No animal I have ever known of is as rotund, plump, and squidgy looking, as our water vole. They have deep brown eyes, set in rich chestnut fur, with a gentle creamy eye ring, which can make them look almost spectacled. And no animal species has ever baffled me in its way of being sometimes incredibly obliging, and then so elusive, as the water vole. Sometimes I go weeks without seeing any in the course of my job, yet other times I have had them swim right by me.
I first encountered a water vole at around age six. Back then, water voles survived in original colonies in Surrey. They lived in our local country park, only 15 miles shy of Central London. One Summer evening, in between games of “What’s the time Mr Wolf?” stood with my mother at the dipping platform of our favourite pond, along swam a miniature log of a rodent; eyes high on its head, small, compact, skeetering seamlessly along the surface, until it dematerialised up the bank. We watched it together. I remember my mother telling me this was a water vole. Not the humble rat, but a water vole. And this was my first wild animal memory.
Even then, I somehow knew a water vole was a special find indeed, though I cannot remember how I knew, so young. Little did I know, those years ago, that as a grownup I would have a job which would involve me in the lives of these animals. I regard myself as their guardian. Today, water voles are extinct in that country park of my early childhood. They vanished. It alarms me because this was less than 25 years ago. In my own short life span, ‘my’ water voles were gone. Years later, I often returned looking for signs of them there, and would find nothing. They were truly gone. This is the same old story across much of the UK.
Here in much of South Essex however, including right here on these RSPB reserves, water voles thrive in a large network of ditches and reedbeds. Every time I see one, I feel warm and reassured inside. They live perilous lives, they have a multitude of predators, they need to eat their own bodyweight in food per day, and many water voles simply perish over winter. They live on a knife edge, it seems. They are charming to me because they embody the fragility of life and survival against all odds, inside a round, fat, squidgy, fuzzy little character who is always munching, sometimes comical appearing. They appeal to the anthropomorphism we often project onto wild animals, which is part of the connection we as humans have with nature. We project human characteristics onto animals. So many charming characteristics can be projected upon the water vole. Busy, plump, fuzzy little characters with a big spray of whiskers, and bright, warm eyes. They are just breath takingly sweet, and the fleeting glimpses we often get of them make us feel really privileged and lucky to encounter them in their busy, perilous lives.