Water Voles....Hanging on !

10th February 2014
I'd always wanted to spend more time photographing one of my favourite species. Much maligned and largely forgotten in these days when bigger more "flashy" subjects seem to get the headlines, Water Voles do though have a lot of friends. Whether it's their friendly, if maybe slightly slow, demeanour or perhaps their cute appearance, they always raise a smile and are the antithesis of the Brown Rat, to which it's no relation, and it's public persona.
A site in Kent run together by the landowner and professional photographer Terry Whittaker has been involved in a reintroduction scheme since 2001 to try and give this iconic british species some help.
As a species they have it pretty tough, rarely living beyond 18 months and being preyed upon by foxes, herons and of course the worst example being the Mink. But like so much of our wildlife currently, it's habitat loss that's crucial for the long term success of the species. The site here is ideal and is fed by fresh spring water nearby which, as well as keeping the water clean, also has the benefit of water levels that hardly change. However even here the habitat downstream reduces in quality and prevents the successful spread of the young which are born here.

The voles aren't normally photographed at this time of year but the mild weather has meant they have stayed more active than usual so I decided to spend a day there.
It dawned ..well you guessed it if you been in the UK this winter..grey, dull and forecast to be very wet !
So the day was to involve a certain amount of kit ! Two cameras, the first with a 500mm on a tripod in front of me, the second with a 12-24mm wide angle on a second tripod and very low to the water with a remote control with the idea of getting a close up of any helpful vole who'd sit close to it and allow me to photograph it in it's habitat and definitely a shot I had in mind and was really keen to get. (nb I'd checked with Terry to insure the Voles wouldn't be upset by a camera positioned that way). Also I was in glamourous fly fishing chest waders as I'd be in 2 feet of water all the time and often on my knees as I adjusted a camera that was to be only 2-3 inches above water level. Add to this list thermals, waterproofs, hat, gloves, coffee, sandwiches and some patience and we were set up. Sitting for hours on a large picnic stool in two feet of very chilly Kentish stream isn't everyone's idea of a fun day out but the voles made it worth my while.

Within minutes of sitting down one of the two Voles, that generally show in the pool I was in, appeared. This seemed to be the shyer (possibly) male Water Vole but he was reluctant to show himself too much.



He kept his distance and didn't venture far from the wall. Not long after the smaller female Vole showed and unsurprisingly in the safest place, an old drainpipe. In fact they can actually access this from underwater as it doesn't stretch far back into the wall. Here a rosehip was proving a tasty morsel!



The times they showed varied over the day but given that at this time of year they may not have shown at all I was happy. However I wasn't so enamoured with the weather. Several heavy downpours made me question my sanity but I realised it was WAY too late for that :-)
I had hoped that I could get a slightly different image in the heaviest rain but of course they stayed well hidden just when I needed them !

The male became more confident but only showed briefly.



..and the female gave me lovely views but did stay almost exclusively near her cosy and safe drainpipe....



But occasionally there was a venture out.......



..and I was pleased with some shots as they swam across the water towards the beds of crowsfoot and I particularly liked the intimate feeling of this ...



...and there was the one occasion when she seemed to gain some courage and headed out to the small stone which acted a s a feeding spot for her. A nice moment and certainly one I was hoping to get.



All in all a great day...Undoubtedly cold, very wet and to be fair the only time the light was nice was at lunchtime for about ten minutes and it seemed that was a time when the Voles disappeared for lunch as well. Indeed on a technical point my ISO camera setting never went below c1600 and was as high as 10000iso at 4pm !! so tough work for the camera as well and to top it off I managed to get my iPhone wet which it seemed to dislike (I was overdue a free upgrade fortunately!!)
Alas neither vole ventured near to my second camera so that image will have to wait for another time.
But to see Water Voles at all at this time of year was a bonus and it's great to see the benefits of all the hard work in the conservation scheme put in place by Richard (the homeowner) and Terry and others but even here their sustainability is being questioned and all we can hope is that Water Voles everywhere keep hanging on with all the help we can give them.

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