How many people does it take to release a water vole? And how long does it take? Well, the answer is fifteen people and five years. How do I know? Well, that was how I spent my Tuesday morning in what is a tale of extinction and salvation.
Water Vole Arvicola amphibius
The Meon valley in east Hampshire is one of those few places that the urbanisation of southern England has (as yet) passed by, largely I suspect because the road through the valley doesn't really take you anywhere.
There are better routes to the south coast for lorries or those in a hurry. So the A32 is still mostly a single carriageway, wending its way through chocolate box villages, past steepled flint churches and from time to time you will catch a glimpse of the River Meon beyond the verges that are flecked with white-flowered Cow parsley at this time of year. However, the splendid isolation has not deterred all interlopers and a few decades ago one particular menace moved in.
That was, in case you didn't know it, the American mink that first arrived on our shores in the 1930's for fur farming. They soon escaped into the wild, adapting to the British climate, inserting themselves into the food chain just below otters but above water voles that soon became a favourite food. When the otter population collapsed in the 1960's mink soon became kings of the hill, spreading across the British Isles and in river catchments such as the Meon they hunted water voles to extinction. So about five years ago the South Downs National Park Authority, along with local conservation groups, decided it was time to do something about this.
Hemlock water-dropwort bankside
Step one is first eradicate your mink, which is not as hard as you might think. Ironically having denuded the valley of their food source most of the mink had died or moved on, but those that remained were trapped. I'm told by one of the volunteers who sets the traps that he hasn't seen a mink in the past year. Step two is bring back the voles. Where from you might ask. Well, believe it or not in Devon there is a water vole breeding farm that supplied the 115 (or maybe 116 nobody was quite sure) voles released on Tuesday by the fifteen volunteers.
They arrived in all age groups and sexes, the voles that is. There are family units with Mum, Dad and the litter of anywhere between five and seven young. There are breeding pairs ready to do their business; not hard as a female will have anything up to five litters in a year. Plus a few unattached adults who will roam, the oldest being about a year, late middle age in voles who rarely survive beyond 18 months. In case you are wondering about the Pringle tube, well it has a purpose. Transferring the voles from the transport cages to the release pens is not easy. They scurry about like mad and will deliver a nasty bite. But grasp them by the tail, slide them head first into the tube and they go quite docile.
The liberation from the pens is what is termed 'soft release'. The rabbit-like cages are positioned close to the river, fed and checked for the first 2-3 days until the door is opened and the voles make their own way into the world. Exton Manor Farm, where this particular release took place, is water vole heaven so they have no real reason to hang about in confinement. Their favourite food, Hemlock water-dropwort grows in abundance along the banks, which also provides plenty of cover as well. They need it as the attrition rate is 80% but the remaining one fifth will be enough to establish a self-sustaining colony.
So the next time you slip on your waders to fish at Exton you will have some companions. Ratty is back and it is good to know that the most endearing character from Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows has some champions - Grahame would be pleased.
CURIOUS COLIN CARP
Here is a fun children's book that arrived on my desk last week.
Just published, it is written by keen angler Alan Harrison who tells the tale of the curious Colin Carp. He spots a mysterious orange object (a boile I am told by people who know these things) floating in the pond, so he can't resist checking it out. His friend Marie quickly realises it's a fisherman's hook! She must race to save her friend before it's too late...
It has had some lovely reviews and I think children will enjoy the rather ethereal artwork. I'm no expert on children's books but I'm guessing this is for the 3-6 year age range. It is available from bookshops and Amazon at £6.99.
CAPTION CONTEST WINNER
I did intend to re-print all the entries that came in for the caption contest but you rather bowled me over with your wit and imagination. Except for the few advertising guys who wrote in I suspect most of you are in the wrong jobs! Far more than I ever imagined arrived at my Inbox so after some considerable consideration here are my top five, but really they were all good.
"A dapper dapper daps a dapper gentleman!"
"You really do need a Dandy long legs to catch one."
"Sedge hedge fly catches top and tailing gent."
"Fishing a cucumber sandwich 'on the dangle' Nigel had yet to receive an offer so he upped his game and switched bait to a Royal enclosure ticket for Ascot."
"Members of the Houghton club refute allegations that its beats on the Test are over manicured."
In order thank you to Hugh Foxcroft, John Crawshaw, Si Scott-White, Paul Sharman and Richard Mathewson. It is Richard who collects the commemorative fly box.
MAY FEEDBACK DRAW WINNER
It was a long and extended Mayfly hatch, but not without its difficulties with some horrible bouts of cold, wet days plus some stupendous thunderstorms that turned the rivers to chocolate on occasions.
All that certainly made it tough on us anglers but I'd rate this as a better-than-good Mayfly season. As I write we are just starting weed cut (continues on the River Test until around 19/June) with the hatch still going on.
The winner of the May feedback draw was Brian Langford who fished with success at Barton Court on the River Kennet right at the end of the month. The Vuefinder Fly Patch is on its way and everyone will go back in the hat for the end-of-season Sage reel draw.
"I really am a baby eagle"
In response to the phobia quiz last week (a bit tricky I am told) someone wrote in to ask whether I suffered from pteronarcophobia? I am happy to say not - the fear of flying insects. This week something less alarming.
1) What does a cygnet grow into?
2) A squab is the baby of which common British bird?
3) A cheeper or squealer is which infant game bird?
4) A poult is the offspring of what?
5) What is the name for a baby eagle?
It's just for fun and answers are at the bottom of the page.
Have a good weekend.
Simon Cooper firstname.lastname@example.org
Founder & Managing Director
Quiz answers: 1) Swan 2) Pigeon 3) Grouse 4) Chicken or turkey 5) Eaglet