Tag Archives: water voles

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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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.

There are some things you can’t plan…

I’m a planner. I like making detailed plans, based on thorough research. This works for seeing some animals: working out where to go and when, and what to do when you’re there. Others you can’t really plan for –  you need to be lucky.

So far in my British Animal Challenge I have focused on animals I can more or less plan to see. I have done my research, and gone to likely places, (as with water voles) or, even better, joined in surveys to find them (as with newts). Of course, even going to places you know the animal frequents doesn’t guarantee you a sighting (see my water shrew and otter attempts).

But there’s a whole host of creatures who can’t really be pinned down like that. Take, for example, the mole. I can’t plan an expedition to see a mole. It’s going to take luck for me to ever see one. I can look out for molehills, and spend time in likely habitat at the most likely time of year (when youngsters are dispersing), but ultimately it will be down to luck. (I was very jealous when I read FoDrambler’s post about seeing a mole, thanks to a dog – maybe I should get one. Fat Cat would never forgive me!)

When I was looking through my British Animal Challenge list, working out how to see every type of British animal, there were some where my conclusion was I’d just have to spend enough time in the right sort of habitat to eventually see one.

Stoats were like this. They are not particularly rare, and quite widespread, but going out deliberately to see one may be tricky. So I was delighted to get a glimpse of one as it dashed across the road as we drove in Dorset. Stoats, like otters, badgers and weasels, are members of the mustelid family. They have long, thin bodies, and move with the flowing gait that seems unique to mustelids.

My glimpse of stoat reminded me of the value of just spending time in wild places, even if I’m not on a particular mission to see something. You never know what will cross your path.

One year in the Wild South

This blog is now a year old, and this is my 100th post. I think that’s a good excuse to have a look back through the last year of posts, and pick out some of the most popular, and some of my personal favourites.

Most popular posts (highest views per month):

The ferry departing from the small harbour on Lundy
The ferry departing from the small harbour on Lundy

Lundy Island photo special – it seems I’m not the only person who thinks Lundy is a special place. I’m glad people seem to enjoy my photography.

Hedgehog and mouse pawprints
Pawprints from the mammal tunnel

Whose pawprints are these?  This post shares the results of my mammal tunnel, which allowed me to capture the pawprints of hedgehogs and mice. It also includes some footage of the nocturnal visitors to my garden.

14 05 25_2808_edited-2In which I search for otters and water shrews, and end up finding something even rarer – my account of seeing water voles in Hampshire. They’re lovely creatures…

Inquisitive seal
Inquisitive seal

Snorkelling with seals – an account of snorkelling with seals in the Isles of Scilly. Lots of photos of one of my most memorable wildlife encounters.

Deer print
Fallow(?) deer print

12 ways to find mammals – A short summary of a talk by Professor Pat Morris on how to find mammals. Not for squeamish – some of the methods involved are rather grim, but some helpful tips.

My favourite posts:

BadgerThe badger cull: an ‘evidence to policy’ perspective: This post explores the case for and against the badger cull, using the principles I apply in my day job working in health research (spoiler alert: the cull is not a good idea).

The mini pond
The mini pond

How to build a mini pond: This post describes how we created a mini pond from a wine barrel. I’ve chosen this one as garden ponds (even tiny ones) are soooo good for wildlife, and ours is continuing to thrive. Hopefully this will inspire you to create one, if you don’t already have a pond.

Harvest mouse on seedheadPhoto special: British wildlife: Some of my favourite photos – hope you enjoy them as well!

Water vole
Water vole

In search of water voles: This describes my first adventure in the British Animal Challenge, and shows some of the signs to look out for with these very rare animals.

House sparrow about to fledgeHouse sparrow chicks have fledged: It’s a pleasure getting to watch nesting birds in the intimacy of their nest boxes, and these were the first chicks to fledge from our camera nest box.

I’ve learnt a lot through both having to research my posts, and from the comments people leave. I’ve really enjoyed working on the blog – thanks to everyone who has read, liked and / or commented on my posts.  I hope you will continue to keep me company on my adventures in the Wild South.

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.

12 ways to find mammals

Finding mammals can often be hard – many of them are small, or nocturnal, or both. Last week I got to hear the great ecologist and mammal expert Pat Morris speak to the Surrey Mammal Group. He gave a fascinating (if somewhat macabre at times) talk about how to find mammals. You’re probably familiar with many of the techniques he spoke about, but there were perhaps a few less well-known approaches.

