This section is from the book "Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain", by Alfred W. Rees. Also available from Amazon: Creatures Of The Night: A Book Of Wild Life In Western Britain.
Though Brighteye's distinctive appearance attracted the notice of numerous enemies, his marked individuality was not wholly a misfortune, since it aroused my kindly interest, and thus caused him to be spared by the village hunting party.
As he sat in the first shadows of evening among the reeds and the rushes, the kingfisher and the dipper, by which a few minutes before he had been startled, flew back from the direction of the village gardens; and he quickly decided, while watching their flight, that somehow it must be connected with the dull, but now plainly audible, thud of approaching footsteps on the meadow-path. The buck "drummed" again, then the rustling "pat, pat" of the rabbits ceased in the wood, and one by one the adult voles feeding in the reed-bed slipped silently into the shallows and disappeared.
Brighteye was loath to relinquish the juicy rush that he held in his fore-paws, but the signs of danger were insistent. After creeping through the reeds to the water's edge, he proceeded a little way down the bank till he came to a spot where the view of the meadow-path was uninterrupted. His sight was not nearly so keen as his scent and hearing were, but he discerned, in a blur of dim fields, and rippling water, and evening light peering through the willow-stoles, a number of unfamiliar moving objects. He heard quick, uneven footsteps, and, now and then, a voice; and was aware of an unmistakable scent, such as he had already often noticed in the shallows and amid the grass.
On several occasions, at dusk, Brighteye, like Lutra the otter, had seen a trout splashing and twisting convulsively in terror and pain. Each time the trout had been irresistibly drawn through the shallows towards a peculiar, upright object on the opposite bank, and after this object had passed into the distance the vole had found that the familiar scent of which he was now conscious was mingled, at the edge of the river-bank, with fresh blood-stains and with the strong smell of fish.
To all animals, whether wild or domesticated, fresh-spilt blood has a significance that can never be disregarded. It indicates suffering and death. Ever since, in far distant years, blood first welled from a stricken creature's wounds, Nature has been haunted by the grim presence of Fear. The hunting weasel, coming unexpectedly to a pool of blood, whence a wounded rabbit has crawled away to die in the nearest burrow, opens mouth and nostrils wide to inhale with fierce delight the pungent odour. Once I caught sight of a weasel under such circumstances, and was startled by the almost demon-like look of ferocity on the creature's face.
But the hunted weaklings of the fields and woods read the signs of death with consternation. When the scent of the slayer is mingled with that of the victim it is noted with care, and, if often detected in similar conditions, is committed to memory as inseparable from danger.
Brighteye had been repeatedly warned by his mother to avoid the presence of man, and had also learned to fear it because of his experiences with the angler and the trout. Alarmed at the approach of men and hounds, he waded out, swam straight up-stream to a tiny bay, and hid beneath a willow-root to wait till the danger had passed. He strained his ears to catch each different sound as the " thud, thud" and the patter of feet came nearer. Then the gravel rattled, a stone fell into the stream, and a shaggy spaniel poked his nose into a hole between the willow-roots. The dog drew a long, noisy breath, and barked so suddenly and loudly, and so close to Brighteye's ear, that the vole involuntarily leaped from his resting place.
In full view of the spaniel, Brighteye passed deep down into the clear, unruffled pool, hurriedly using every limb, instead of only his hind-legs, and with quick strokes gained the edge of the current, where for an instant he rose to breathe before plunging deep once more and continuing his journey towards the willows on the opposite bank. As he dived for the second time, Bob saw him among the ripples, and with shrill voice headed the clamouring hounds, that, "harking forward" to his cry, rushed headlong in pursuit through shallow and pool. A stout, lichen-covered branch, weighed down at the river's edge by a mass of herbage borne thither by a recent heavy flood, occupied a corner in the dense shadow of an alder; and the vole, climbing out of the water, sat on it, and was hidden completely by the darkness from the eager hounds. But his sanctuary was soon invaded; the indefatigable terrier, guided by the tiny bubbles of scent borne down by the stream, left the river, and ran, whimpering with excitement, straight to the alder. Brighteye saw him approach, dived silently, and, with a wisdom he had never gained from experience, turned in a direction quite contrary to that in which the terrier expected him to flee. The vole moved slowly, right beneath the dark form of the terrier now swimming in the backwater. On, on, he went, past the stakes at the outlet of the pool into the trout-reach, and still on, by a series of dives, each following a brief interval for breath and observation among the sheltering weeds, till he arrived at the pool above the cottage gardens, where a wide fringe of brushwood formed an impenetrable thicket and he was safe from his pursuers.
