Category Archives: Kent

Water Voles – Are things looking up for Ratty?

Water Vole (Arvicola terrestris) feeding, Kent, England, UK

It was August 2009 when I last photographed European water voles in their natural environment, so when the opportunity came along recently to photograph them again, I jumped at the chance.

When Kenneth Grahame put pen to paper at the turn of the last century to capture the exploits of Ratty, Mole and Toad in The Wind In The Willows, water voles were a regular sight in our country’s streams and waterways.

Driven to the brink of extinction in the 1980s and 1990s from pollution, habitat destruction and predation by the North American mink, the water vole had the unenviable title of the “UK’s fastest declining native animal”.

Water vole (Arvicola terrestris) feeding on watercress, Kent, UK

Photo of an adult water vole (Arvicola terrestris) feeding on watercress, Kent, UK

With populations having dropped by an incredible 95 percent from the 1960s and conservationists warning of total extinction, plans were put in place to protect this much-loved animal.

With the North American mink seen as the main threat, reserves, local councils and conservationists alike have been controlling mink numbers whilst at the same time creating and improving water vole habitat. There has also been the deployment of a number of successful captive breeding and reintroduction schemes (although disease has hampered efforts). The cumulative result (as well as improved protection under the revised Wildlife and Countryside Act) has seen “Ratty” return with a vengeance to many rivers across the country.

One WWT centre even reported colonies of 2,000 earlier this year when the same spots in 2007 yielded fewer then 10 animals!

Some water vole facts . . .

  • The term  – Ratty – was derived from confusion over similarities with the brown rat (it’s often informally called the Water Rat). However, the water vole is very different and can be distinguished by its blunt nose, neat fur covered ears and a furry tail (and it’s cuter of course!)
Water Vole (Arvicola terrestris) adult, Kent, UK

Photo of a water vole (Arvicola terrestris) with its distinctive fur covered ears, Kent, UK.

Water Vole (Arvicola terrestris), Kent, England, UK

Photo of a Water Vole (Arvicola terrestris) with its distinctive blunt nose, Kent, England, UK

  • On average, water voles live for less then 1 year in the wild, but have been known to live for up to two and half years in captivity.
  • Water voles reach 140–220 millimetres in length (excl tail) and have to eat at least 80% of their body weight (which is 60 – 360gms) a day just to survive.
Water Vole (Arvicola terrestris), Kent, England, UK

Photo of a Water Vole (Arvicola terrestris), adults weigh from 160–360 grams, Kent, England, UK

  • Water voles are expert swimmers and divers.
Water Vole (Arvicola terrestris), Kent, UK

Photo of a Water Vole (Arvicola terrestris). They are expert swimmers and divers, Kent, UK.

  • They live in, and excavate, complex multi-story burrows often on the banks of rivers and streams, normally located adjacent to slow moving, calm water. The burrows normally contain numerous nesting chambers just in case of flooding as well as a food store for long winters.
Water vole (Arvicola terrestris) Kent, UK

Photo of a water vole (Arvicola terrestris) at a typical stone walled river bank entrance.

Water vole (Arvicola terrestris) Kent, UK

Photo of a young water vole (Arvicola terrestris) eating watercress at its river bank burrow entrance.

  • With several litters possible, water voles can produce up to 30 young in one summer.
Water vole young (Arvicola terrestris) 4-5 weeks old, Kent, UK

Photo of three young water voles (Arvicola terrestris) 4-5 weeks old, Kent, UK

Water voles (Arvicola terrestris) 4-5 weeks old, Kent, UK

Photo of two young water voles (Arvicola terrestris) 4-5 weeks old, Kent, UK

  • Sadly, 70 percent of young water voles die before their first winter, as a result of predation from domestic cats, North American Mink, weasels, foxes, owls, herons, stoats, snakes and more.
  • Despite their cute appearance both male and female water voles are often aggressive if another invades their territory. During fights, often with high-pitched squeals, chunks of fur can be ripped off.
Water Vole (Arvicola terrestris) squabbling, Kent, England, UK

Photo of two water voles (Arvicola terrestris) squabbling, Kent, England, UK

Water Vole (Arvicola terrestris) feeding on watercress, Kent, UK

Male water vole (Arvicola terrestris) with a chunk of fur missing on its left flank. Evidence of some territorial rivalry.

  • Unfortunately, in most of Europe water voles are seen as an agricultural pest, and in some parts of Russia they are killed for their fur.
Water Vole (Arvicola terrestris) feeding amongst reeds, Kent, England, UK

Photo of a Water Vole (Arvicola terrestris) feeding amongst reeds, Kent, England, UK

The Environmental Agency’s 2010 survey showed new strongholds in Wales, Scotland, Cumbria and the Norfolk Broads and this year saw comebacks at sites in the Midlands, Gloucestershire and North Yorkshire.

