An ill Wind in the Willows?

By Kirsty Topping – 9 October 09

There’s trouble brewing on the riverbank. The animals are in trouble. Long gone are the days of affluence that their forefathers enjoyed. Indeed, nearly a century has passed since the gentle riparian misadventures of Messers Toad, Badger, Mole and Ratty and their descendants are not faring so well.

wind-in-willows1

Dear old Badger, the poor chap’s consumptive. Seems it’s passed through the family because of them living so close to each other. Night watchman business went down the drain as well.

Moley has been disowned by his family. Coming out was a step too far for his grandfather and Mole has had to sell everything except his velvet smoking jacket just to pay the rent on a hole in Drumchapel. The jacket may soon be gone too.

As for Mr Toad, gone are the days when he would be satisfied by anything as mundane as a yellow and green gypsy cart with red wheels or a red motor car circa 1908. Not for him the meandering delights of the models that followed a little red flag in days gone by. Oh no, Mr Toad Jnr III proudly parades a stunning shiny vehicle that sports all the right status symbols – spoiler, alloys and the all important baked-bean-can exhaust that makes it sound like a herd of flatulent cows.

Of course, there is a cost to this. Toadie’s insurance is sky high and the cost of petrol and speeding fines don’t exactly help. Yet he holds it together by renting out the dilapidated Toad Hall as a HMO for students, as well as working two jobs (Safeway shelf stacker and McDonald’s counter assistant – he never was the academic type) to finance his pride and joy. He himself resides in what was once the scullery in the affluent days-of-old.

Yet it seems to be Ratty, the water vole, who has suffered the most in recent times. Several failed yachting Round the World record attempts bankrupted him, and

Water Vole
Water Vole

his riverside home has been repossessed by the Mink Mafia and the Farming Community Housing Association, making Ratty homeless.

This is the synopsis “The Wind in the Willows” would have nowadays. Grahame wrote of Edwardian society but made the stars of the piece the abundant river and forest life he knew. In the modern society, however, the animals are few. Ratty, the humble water vole, is doing far worse than any of his companions. In recent years, and in spite of the species being protected by Schedule 5, Section 9(4) of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, numbers across the UK have dropped by 90%. Yet on the continent they are considered vermin as they weave paths of destruction in search of food, even going as far as to attack the roots of fruit trees.

Arvicola terrestris, the largest of the vole species, does not attract the same sympathies as a panda or a rhino when it comes to the prospect of extinction. Presumably this is because it is not deemed exotic enough as it, rather stupidly, decided to reside in the United Kingdom. It is everything the public demand for them to start caring about an animal – fluffy, cute and with a little chubby face – we should care. We should care a lot. Surprisingly though, we don’t. Not really. A nation of animal lovers? Fat chance.

It doesn’t seem to matter to many people that farmers have encroached so far onto the riverside boundary that they are making life incredibly easy for the mink, and as a consequence incredibly difficult for the vole. Many don’t give a stuff if some invading foreign species is hunting it to extinction. What most people worry about is avoiding putting their hands in their pockets to do something about the problem. “People expect the Countryside for nothing” says Les Hatton, Countryside Ranger at Craigtoun Country Park near St Andrews “and water voles are not deemed sexy”.

Measuring 140-220 mm from head to tail and weighing only150-300 g, water voles are quite often mistaken for rats, which leads to them being poisoned by householders ignorant of the true nature of this wonderful little animal.

As a result of so many pressures heaped on the population, these little creatures could quite possibly become extinct in Britain. The situation is exacerbated by

Mink
Mink

the farming community. The intensive methods of modern day British farming, required to compete with the industrial-scale prairie farming in the USA, mean that land is cultivated almost to the river’s edge and this makes life much easier for the invading Mink.

Imagine a game of hide and seek. It’s much easier when you have lots of hidey-holes, isn’t it?  If the complex river side habitat is no more, then the hiding places are fewer and chances of being found are much higher and, in the case of the Vole, so are the chances of becoming the main meal.

However, this story is not over. The chapters that follow are very much full of hope. Bio-diversity plans have been established by many local councils around the country and schemes such as Mink trapping programmes are beginning to make a difference. In addition, some farmers have been persuaded to move agricultural boundaries back from the edge of the waterways to promote the healthy habitats needed to support a sizeable eco-system in which the water vole is a key species.

Perhaps if people can be persuaded to give more thought to the plight of Ratty then he will begin to prosper again. If we were to do the equivalent of buying a Big Issue from a human homeless person, that is putting your hand in your pocket once in a while, then the fortunes of the water vole could well see a dramatic turnaround.