Sunday, 22 May 2011

In search of Ratty...

Feeling a bit worse for wear following the college Summer Ball, Michelle and I headed up to Abbotts Hall Farm to take part in Essex Wildlife Trust's Water Vole training course.  This course would enable us to survey areas looking for field signs of water voles and feedback our findings to the Trust for their records.

On the way in to the course we spotted a little sparrow peering out of a nest box.  He was there for quite a while just watching the world go by.  After a morning listening to Darren Tansley, an incredibly articulate and knowledgeable man responsible for the Riversearch programme, telling us about the basic ecology of water voles and showing us pictures of habitats and field signs, we headed off to see for ourselves.  First stop was a hide looking out across a man-made lake on the reserve.  We looked to see if we could see any water voles from this area.  We saw lots of birds including coots, moorhens, little grebes, tufted duck, mute swan and cygnets, pochard and mallard.

The view from the bird hide

Water Vole burrows in the bank
From the hide we were able to see water vole burrows in the bank on the lake.  The holes in the picture show some above where the water line had previously been, and some were below that water line.  They use the ones below the water line to escape from predators.

Water voles are rather unfortunate to have numerous predators who will attack them from the air, the land and the water.  The voles have evolved a range of escape tactics which can often be successful; they also breed very effectively and quickly.  Populations of water voles in Essex, and across the country, have dropped considerably and the biggest culprit is believed to be the mink.  A female mink is small enough to get into the voles' burrows and take any animal living there.

Darren telling us about feeding stations

Water Vole poo - like brown tic-tacs!
We found a few field signs of water vole presence around the lake.  Some feeding stations, where the voles chop down the sedges, rushes or grasses that they are feeding on and leave little piles of vegetation.  They are quite distinct in that the edges are cut at 45 degree angles.

We also found a few latrine sites where there were small piles of vole poo which look a lot like brown tic-tacs.  One site we found had a feeding station, a latrine, and just above it there were 3 burrow entrances.  Unfortunately we didn't hear the familiar 'plop' sound of the voles vanishing form our footsteps.

Blue-tailed Damselfly

More vole poo - latrine

Abbotts Hall Farm
  On the way back we to the centre we had a wander round the gardens which were really beautiful.  An excellent course and I hope to use my new-found tracking skills during the summer.
Abbotts Hall Farm - pond

Abbotts Hall Farm - beautiful poppies

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