“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.”
(Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, first meeting of Mole and Ratty the water vole)
Anyone who has read The Wind in the Willows will be sympathetic to the spirit of whimsy that is calling me down to the High Royds lake this weekend like Mole, out for an adventure, enticed by the season’s “imperious call…moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him.” They will be equally appreciative of the practical joke that lies in wait for me by the banks of the lake.
Rain is waiting in glowering clouds up above the Chevin this Saturday morning, and I walk sky-glancing and pelt-wary to see whether I’ll have time for a proper bit of walk or not before the clouds move over to unburden themselves of their grey. Visiting my parents, I have been tempted by mum’s bright-eyed account of her recent sighting of a water vole in the grounds of High Royds to try my luck. I have never seen a water vole – few people other than dedicated naturalists, wildlife hobbyists and the luck-smiled have – the vole’s natural timidity and small litheness of movement making it a tricky subject for observation. I hold an idea in my mind of a fur-balled, preciously round and wet-slicked little mammal. It borrows the features of Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty from Wind in the Willows, whom Mole first meets on an impulsive foray down to the river. Rounder and fairer than a rat, with a beaverish mouth and teeth; eyes a beady, wise black; ears tucked back. So rare are they now, having seriously declined in numbers since the 1960s, that a breeding programme has been undertaken this year so that nearly 700 water voles, fresh to the wild and the countryside, are on the cusp of being released in Northumberland’s Kielder Forest. Perhaps they are releasing them right now I think as, friskily, I make my way down to the lake with a tickle of relish: little lissom, furred bodies moving from one element to the other even now as they slip into water. It is a happy Saturday-morning daydream.
Now, down here deep in grass by the lake, I rock my footsteps in quiet half-moons of movement: soft, grass-friending, like a careful old blotter rolling across the margins of a page. I think all these quiet thoughts into my steps, for water voles are easy to startle, chary of people and quick as fish into water. I see the circular forming ripples on the slate green of the water and hold my breath for rain, but these rims are made by clouds of ducking flies, not raindrops. Safe for a while then. There is the steady wah-wah of a mallard call – I’ve seen their young already about this morning. Swallows or swifts (bird twins to my amateur eyes, sharing a silhouette) lace the sky ahead in trembling flights and I am torn between them and the tracks that have been laid down in the grassy bank. These might have been made by the quiet-pawed water vole, and a little grip of excitement takes hold. Sorrels, clovers, buttercups, thistles, and grasses bracket me as my feet tie a ribbon of steps around the lake. The abundance of different flowers is a good sign. Water voles create a diversity of water habitat that is typified in such displays, and the flowers before me blow as encouraging flags to my search. It would be such a present to see a water vole I think in supplication. I gather limbs together by the side of the water and sink down into depths of grass to wait.
Water voles are unconcerned by mere human wants or timeframes, however, and I am here a good half hour of hopefulness before anything stirs. A damsel fly, bluer than description, shimmers glitteringly before me, showing off its finery, its segmented abdomen curling curiously. I see you, and yes you are quite lovely – but I am about other things here today, and I settle back again from my dazzled inspection. The furry bees play at clover beside me – yellow thoraxes and white fluffed bodies, their baskets of pollen on their knees. The buzzing is almost sleep-sending. It was a late night welcoming my sister home last evening and my eyelids are heavy reminders. I feel like Mole emerging into light from a dark nether world.
You have to be patiently fly-and-spider-crawled if you’d wait a water vole out. Nothing; and later still more nothing. I will come back tomorrow morning, I decide, and this time earlier to catch Ratty at his morning constitutional.
It is Sunday morning and – barely a peep of cloud in the sky, an early dry heat, and rabbits running in seesaws – I make my way down to the lake along prescribed (and un-) paths, a certain determination in my step. Doubtful after yesterday’s walk, I have made sure of the spot by the lake through close questioning of mum – the keeper of this rarefied knowledge – as though I would get at the very patch of grass the vole had been sitting on. I make for the place now, wary of dogs and runners who might scupper the stillness; my own footsteps as hushed as a yawn in a Sunday service. And there, just as I move in, silver-backed in the sun, I see it for a split-second before it senses me and moves on. A pulse of gratitude beats through me. A rare mammal, practically at the bottom of its food chain, and I have seen it here basking in the heat of the early morning sun. It runs off down the bank and, behind and as quietly as I can manage, I find where it’s gone to ground and I sit down in a dewy tussock nearby thinking, the game’s on. It is a long truce ensues. I begin to fear dogs bounding my way, hearing the sniffs and barks coming towards me, thinking of their wet noses exactly at the level of my face. This will not do. I get up, potter to the lake-edge and vainly hunt for any clues. I double back on myself as two runners pant past and – flash! – there again is a glimpse of vole, a beady eye, whiskering off down the bank. I am put out at having only glimpse-sighted it again: ought to have reconnaissanced the spot, I think. Methodical this time, I see the drain cover in the bank with the perfect view of the patch it seems to like – a lucky find in a pinch – and I settle down, grateful for not having to be dew-bottomed again, and wait. The lake slumbers under the climbing sun, mallard- and coot-swum. There are little bug-itches to my arms and legs, but I do not move; these are not enough to trouble me to make a vole scarce.
