Apart from the mink signs we also found some juvenile rat prints, some heron prints and saw a kingfisher.

While it was disappointing result, this sort of evidence is needed to work out how best to help water voles recover in Surrey. So far 40 surveys, like the one I carried out, have been done on sites where old records of water voles exist. There’s about 200 sites in total that Surrey Wildlife Trust want to check, before proceeding to the next stage. As well as actively surveying sites, they’re also asking members of the public to submit any water vole sightings in the county. They have a useful vole ID guide on their website.

To find out more about the project, visit the Vole Patrol page of the Surrey Wildlife Trust website.

August Riversearch: more Himalayan Balsam

I timed my latest Riversearch survey well today. Yesterday it was just too darned hot, and it rained a lot of this morning, but this afternoon,  after the rain, there was a brief period of steam and solitude. In addition to the usual surveying the River Mole for signs of pollution, invasive species and, optimistically, hints of otters or water voles, I was also carrying out a recce for a more indepth water vole survey I hope to do later this week.

Himalayan Balsam by the River Mole at the foot of Box Hill
Himalayan Balsam by the River Mole at the foot of Box Hill

Before I get too distracted by water voles (or the absence of them), here’s how the Riversearch survey went. I’d just turned off the pavement onto the meadow by the river when I spotted my first animal: a small, bold mouse. By its size it must be a juvenile woodmouse. It was surpisingly calm, and let me approach to within a metre before retreating to a safer distance (1.5 metres – I must look quite unthreatening).

I was pleased to see there was no one sleeping rough under the bridge this time (particularly since the river level has recently been over the ledge where the person was sleeping last time I surveyed).

It must be a good time to be a fruit and/or nut-eating animal or bird at the moment – the brambles were laden with blackberries, and the trees have started dropping acorns and hazelnuts. But I saw and heard little in the way of bird life – a couple of crows and a duck.

Lots of blackberries
Lots of blackberries

There were no obvious signs of pollution in the water, and the river was relatively clear (the Mole is hardly a sparkling example of water purity, but the recent rains have obviously not muddied it too much). The bad news is there were lots of small pockets of Himalayan Balsam all along my stretch. I spoke to an angler who fishes up near Gatwick, and says there’s lots up there. All this is bad news further downstream – I know in the last couple of years they’ve been doing lots of work to get rid of it near Leatherhead, but the seeds are carried by water, so it will just keep coming back unless the upstream patches of it are tackled.

Himalayan Balsam
Himalayan Balsam

Apart from that there was little else to report – a few more riffles than normal (that’s a good thing as they oxygenate the river), and quite a bit of litter where people have been picnicking by the river. I even came across an abandoned rubber dinghy. I really can’t understand why, when you choose to spend time in a place because it’s lovely and unspoilt, you’d then leave behind your rubbish to spoil it for others (and more importantly, pose a hazard to wildlife).

Abandoned rubber dinghy
Abandoned rubber dinghy

To carry out our water vole survey (as part of Surrey Wildlife Trust’s ‘Vole Patrol’) we’re going to need to get into the river, so I was scoping out whether the river is shallow enough to do so, and whether we’ll be able to get in and out ok. Along most of the length of my stretch the banks are very steep, but there are a few spots where there’s a more gentle slope, and the river should be manageable in waders. I’m hopeful that, provided there’s not too much rain over the next few days, we’ll be able to survey it without the need for a boat (I suspect the rubber dinghy’s been abandoned for a reason, so I’m not sure I’d trust it enough!). More of that, if it happens, later.

In the meantime, I must remember to send my survey data to the Riversearch team, and clean my wellies to make sure there’s no quagga mussels clinging to them…

British Animal Challenge: look back at 2014

At the start of 2014 I began a huge challenge: trying to see every different type of British animal in the wild. The list has changed a little bit over the year, but here’s the latest version. It includes mammals, amphibians and reptiles. In all, there are 107 species.

I’d seen a reasonable number before I started the challenge, but many of the ones remaining are, for one reason or another, tricky. Some are very rare, some restricted to small parts of the UK (including tiny islands), and others are hard to see because they’re nocturnal, or live at sea.

So, what progress have I made this year? I’ve visited different corners of Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Cornwall and Surrey on my quest, and spent quite a few hours trying to see some of our elusive animals.

New species seen:

And species I haven’t seen, despite several attempts:

In all, I’ve seen 45 species, and still have 62 to go. It’s going to be a busy year next year!

In which I search for otters and water shrews, and find something even rarer

I may not have told you this before, but my favourite British animals are otters. I love them. They’re so good at what they do, and they look like they have fun. But I’ve never seen a Eurasian otter in the wild. So when I found myself in Hampshire with time to spare, I couldn’t resist another go at trying to see some.

Back in March I visited a couple of nature reserves where otters are frequently seen in daylight. They also contain what looks, to my inexpert eyes, like ideal water shrew habitat.  On that occasion I had no luck with either species.

This attempt felt quite different. Rather than a cold March morning, it was a warm, sunny May evening.  The vegetation had grown a lot since my previous visit, and the floods had receded so all the paths were open.

