Protecting the elusive water vole
Among the banks of slow-moving rivers, ditches, lakes – you may find a small mammal. Quiet. Elusive. Its fleeting presence in the landscape is recognised by few and spends most of the day chewing on vegetation.
If you were to catch a glimpse you may notice its small dark eyes peering out between the grasses - a mindful stare into a world far larger than itself. You may also have time to peer at its chestnut-brown fur before it quickly disappears into the water - beyond all sight.
This creature is the water vole and is sadly now recognised as one of Britain’s fastest declining wild mammals largely impacted by loss of habitat and the introduction of American Mink.
Efforts are, however, being made to save it and this includes staff at the North York Moors National Park Authority, alongside other organisations such as the Forestry Commission, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Environment Agency, RAF Fylingdales and National Trust, together with various estates across the North York Moors. I joined Sam Newton, Natural Heritage Officer for the North York Moors National Park, to learn more.
We set off through the meandering landscape of Langdale End before arriving at a spring in Langdale Forest. It was a bright day and the sun’s light had a sharp, piercing quality that exposed many acres far into the distance.
I wandered closely behind Sam listening intently to every word. It was quite clear that he was a determined individual committed to making a positive change to the landscape. When I asked why he was so driven to take such actions he simply replied: “I just want to make a difference”. Even in his spare time he leads volunteering groups to monitor and protect wildlife populations across the National Park.
As we wandered along the bank he pointed out the key signs to notice if water voles were about or not. This included small piles of grass stems cut at a distinctive 45-degree angle, tiny footprints and recent droppings.
He also talked about some of the efforts he and the National Park were taking to help water vole populations. This included the felling of conifer trees along banks to allow more light through, which will encourage more suitable vegetation to grow for water voles to feed on. The creation and expansion of more suitable habitat will also help reconnect isolated populations and reduce the negative impacts of inbreeding.
Beyond learning about water voles, I was eager to know what was behind Sam’s desire to ‘make a difference’. As we tracked along the river bank I remember him saying: ‘I don’t have to see them, I just need to know they are there.’
This comment stood out for me and has since led me to ponder how we too can develop the same sense of empathy towards creatures we hardly, if ever, see.
For it is difficult on a daily basis to extend our thoughts beyond our own priorities or the priorities of those closest to us. Or in other words it is difficult to think about water voles when we have bills to pay and families to care for.
However, the fostering and development of an appreciation towards the natural world can have many benefits. Whether it’s a gentle breeze passing over our faces or the delicate sounds of birds settling before dusk – these simple pleasures can enrich our daily lives and offer a brief respite from ourselves and troubles.
I don't have to see them, I just need to know they're there.
And even if we never see water voles we should recognise that like them we too are small. From the perspective of the skies we too stare out towards a universe far greater than ourselves and like us, we too are clinging to a fragile existence.
If these creatures are no more, they will never exist again and what then would we have lost? We would have lost their small chubby faces, their innocent patter of footprints, their tiny black eyes...
If we wish to experience the benefits of nature and live in a world filled with diversity and compassion, where all creatures are given the opportunity to live out their lives with dignity, then we too need to think like Sam and extend our concerns beyond what we can see. For we are never more human than when we show such characteristics.
You can also email Sam directly to learn more about getting involved in monitoring water vole populations across the National Park.
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