Something creeps up behind me as I hear the unmistakable sounds of bending grass and furtive rustles. My ears are almost twitching, and I sit in sepulchral stillness hardly daring to breathe. One black shining eye amongst the tall grasses, out of which, the vole seems to be watching me and trying to decide if I will harm it or not. Barely a foot away and sitting sniffing in the grass, and I can’t believe my luck, heart galloping at the glint of this black eye. Clever thing to come up unexpectedly behind me, stealthy as a snake through the purple grasses, the tallness of which lends cover and safety. My eyes scan around it; yes, I see it now, a run through the grass, I have indeed been lucky to pick this spot I think to myself with a proud little glow. And yet. My head still as a statue turned towards it, I do not detect the roundness of feature I expected to see in a vole. A runner passes and I watch it gather its front paws back into itself in a protective ball, poised, and I can almost see the tension in its muscles. It has heard danger and is ready to spring away if needed. The runner speeds off and we both settle down to examine one another again in the descending quiet. Its ears are pronounced and my misgivings lengthen into doubts. By halting steps, half forward and half back, it sleeks towards me, now no more than an inch from my foot, revealing itself smooth-pelted, nose-twitched, letting its whiskers tell for it. At last I see its tail, carried behind it like an afterthought – the clincher in the game: it is ribbed, pinkly bald and long. Ah. That’s that then. Patience has been rewarded in a fashion; not a water vole but a brown rat instead. The irony does not escape me, having come down to the lake to find Ratty.
I sit believing myself not too disappointed for a while. I am proud at least that I can tell the difference between them and laugh a little at the bathos of the moment. But, my thought pipes up, after only the most compelling of evidence. The tail – which for so long it seemed to have hidden from me – the tail is indisputably a rat’s tail. Rattus norvegicus is a rodent only a little less famous than its history-shamed and plague-carrying brother rattus rattus, the black rat: the documented killer-by-pathogen whose doubled name suggests it represents the archetype of ratishness. I rebel a little at the idea of rats because they are omnivores, and so by extension I know it would eat me given half the chance. If it was hungry enough. However – and here I cling a little to my romantic illusions – this rat is a gent not so unlike Grahame’s Ratty. He simply sniffs me and then, with a complete indifference and nonchalance, heads off in the other direction. I tell myself that I am pleased to have seen him – even though he’s not a water vole – as he makes down the bank. Of course with all the dog-walkers, runners, push-chair walkers and litter, it was pretty well bound to have been a rat rather than a water vole. Wrong to blame him for being only what he is. And, my train of thought builds, I had seen no evidence of tunnels in the banks, and not once had he actually gone into the water with the quick ‘plop’ of a paw-footed, sure-footed waterman. To do so would have been a water vole’s surest means of escape if disturbed: a bolt-hole into the wet at need. I shrink my lobe of disappointment and send-up my hopes with inward teasing. A rat for a water vole is perhaps not so pitiful an exchange.
Apparently well-groomed, he is simply another example of urban wildness leaching into housing estate hinterlands; a scavenger picking over human and canine leavings. I chide myself that, after all, I can’t be too choosy about which of nature’s offerings I will accept and which I vilify.
On the way home, butterfly-led, feet folding the grass along this lake-circling desire-path, I worry how I will break the news to mum. Tell her the truth and I’ll demystify something magical: unspin a dream of a supposed sighting. And yet. I look heavenwards as if to find an answer to my quandary and white-bellied swallows catch my eye and drag the sky in their fly-hunts. At least I’ve learned to tell a swallow from a swift today. That is something. Beside the fuss-making chittocking of magpies, my heart walks a little heavier than when I set out. Perhaps though – and here I catch a little at hope again – perhaps. It is arrogant to suppose that merely because I did not see a water vole, so too she did not. It could be that she did, and I tread a little more lightly over bulrush cotton, inviting possibility.
Illustrations © E.H. Shepard