Dr C and I set out on a lap of the first lake, not entirely optimistic as a dog was running loose. Within a few minutes we came to a bridge over a stream crowded with watercress.  Soon Dr C spotted a water vole, which hid before I could join his side of the bridge.  We waited quietly, and it soon re-emerged, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

14 05 25_2796_edited-2

This was only my second sight of a wild water vole, and a much better view. It was only a couple of metres from us, happily eating watercress. I managed to get some photos before it disappeared into the undergrowth.

Water vole Water vole Water vole

Dr C and I continued our lap of the lakes. Sadly there were no otters or water shrews.  But we did see more water voles, including a baby.

Water voles are delightful. They look plump and good natured, manipulating their food in little hands. You can see where Kenneth Grahame got his inspiration for Ratty’s marvellous picnics.

Water vole

We had no luck at the second nature reserve, but left feeling our evening had been well spent, getting such a good view of one of our rarest mammals.

British Animal Challenge: May Update

May has been the most successful month so far for my British Animal Challenge. I’ve seen two new species of amphibians: smooth newts and great crested newts. I’ve also ticked off common pipistrelle bats from my list as well.

More generally, I’ve seen quite a few species that were already ticked off my list, but it’s always good to see them again:

  • Adders
  • Slow worms
  • Woodmice
  • Roe deer
  • Common frog
  • Dormouse
  • Water voles

Sadly I haven’t managed to cross any new reptile species off my list, although I do have a plan. I also failed in my second attempt to see water shrews, but I’ve found out a bit more about where I could see them. I’ve also heard rumours of natterjack toads in Surrey, which I’ll have to investigate more.

So, what are my target species for June? Well, my new bat detector should be arriving any day now, so I’m keen to try that out and see some more types of bats. I’m also going to be keeping my eyes peeled for moles, as this is the time of year when they could be dispersing from where they were born. I’m also hoping to see a yellow-necked mouse.

British Animal Challenge: Looking for otters

When Dr C Senior showed me a photo of an otter, taken in broad daylight a few miles from his house, I couldn’t resist a visit. From what I’ve read about otters, if you want to see them in daylight your best bet is to head to a Scottish island. But Hampshire is a lot more convenient for me, and apparently a family of otters is regularly seen in a nature reserve next to the noisy A303.

So, I booked a day off work, and headed to the in-laws’. Dr C Senior kindly guided me to the reserve and showed me around, pointing out the fishing pier where otters are regularly seen playing.

It was a cold but dry March morning, and there were few other people around, although apparently the otters aren’t that bothered by the presence of dogs and walkers.

Dr C Senior stuck it out for quite a while, before the lure of lunch became too pressing. I stayed on, buoyed by the possibility of seeing my favourite British animal in the wild for the first time. I also had hopes of seeing a water shrew or some amphibians, or even catch a second glimpse of a water vole. But, aside from a hurrying vole (bank or field, I am not sure which) and a few birds, animals were staying hidden that morning.

A helpful fisherman suggested that I try another nearby nature reserve, that otters and water voles frequent. So I took his advice.

This reserve looked much more promising, being quieter and wilder looking. I found some watercress beds in my initial lap of the reserve, so I was hopeful of seeing a water shrew. I also managed to spot some possible otter and water vole signs.

But luck was not on my side that day. After two hours of patient waiting, seeing nothing more exciting than a squirrel and some blackbirds I was chilled to the bone, and decided to call it a day.

It’s not very surprising that I didn’t see an otter. They have large territories, and you can’t predict which bit of their territory they’ll use on a given day.

I was a bit disappointed not to see water shrews. It looked like ideal habitat for them, based on my limited knowledge.

But it wasn’t an unpleasant way of spending the day. It made a change from the office, and all that we walking was good for me.

So you’ll have to make do with a picture of the only otter I did see that day.

Mr Otter

British Animal Challenge: March Update

Spring is definitely here now, and lots of animals seem to be busy.  I’ve also had quite a busy month too, with both wildlife and music.
The good news is that I’ve managed to see one of the rarer mammals on my British Animal Challenge list: the water vole.
I’ve had less luck with reptiles and amphibians. The reptile walk I was planning on doing has been rescheduled to May.  I have looked for frogs and toads, but only managed to see a dead one. I’m not sure if my lack of success is down to looking in the wrong place (there were lots of big fish in the pond I looked in, which isn’t great for breeding amphibians) or wrong time (day time instead of night) or a combination of both.

Since I’ve seen lots of pictures of mating frogs on Twitter, I’m going to give it another try, hopefully somewhere more suitable.

My other targets for April are Exmoor ponies and, if I’m really lucky, an otter.
I’ll let you know how I get on.

In search of water voles

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!).

14 03 08_Water vole search_2626_edited-1

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 vole droppings
Water vole droppings
Plant nibbled by water vole
Plant nibbled by water vole
Water vole burrow
Water vole burrow

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.

Water vole
Water vole

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!