Thursday, 28 June 2007

Chester Zoo again

This is a baby, and about the size of a field vole.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Two voles tonight, at Yockings Gate. Good to see after the floods!

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Whixall Moss

A fantastic place, this - right by Furbur's scrap yard, thus providing entertainment for my other half while I go poking about in ditches.
Today, while looking for water voles, I came across a crowd of very tiny frogs, a light brown lizard of some kind, plus these characters above. If anyone can identify them, please do.
As for water voles, the top photo shows the kind of habitat there is round there - ideal in many ways. It's fairly choked up with glyceria, but because of all the rain we've had lately there's quite a lot of water too. I found the feeding station in the ditch immediately by the car park, and on the way back home I pulled over in the lay-by that's just over the canal bridge and found a fresh water vole latrine.
Despite all the rain I was able to get out to Yockings Gate and see another vole midweek (alas, the photo I got was so rubbish it's unpostable!).

How to make a mink raft

These are dead easy if you have a kit like Forsham Cottage Arks supply (see link on right). Basically it's a floating open-ended box containing a plastic basket. In the basket you put sodden oasis with a smooth layer of sand and clay over the top. The oasis stops the clay from drying out and keeps it soft.

I've built my raft so I can test for the presence of water voles. The idea is you tether the raft somewhere you suspect there might be voles, leave it a few days, and then check the clay for footprints. When Malcolm Monie tried this out he got water vole droppings as well as prints (see above).

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

If you live near water voles

Hundreds of people in Whitchurch live in houses that back onto or directly face the brook, so our survey group has been busy distributing these information leaflets round the town. The leaflets detail what to look for - how to tell a vole from a rat, the obvious field signs - but they also tell householders what to do to help water voles.
If you're lucky enough to live near voles, here's a summary of what you can do to make their lives easier:
- Got a cat? Put a blooming big bell on its collar.
- Remove any rubbish including garden waste which might stop plants growing on the banks.
- Cut back overhanging branches from trees and shrubs, for the same reason.
- Leave plants near the water's edge uncut, and never use pesticide near the water or on the banks. In late summer, carefully trim back the vegetation on the banks to a height of about 10-15cm.
- Avoid walking on the bank near the water's edge in case you damage burrows.
- You can also plant things that water voles love: crab-apple, dogrose, gooseberry, flag iris.
The leaflet reminds us that 'corridors' are vital to maintaining a healthy population of water voles; colonies need to interbreed to keep gene stock strong. So even an unpromising-looking ditch can be a vital trackway connecting two groups of voles. And not all habitat will be in use at any one time, so even if there are no signs of water voles now, that doesn't mean there won't be in the future. They do move about (studies show an average of a mile).
Finally, report all sightings of water voles and mink to your local wildlife trust so they can get them on record. Ten years ago some environmentalists were saying that water voles would be extinct by the beginning of the 21st Century, and we're not out of the woods yet. But lots of people all working together can make a tremendous difference.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Whixall Hall Farm

Another wildlife-friendly farmer here. Whixall Hall Farm runs alongside the Prees Branch canal, and there's plenty of evidence of breeding water voles in the glyceria by the canal itself.


However, there have been reports of mink in this area so we need to keep a close watch on the situation. These non-native predators can wipe out a water vole colony in no time.
Sighting at Yockings Gate this evening: an adult felling reeds.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Captive Breeding Programmes

Took the children to Chester Zoo today and was delighted to find they'd established their colony of free-range water voles. Some of them came quite close and there was a hide where you could sit and watch them.
Chester Zoo is one of several places - like Bristol Zoo, Wildwood in Kent, Derek Gow's water vole farm - where voles are bred in captivity to get the numbers up and with a view to eventual wider release. Blackpool Zoo has been involved in helping with mitigation procedure, providing a place for voles to stay while building work or landscaping disturbs their burrows. Personally I'd like to see UK zoos concentrating much more on this sort of project.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Spot the vole - yes, there is one in the top photo, honest. Two small ones tonight at Brick Kiln Farm, and another larger one at Yockings Gate. You only get flashes, though, not the long close-up views you used to get at White Lion Meadow car park in the town centre, hence the poor-quality photos.
I include a shot of the waterway at Brick Kiln Farm to show that water voles don't always need sloping soil banks to make burrows. Thick reed beds will also serve for nesting and shelter. Wildlife-friendly farmers will always leave a good margin of uncut vegetation beyond the banks, and avoid using pesticides in the immediate area. With so many predators, voles need all the cover they can get.

Saturday, 9 June 2007


Nothing makes the same noise entering water as a water vole: fish plunk, frogs spalsh, and rats tend to slip in noiselessly. So when I heard the tell-tale plop near the bank at Brick Kiln Farm today, I was fairly certain I'd just missed a water vole. I think they do it to warn others in the colony, the way a rabbit flashes its tail as it runs away.
I've finally managed to get some comparative-scale shots of latrines (nice, I know). The top shows water vole, and you can tell it's fresh because of the greenish color, and because it's moist. The middle's water vole again but an older latrine, darker brown and dried out. The third picture down is field vole, and you can see how very much smaller the pellets are. Water vole droppings are a lot like those of guinea pigs actually, for shape and size. I haven't shown rat, but they're pretty much the same except darker and pointy at one end.*
The bottom shots all show feeding stations; the banks are full of them, they're literally every two or three paces. There must be a very healthy population of voles along this waterway**. However, it's becoming clear to me how tricky it is to spot 'wild' water voles, and how spoilt we were to have the semi-tame ones near Tesco in the town centre, where everyone could see them, close up, at almost any time of the day. I've been looking all week at Yocking's Gate and the Country Park and had no more sightings, though I'm sure the reed beds are full of voles. I have, however, seen a fox, a buzzard and some more otter spraint, and it's just nice to get out of an evening and consider the water.
*If as a naturalist you go getting down and dirty by river banks, you should obviously be washing your hands very carefully afterwards. But you also need to take care with eating and drinking while you're on the spot. Rat wee carries a nasty disease and can be present in the water, so a sterile wipe is a handy thing to carry if you fancy stopping mid-survey for a snack or drink.
**I should stress that the area of Brick Kiln Farm I go watching in is private land, but I have permission to go on there.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Water Vole vs Field Vole Feeding

Just before the heavens opened I nipped down to the brook a little further downstream from Yockings Gate and found lots and lots of feeding stations in a patch of glyceria. I've tried to show the relative scale this time, with water vole above and field vole below. Basically water voles cut larger pieces; field voles' larders can be positively dainty in comparison.
Added 9/7/07 Now I look back at these photos, I'm not sure the top one is water vole. How embarrassing! For better pics, look at the pieces in the 9th June or July 6th posts. It's tricky, because there's a medium length at which it could be the work of either type of vole.

What Mouse?

Came across this tiny chap while I was in Heave, near Kendal. I didn't have my Gadget for scale, but he wasn't much over an inch long. He (she?) didn't seem to be bothered by my presence at all, which was worrying - surely even baby mice know to run by instinct? But it didn't look ill and it kept stopping to eat. Great big back legs, anyway; I'm guessing wood mouse.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Yockings Gate

Another day, another stretch of brook. Saw three voles this evening, two of them fighting in the water (the middle picture was supposed to show this, but I think they've come out too small).
Visited the stretch outside Tesco before I went down and it's in a terrible state: trolleys and rubbish everywhere. I've taken photographs but haven't the heart to post them because they're so ugly. It's a blight on the town. Awful.