  1. Look in local newspapers for reports of mammal sightings: Local newspapers are often a good source of information about where unusual wildlife have been spotted. Clippings from papers may also be useful to refer back to in years to come. If you’re interested in getting information about the presence of a particular species in your area, talking to the local rag and getting a story in there asking people to report sightings may be very helpful.
  2. Molehill mapping: One of the problems of many survey techniques is that they may reflect where most of your surveyers are active, rather than where the species is most abundant. One way to check you have good coverage of surveyers is to get data on where molehills can be found. As moles are very widely distributed, any gaps in your map are more likely due to lack of surveying, rather than lack of moles, which tells you where you need to do more work.
  3. Droppings: not the pleasantest way to survey for mammals, but once you get your eye in, you can get a good idea of who is around. Many books are too squeamish to show useful photos of droppings for identification, but the Mammal Society have an excellent fold-out guide to British mammal tracks and signs, including some lovely drawings of droppings. It’s a handy size and laminated, so easy to take with you when you’re out and about.

    Water vole droppings
    Water vole droppings –  a good sign these elusive creatures are around
  4. Trails: look out for paths that go beneath low bushes, or up steep hedgebanks – they may well have been made by wildlife (such as badgers, who tend to follow the same route each time). Smaller mammals sometimes create tunnels in long grass. Spotting these trails can then give you an idea of where to search for other signs, such as hairs, pawprints or droppings.
  5. Pawprints / hoofprints: pawprints are another good way of telling if a species is around. Look in soft mud, or after snow, and you could find a surprising number. Sometimes it’s possible to tell from the pawprints whether the animal was running or walking at the time.
    Deer print
    Fallow(?) deer print

    Hedgehog and mouse pawprints
    Pawprints from the mammal tunnel
  6. Hairs: some mammal hairs (like badgers) are quite distinctive, while others can be differentiated with the help of a microscope. Hair tubes can help to get samples from small mammals, while barbed wire fences are a good place to look for hair from larger creatures.
  7. Food remains: It’s sometimes possible to tell what’s eaten something by the food remains. For example, watervoles cut leaves at a neat angle, and often leave short lengths behind uneaten. It’s also possible to tell whether a nut has been nibbled by dormice, other mice, squirrels or bank voles by how the nut has been opened (I must get round to uploading some pictures of this at some point).

    Plant nibbled by water vole
    Plant nibbled by water vole
  8. Traps: trapping using safe traps (eg. longworth traps) is a good way to tell which small mammals are around. Camera traps can also be handy (it’s how we first found out we had hedgehogs and foxes visiting our garden). Watch a video of visitors to our Mammal tunnel with pawprint tracks and camera trap. Also look out for other things which may attract mammals. For example, mice like to shelter beneath left-over roadworks signs and refugia left out for reptiles.
    More slow worms under a corrugated tin refuge
    More slow worms under a corrugated tin refuge

     

  9. Nest boxes and tubes: Monitoring artificial nest boxes and tubes is another way of finding mammals. This technique is particularly useful for dormice.
  10. Dead bodies: Looking out for dead bodies along roads or in old-fashioned cattle grids can give you a good idea of what’s around, and can be used to monitor change in prevalence over time. A bit grim, but not as grim as point 12…
  11. Owl pellets: Dissecting owl pellets and identifying the bones is a good way of telling what small mammals are around to be eaten. It’s relatively straight-forward to identify whole skulls, and teeth are useful for distinguishing between small mammal species. But first you have to find your owl pellets, which may be tricky. Local birders may be able to help you with this.
  12. Discarded bottles: [warning – don’t read this if you’re squeamish or eating] back in the days when most milk came in glass bottles, a lot were left lying around in hedges, woods and by roads. These glass bottles are very effective traps for small mammals, as they can squeeze in, but the glass sides and angles mean they can’t get back out. As glass stays around for a long-time, there are still lots of bottles out there, many of which are now full of the remains of small mammals that climbed in and couldn’t get back out. Some bottles may have lots of little skeletons in a foul soup of rotted flesh. If you have the stomach for it, identifying these remains can tell you what’s been around since the bottle was discarded. If nothing else, this should serve as a reminder not to drop litter.

I hope this brief summary of Pat’s excellent talk inspires you to get out and about looking for mammals (or signs or mammals). Do you have any other suggestions for approaches to finding mammals?

 

 

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!