BOOK OF THE WEEK
ELEGY FOR A RIVER
by Tom Moorhouse (Doubleday £14.99, 272 pp)
William Boot, the hapless hero of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop, famously observed in his nature notes column for the fictional Daily Beast: ‘Feather footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.’
That just shows how little Mr Boot really knew about voles. They are not feather footed and they do not quest but move with a sort of rapid waddle, says Tom Moorhouse, who knows more about the behaviour of the water vole than is entirely healthy.
Tom Moorhouse who is a researcher at Oxford University’s zoology department, has penned a book about voles (pictured)
Mr Moorhouse, a researcher at Oxford University’s zoology department, was offered the chance to study voles for a doctorate in 1999. His first discovery was that catching voles from a rowing boat is nobody’s idea of a good time.
Motor boats sped past and threatened to overturn him. He was heckled by tipsy champagne drinkers on narrow boats. He was bitten by voles, who also urinated down his fleece in their fury at being caught.
On one trip he was rowing home through torrents of rain when one of his rowlocks snapped so that he had to punt, using his oar as a makeshift pole. It was at this moment that he passed a tourist, sitting on the bank under an umbrella: ‘I was sodden, chilled, late, tired, aggravated, filthy, and smelt strongly of vole urine. The tourist took a photograph.’
Despite this, he writes very affectionately — even wittily — about voles, the model for sensible, kindly Ratty of Wind In The Willows. They have been living on our river banks for at least 14,800 years, but numbers dropped by an astonishing 99 per cent in the years between 1939 and 1998. And all because of the fashion for fur coats.
In the 1920s, American mink were imported into Britain. Some of these mink, understandably reluctant to be turned into fashionable items for bright young things, escaped.
For a while, their numbers were kept down by otters, who not only kill mink but chew off their testicles to teach these incomers a lesson they won’t forget. But when otters were killed off in turn by farm pesticides washing into rivers, the mink had a free hand.
Voles have been living on our river banks for at least 14,800 years, but numbers dropped by 99 per cent in the years between 1939 and 1998. Pictured: Ratty and Mole in The Wind In The Willows
It was the author’s job to breed voles in captivity and then introduce them to 12 rivers in Oxfordshire, and he did this with some success. Not that everything ran entirely smoothly.
To keep track of the voles, researchers fitted the little creatures with tiny radio collars. This had an extraordinary consequence — the number of female babies dropped by half.
It seems that the collars were causing stress in the mothers, and a natural hormonal mechanism kicked in which raised the male birth rate. Female voles occupy distinct territories, while male voles roam widely in search of a good time. In times of crisis — a food shortage or, as we now know, when a zoologist fits you with a radio collar — it makes sense to give birth to more males, who won’t clutter up your territory. Isn’t nature clever?
After discovering this, Moorhouse found himself lambasted in the media. ‘Scientists studying the causes of the water vole’s decline are to blame,’ said one accusing newspaper headline.
Tom claims that the vole (pictured) population will never truly recover until American mink are largely eradicated
Moorhouse concluded that the vole population will never truly recover until American mink are largely eradicated, and so he turned his attention to another weedy British native under threat from a brash American rival.
The white-clawed crayfish has been almost wiped out by the burly and aggressive signal crayfish, imported in 1976 for a scheme to harvest home-grown crayfish.
This idea could not have been more damaging. According to Moorhouse, there are now probably billions of signal crayfish in our rivers and streams, and they have ferocious appetites.
They eat small invertebrates, fish eggs, frog and toad spawn. They churn up river beds, which is why rivers are not as clear as they used to be. ‘Signal crayfish have made rivers emptier of everything except signal crayfish,’ he says.
ELEGY FOR A RIVER by Tom Moorhouse (Doubleday £14.99, 272 pp)
And yet this was all for nothing. There is no thriving trade in British crayfish. We actually import crayfish from China, where it’s cheaper to prepare them for sale in supermarkets.
What’s particularly enjoyable about this book is its upbeat tone. The author clearly very much enjoyed his work, even when he was being bitten, and sunburned, and used as a vole lavatory.
It’s only towards the end of his cheery journey, up to his waders in the rivers of Oxfordshire and beyond, that he strikes a gloomy note. What, he wonders, has all the effort been for?
‘For all the real-world, on-the-ground, species-saving impact that my research has had, I could pretty much just have spent my time bumbling amiably around the British countryside,’ he says. ‘My research achieved almost nothing of practical value.’
The problem is money. Isn’t it always? He estimates that adequate conservation measures would cost around $100 billion (£71.2billion) a year worldwide. It sounds a lot, but he claims that America spends double that annually on fizzy drinks.
He suggests that, if insurance agencies invested $10 billion (£7.1 billion) a year on coastal habitats, it would save them $52 billion (£37 billion) annually in claims for flood damage. If the seafood industry invested the same amount, their profits would rise by $53 billion (£37.8 billion).
Put like that the case is very convincing, but will government and big business really be persuaded in the current economic circumstances?
I’d suggest that a cornered water vole has a better chance of persuading a mink to go vegan.