Hardly, however, was this long journey needed. The dog was baffled at the outset; and, casting about for the lost scent, he discovered, on the pebbles, the strong smell of the weasel that had wandered thither to quench his thirst while Brighteye was feeding in the reed-bed opposite. Bob never by any chance neglected the opportunity of killing a stoat or a weasel; so, abandoning all thoughts of rats and voles, he dashed upward through the wood, and, almost immediately closing on his prey, destroyed a bloodthirsty little tyrant that, unknown to Brighteye, had just been planning a raid on the burrow by the willow-stoles.
Water-voles, as a rule, are silent little creatures; unless attacked or frightened they seldom squeak as they move in and out of the lush herbage by the riverside. But Brighteye was undoubtedly different from his fellows: he was almost as noisy as a shrew in the dead leaves of a tangled hedgerow, and his voice was like a shrew's, high-pitched and continuous, but louder, so that I could hear him at some distance from his favourite resort in the reeds and the rushes by the willows. He seemed to be always talking to himself or to the flowers and the river as he wandered to and fro in search of tit-bits; always debating with himself as to the chances of finding a tempting delicacy; always querulous of danger from some ravenous tyrant that might surprise him in his burrow, or pounce on him unawares from the evening sky, or rise, swift, relentless, eager, from the depths beneath him as he swam across the pool.
When 1 got to know him well, my favourite method, in learning of his ways, was to lie in wait at a spot commanding a view of one or other of the narrow lanes joining the main road of the riverside folk, and there, my face hidden by a convenient screen of interlacing grass-stems, to listen intently for his approach. Generally, for five minutes or so before he chose to reach my hiding place, I could hear his shrill piping, now faint and intercepted by a mound, or indistinct and mingled with the swirl of the water around the stakes, then full and clear as he gained the summit of a stone or ridge and came down the winding path towards me. Though in his talkative moments Brighteye usually reminded me of the tiny shrew, there were times when he reminded me more forcibly of an eccentric mouse that, a few years before, had taken up her quarters in the wall of my study, and each night, for more than a week, when the children's hour was over and I sat in silence by my shaded lamp, had made her presence known by a birdlike solo interrupted only when the singer stayed to pick up a crumb on her way across the room.
The times when Brighteye wandered, singing, singing, down the lanes and main road of the river-bank, were, however, infrequent; and the surest sign of his approach, before he came in sight, was the continuous, gossiping twitter I have already described. This habit of singing and twittering was not connected with amorous sentiments towards any sleek young female; Brighteye adopted it long before he was of an age to seek a mate, and he ceased practising his solos before the first winter set in and the morning sun glanced between leafless trees on a dark flood swirling over the reed-bed where in summer was his favourite feeding place.
Whether or not the other voles frequenting the burrow by the willows had shown their disapproval of such a habit I was never able to discover. One fact, however, seemed significant: Brighteye parted from his parents as soon as he was sufficiently alert and industrious to manage his own affairs, and, having hollowed out a plain, one-roomed dwelling, with an exit under the surface of the water and another near some primrose-roots above the level of flood, lived there for months, timid and lonely, yet withal, if his singing might be regarded as the sign of a gladsome life, the happiest vole in the shadowed pool above the village gardens.
It has been supposed by certain naturalists that the song of the house-mouse is the result of a disease in its throat, and is therefore a precursor of death. The mouse that came to my study ceased her visits soon after the week had passed and was never seen again; and I was unable to determine how her end was hastened. Brighteye could not, at any rate, have suffered seriously, else he would have succumbed, either to some enemy ever ready to prey on the young, the aged, the sick, and the wounded of his tribe, or to starvation, the well-nigh inevitable follower of disease in animals. He always seemed to me to be full of vitality and happiness, as if the dangers besetting his life only provided him with wholesome excitement, and sharpened his intellect far more finely than that of the rest of his tribe.