Saturday, May 26, 2012

Vole Patrol

I have been thinking about photographing water voles for a while. The main problem was where to start with numbers having suffered such a catastrophic decline. The key reasons for the decline, of this once common rodent, may be attributed to both habitat loss and fragmentation and the appearance of an 'alien' invader. The habitat requirements appear to be fairly straight forward being a slow flowing watercourse with a diverse abundance of aquatic and bank-side vegetation, banks that can be burrowed in to and minimal disturbance. However, the routine maintenance clearing of drainage channels to assist in the conveyance of flows and loss of river floodplains have all taken their toll on the vole. The other main factor has been the arrival and establishment of the American mink in the UK countryside through releases from fur farms. Some of these releases have been deliberately undertaken by anti-fur protesters concerned about animal rights. They obviously did not think about the rights of the native UK wildlife when they opened the cages to this highly efficient predators.

Fortunately there is a much greater awareness of water voles now which have been rightly afforded full protection status for both the animals and their habitat. A great deal of effort has gone into the encouraging the animals to return naturally through habitat management and assisted through re-introduction programmes together with the implementation of control measures on mink numbers.
Given the lack of local voles I decided to seek some help from a water vole expert, who kindly took me out to show me a couple of sites with a thriving population. She also helped me and hopefully my photography by providing a great deal of useful background information on their behaviour and how to look for signs of  their activity. Signs that previously I would not have seen such as small grazed patches of vegetation or plants stems cut with a characteristic 45 degree bite. So I would like to very much thank Kate for her invaluable help.
The site where I decided to concentrate my photography efforts is a short section of canal  where the usual concrete vole unfriendly banks have been replaced with a staked material. This allows the voles to chew hole in the material and access a buffer zone of abundant vegetation that separates the canal from the surrounding farmland.
From a photography perspective the site is slightly awkward as there are very few water level places for the voles to sit and only limited opening on the bank top where they have grazed down the vegetation on the opposite bank to which there is no access.
The photography of water voles is a waiting game and relying on them to appear at certain points where a clear view is possible. it appears to be characterised by brief flurries of activity between long periods of quiet. The start of the activity is often signalled by a rustling in the vegetation or a characteristic plop sound as one launches itself from the bank into the canal.
One bit of interesting behaviour I have already observed is how the voles fell small willows, like a mini beaver, to fall from the bank into the water so they can strip the stems free of leaves.
Of the various rodent species Water voles and Dormice are generally the species that have gain most popularity due to their threatened status but also they are visually very appealing animals. I also think that the cause of the water vole has no doubt been helped by fond memories of 'ratty' from the childhood stories of Wind in the Willows. They certainly have a charm went they are sat looking around and their popularity is also helped in that they often seem to be wearing a 'smile'. I have found that I much prefer to photograph the adults than the young which seem to have much more 'character'.
This is only the starting phase of this mini mission to photograph these delightful animals and I look forward to many more happy hours quietly sitting on the canal side watching the world go by and the place being lit up with the occasional appearance of a water vole.


Kate said...

It was a pleasure to meet you, Richard, and these photos are stunning. Hope you get many more.

HibernoManchego said...

Superb entry. It sounds like a great wait to see these wee creatures. I never feel like a long wait is a waste of time when I can get some great shots as you have. Looking forward to the next entry.

Robin said...

Rich, wonderful!

Debs F Grant said...

What a great project! A cracking read with fantastic photos.

Enna, CA said...

How beautiful these photos are..soo beautiful

Rich Steel said...

Thanks for the comments. I hope to have another session with the water voles during August when they should be at peak numbers. They are great fun but tricky to photograph.




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