JO CARTMELL longs for the resurgence of one of Britain’s most charming mammals
A shy water vole (Arvicola amphibius, also known as A. terrestris) sits nearby on the bank, peering tentatively between garlic mustard stems which he is rapidly consuming, having finished dining on nettles with ease. Ever alert to the sounds of potential predators, or on this occasion, human voices (his hearing is sharp, his eyesight not so good), he dives into the brook with a resounding ‘Plop!’ to enter an underwater burrow, kicking up mud as he does so to prevent becoming prey. Water voles rarely stay around for long; although some become habituated to humans, any sudden movement or sound will alarm them. Motionless, they are difficult to spot as their brown fur blends into bare earth banks, or they are hidden amidst tall plants by mid-May, so are often missed by people.
Before vanishing, my chubby-faced, charismatic companion’s black, bright eyes momentarily met mine. My gaze and heart have been spellbound by them since my first encounter at the age of six, whilst standing on a bridge over the Letcombe Brook in Oxfordshire. I had excitedly asked my mother for the name of the small animal which had just swum across the crystal clear water, nipped a piece of water crowfoot and was sitting on the bank with it. ‘Oh, that’s just a water rat!’ she said. They were commonly seen in 1959, so it was an unremarkable encounter for her, yet life-changing for me. I loved to wander by my local brook in the hope of seeing a water rat to light up my heart and my life – especially as in the following year, I had mistaken my dear ‘Ratty’ for Hammy the Hamster, star of the children’s TV series Tales of the Riverbank. Their name was later changed to water vole to avoid confusion with brown rats (Rattus norvegicus), who were regarded as vermin and trapped.
It was a revelation in recent years to learn that John Everett Millais spent up to eleven hours a day, quietly studying and sketching on the banks of the Hogsmill River in Surrey for his painting of Ophelia (the tragic noblewoman of Hamlet). If you are going to see a water vole, sitting or standing in solitude for hours in a quiet spot besides a river, or stream, is the way to do it. Millais, having seen a water rat, included one swimming next to the floating noblewoman for the unveiling of the painting. For Pre-Raphaelites, the realistic depiction of nature was paramount, so Millais’ inclusion of the water rat was in keeping with their aims. To be absolutely sure he had a true representation of this small mammal, his assistant took a live specimen from the Hogsmill for his reference.
But now Millais’ story takes an interesting turn, when he notes a conversation with fellow Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt’s relatives in his diary:
Hunt’s uncle and aunt came, both of whom understood most gratifyingly every object except my water rat… The male relation, when invited to guess at it, eagerly pronounced it to be a hare. Perceiving by our smiles that he had made a mistake, a rabbit was next hazarded. After which I have a faint recollection of a dog or a cat being mentioned.
It was 1851 and Millais was showing his painting for the first time. As no one seemed to realise what the small rodent was, he decided to paint out the hapless water rat!
This is an important indication that even in 1851, water voles were not as widely known as we tend to think they were during that period. This is partly because many people were forced to leave the countryside to live and work in towns and cities after the Enclosure Acts of 1700-1801, mainly due to the abolition of the open field system of agriculture, and also the growing appeal of better-paying work in the nascent new industries. Although Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908, evocatively helped to bring water rats back into the limelight as the beloved Ratty, some people must have assumed he was a brown rat, which can also swim excellently:
‘As he sat on the grass and looked across the river, a dark hole in the bank opposite, just above the water’s edge, caught his eye, and dreamily he fell to considering what a nice snug dwelling-place it would make for an animal with few wants and fond of a bijou riverside residence, above flood level and remote from noise and dust. As he gazed, something bright and small seemed to twinkle down in the heart of it, vanished, then twinkled once more like a tiny star. But it could hardly be a star in such an unlikely situation; and it was too glittering and small for a glow-worm. Then, as he looked, it winked at him, and so declared itself to be an eye; and a small face began gradually to grow up round it, like a frame round a picture. A brown little face with whiskers. A grave round face, with the same twinkle in its eye that had first attracted his notice. Small neat ears and thick silky hair. It was the Water Rat!
I have watched a water vole nimbly climbing along a willow branch to gnaw through branchlets, clutched in those dexterous hands, and have had to stifle a giggle as he loses balance and falls in, with an undignified splash. It felt like watching a scene from the book.
Even now water voles are still mistaken for the similarly sized rat. In Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights (2020), there is a story about a group of strangers clustered in a bird hide, and the embarrassment that fills the place when one of the men there confidently identifies an obvious rat as a water vole, and everybody else is too polite to correct him. There are easy ways to avoid this confusion: a water vole’s ears are almost hidden, not upright like a brown rat’s, and the muzzle is blunt, whereas a rat’s face is pointed.