So, things do seem to be looking up for “Ratty”, but we mustn’t get complacent, they still need a lot of help. The life of a water vole is an extremely fragile one and no matter how successful the various protection schemes are, I find it hard to imagine that we will ever return to the pre 1960’s population figures of 8 million. But you never know!

Get to know your local patch

Many of us are on a constant quest to improve our photography and for some this means travelling to exotic climes (both in the UK and further afield) to photograph what we perceive as more exciting species. Let’s face it – most of us feel that we do not have the luxury of stimulating wildlife subjects on our doorsteps and the thought of photographing commonplace flora and fauna is not that exciting.

But what if travel is not an option! What if you don’t have the time, money or even the inclination to journey far from you local area!

Perhaps the most commonly offered piece of advice given is to persevere and go and find some wildlife near by. In other words “get to know your local patch”.

Unless you’re a full-time professional photographer, very often, you have limited time to invest in your photography. So, to improve your chances of success, you could focus on one or two subjects as a longer-term project. Getting to know your chosen subject intimately will eventually yield results as you start to become skilled at spotting quirky habits and rituals, which can often become heightened and exaggerated at different times throughout the year. You will start to be able to predict when an opportunity is about to present itself.

Realistically, most amateur nature photographers, like myself, working within their local environment will only be able to cover one or two species thoroughly per year in any detail and most of us obviously aspire to do more than that.

But, I don’t see this as too much of a problem? I have a small public access country-park lake (probably ¾ mile in circumference) in my vicinity in Kent, which has all the usual suspects – Mute Swan, Coot, Canada and Greylag geese, Mallard etc and I love trying to capture these in different ways, angles and in different light and weather conditions.

Greylag goose preening at sunrise - tap on image to view collection

Adult Greylag goose preening - Canon 1D4, Canon 500mm IS USM f/4 @ f/5.6, 1/1600sec, ISO 400 - © Andrew Sproule

Adult Great-crested Grebe - Click on image to view collection

Adult Great-crested Grebe - Canon 1D4, Canon 500mm IS USM f/4 @ f/5.6 with 1.4x extender, 1/2000sec, ISO 400 - © Andrew Sproule

Mute Swan feeding - click image to view collection.

Adult Mute Swan - Canon 1D4, Canon 15mm Fisheye f/2.8 @ f/16, 1/200sec, ISO 400 - © Andrew Sproule

A pair of Eurasian Coot at first light - Click on image to go to collection.

A pair of Eurasian Coot at first light - Canon 1D4, Canon 500mm IS USM f/4 @ f/5.6, 1/500sec, ISO 200 - © Andrew Sproule

Adult Canada goose - Tap on image to go to collection

Adult Canada goose - Canon 1D4, Canon 500mm IS USM f/4 @ f/5.6, 1/800sec, ISO 200 - © Andrew Sproule

Adult Mallard bathing at first light - tap on image to view collection

Adult Mallard drake bathing at first light - Canon 1D4, Canon 500mm IS USM f/4 @ f/4, 1/1250sec, ISO 200 - © Andrew Sproule

And there’s always the unexpected visitor. The lake has yielded Kingfisher, Snow, Egyptian and Red-breasted geese, Red-Crested Pochard and more. . .

Adult Tufted Duck drake - tap on image to view collection

Adult Tufted duck drake - Canon 1D4, Canon 500mm IS USM f/4 @ f/5.6, 1/2000sec, ISO 400 - © Andrew Sproule

Adult Egyptian goose at sunset - tap on image to view collection

Adult Egyptian goose at sunset - Canon 1D4, Canon 500mm IS USM f/4 @ f/4, 1/640sec, ISO 500 - © Andrew Sproule

Adult Red-crested Pochard

Adult Red-crested Pochard - Canon 1D4, Canon 500mm IS USM f/4 @ f/6.3, 1/2000sec, ISO 400 - © Andrew Sproule

Red-breasted goose bathing

Adult Red-breasted goose bathing - Canon 1D4, Canon 500mm IS USM f/4 @ f/4, 1/1000sec, ISO 400 - © Andrew Sproule

I frequent this lake which is local to me, but in your area it could just as easily be woodland, forest, fields, river, canal etc etc (as always please seek landowners permission if not publically accessible).

Pretty much all wildlife is incredibly complex and therefore can be extremely engaging. All wildlife are creatures of habit, and if you take the time to observe them fully, you will see your chosen subject/s differently. The increasing popularity of the BWPA (British Wildlife Photography Awards) is testament to this fact. Other countries have similar photography awards celebrating their wildlife’s unique diversity.

So, when the chance to travel does present itself you will be in a good place to be able to take advantage of any opportunities using the skills you’ve acquired from “your local patch”.