Last Sunday, I made took my first foray to the riverbank for start of the water vole surveying season. It was a warm Sunday morning, as I set out with another volunteer to the village of Poling, just a mile or so from where I live.
Both Joan and I undertook our surveyor training back in May 2015, where we had the pleasure of being shown the ropes by Dr Dawn Scott of Brighton University. Dawn is perhaps best known for her research on foxes and has appeared on Springwatch on several occasions, following the exploits of Brighton’s red fox population.
The water vole surveying training was funded by Arun and Rother Connections and took place at the wonderful Arundel Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, which allowed us to get out and do some practical surveying.
Following the training, I found evidence last year of water vole activity at Poling, including tennis ball sized holes in the bank, runways through the vegetation and piles of shredded grass cut at 45 degree angles. Our plans for this first surveying session of 2016 were to return to the site and to explore some other potential areas.
At Poling, we made our way to a new site to the south of the church. The ground was rather boggy due to the heavy rainfall earlier in the week and we squelched our way across a field to reach Black Ditch which extends from east to west, joining the River Arun west of Lyminster.
Water Voles prefer grassy banks along slow moving rivers, ditches, streams, lakes, ponds, canals, as well as marshland and upland. They are vulnerable to extinction due to loss of habitat and loss of vegetation due to trampling by cattle etc. Water pollution, flooding, drought and predation by the American Mink in the last 30 years have also contributed to the water voles decline.
The banks along this particular stretch of Black Ditch were intact and there was a certain amount of vegetation but there were no signs of chopped vegetation or latrines. As we walked we disturbed a Heron, which looked indignantly at us before lifting off with slow wing beats. We headed east along the bank and continued searching. There were small holes in the riverbank, which looked too diminutive for water vole burrows, and as we were discussing who might have created them, a kingfisher zipped past us, with a flash or orange and blue. Maybe the holes were Kingfisher burrows? We searched another waterway further south and as we did so, we heard the explosive song of a Cetti’s Warbler in a nearby willow.
Back through the church and heading west, there was liquid warble of a skylark, as it rose steeply and hung in the air before parachuting down rapidly. We headed towards the stretch of Black Ditch where I had seen water vole evidence last year. Here, there were several tennis ball size holes in the bank, like this one.
The water level had clearly been high over the previous few days and was likely to have washed any evidence of latrines away and there were no signs of chopped vegetation. It may be that the voles are relatively inactive still or have moved away from the area, albeit perhaps temporarily. We will return to the site in a month or so, to see if they have returned.
To find out more about the plight of the water vole and how you can help to save this beautiful creature, see: https://ptes.org/campaigns/water-voles/