I have spoken to people of my generation, aged sixty or older, who look at me in astonishment, saying they have never heard of a water vole, or a water rat. I have also met people in their twenties and thirties, who have heard of water voles being at threat of extinction, but don’t know what they look like. Occasionally I have been given a quizzical look when I say ‘I’m looking for a water vole’, in response to a query, and they respond with: “A waterfall?” For a long time, I thought that it was my tendency to be softly spoken until Tom Moorhouse mentioned similar conversations in his brilliant 2021 book, Elegy for a River. All this inspired the creation of our website www.watervole.org.uk, to help raise their profile nationally, along with a quick guide film.
In Glasgow, there is a population of land-dwelling (fossorial) water voles, some of which have black fur. They were discovered in 2008 by people living in nearby flats, who inevitably initially mistook them for rats. To have grassland water voles (they are not a separate species, or even subspecies) that are living a considerable distance away from water, and furthermore adjoining a busy motorway, is very unusual and rarely recorded anywhere else in the UK – although in some parts of mainland Europe they are so well known they are regarded as an agricultural pest because of their burrowing of farmland.
I feel privileged to still have water vole kin in some local villages. The latest population estimate for water voles, published in the Mammal Society’s Red List of British Mammals (2020) was 132,000 in Great Britain. This can be broken down as 77,200 estimated in England, 50,000 in Scotland, and 4,500 in Wales. They were formerly widespread and common across England, Scotland and Wales, ranging from Cornwall to the extreme north-east of Scotland, with an estimated population in 1900 of around eight million. But between 1970 and 2000, they underwent one of the most serious and catastrophic declines of any species in the UK. They are still widespread, but patchy. In the UK, sadly, the water vole is on the IUCN’s Red List as a threatened species, along with the hedgehog.
Taking Cornwall (where they became extinct in the 1990s) as a snapshot of the pattern of water vole decline across the UK, the major factors were habitat loss due to intensification of farming practices during the Second World War, such as drainage of wetlands, habitat degradation and fragmentation. Residential developments were and are often built too close to water courses; there is an increasing awareness of the harm caused by cat and dog disturbance, which although often non-lethal can lead voles to abandon an area.
Another primary cause is the introduced American mink; a breeding female is small enough to enter a vole’s burrow and will wipe out an entire colony in one breeding season. In contrast, native predators with whom voles have evolved, such as fox, otter, stoat, weasel, brown rat, owls, herons and pike, prey on them without causing serious decline. In the Scottish Highlands, even golden eagles will eat water voles.
But since 2001, Devon-based rewilder Derek Gow, who is noted for his work in reintroducing the beaver to Britain, has also been rearing captive bred water voles for release projects – up to 30,000 to date. Impressive, vital work! Beaver reintroductions help water voles to thrive, as they are crucial wetland ecosystem engineers who create ponds with interconnecting channels that voles can inhabit. In 2013, water voles were reintroduced to Bude in Cornwall (where the last 1990s sightings were made), and are slowly expanding their range, with some recent sightings near Maer Lake. Recently, Kernow Conservation’s water vole project raised enough funds to reintroduce more of them to Cornwall, which makes their future bright. They have also been reintroduced to Millais’ Hogsmill.
All water voles ask us to do is to provide habitat that will give them plenty of food and cover from their many predators, to enable them to populate territories and strengthen the gene pool. They need extensive wetland reed-beds where they weave rugby ball-sized nests made of reeds, or lakes and waterways with slow flowing water and steep earthen banks to make their burrows. If we provide wide buffer zones with lush riparian bankside vegetation, fringed with emergent rushes, sedges or reeds, they can return to these habitats and thrive. Water voles are not fussy eaters, and are known to eat 207 species of plant – but they do need a lot. They need to eat around 80% of their body weight in food each day, and a breeding female needs double that amount.
Water vole reintroduction projects are hugely important, because, as research by Rosalind L Bryce at the University of Aberdeen revealed, water voles are vital ecosystem engineers. Waterways with species-rich plant communities were found to have higher numbers of water voles. Their network of excavated tunnels helps move nutrients around, bringing some to the surface needed for specific plants to grow, including dormant seed. Their latrines are nutrient-rich, too. The burrows, lawn-making around them and felling of tall plants along runs, beneficially shape the ecosystem where they live.
Wetlands without water voles (and beavers) are bereft of biodiversity – and of beauty, and charm. They cannot come back soon enough, to help reverse the UK’s shameful position as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. I hope soon to see them busily engaged in ecosystem engineering – and lifting spirits in this exquisite web of life – along everyone’s waterways.