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.
The first faint shadows of dusk were creeping over the river when Brighteye, awakened by a movement on the part of his mother, stole from his burrow into the tall grass at the edge of the gravel-bank by the pool. His home was situated in a picturesque spot between the river and a woodland path skirting the base of a cliff-like ascent clothed with giant beeches and an undergarment of ferns and whinberry bushes. Alders and willows grew along the gravel-bank, and through the moss-tangles among the roots many a twisting, close - hidden run - way led upwards to what might be called a main thoroughfare, in and out of the grass-fringes and the ivy, above high-water mark. This road, extending from the far off tidal estuary to the river's source in the wild mountains to the north, communicated with all the dwellings of the riverside people, and had been kept clear for hundreds of years by wandering voles and water-shrews, moorhens, water-rails, and coots, and, in recent days, by those unwelcome invaders, the brown rats. Here and there it merged into the wider trail of the otter. Sometimes, near a hedge, it was joined by the track of rabbits, bank-voles, field-voles, weasels, and stoats, and sometimes, where brooks and rills trickled over the stones on their way to the river, by other main roads that had followed the smaller watercourses from the crests of the hills.
Brighteye's home might be likened to a cottage nestling among trees at the end of an embowered lane well removed from busy traffic; it contained four or five chambers wherein the members of his family dwelt; and to Brighteye the tall reeds and the bramble thickets were as large as shrubs and trees are to human beings. And, like a sequestered cottager, he knew but little about the great road stretching, up-stream and down-stream, away from his haunts; he was content with his particular domain —the pool, the shallows beyond, a hundred yards of intersected lanes, and the wide main road above the pool and the shallows.
For a time Brighteye sat at the edge of the stream, alert for any sign of danger that might threaten his harmless existence. Then playfully he dropped into the pool, dived, sought the water-entrance to his house, climbed inside his sleeping chamber, and thence to the bank, where again he sat intently listening as he sniffed the cool evening air. A quick-eyed heron was standing motionless in a tranquil backwater thirty yards up-stream; the scent of the bird was borne down by the water, and the vole caught it as it passed beneath the bank. But he showed no trace of terror; the heron was not near enough to give him any real cause for alarm. The rabbits stole down through the woods, the undergrowth crackled slightly as they passed, and one old buck "drummed" a danger signal. Instantly the vole dived again, for he interpreted the sound to mean that a weasel was on the prowl; and, as he vanished, the first notes of a blackbird's rattling cry came to his ears.
Brighteye stayed awhile in his burrow before climbing once more to the upper entrance. Then cautiously he advanced through the passage, and gained his lookout station. Not the slightest taint of a weasel was noticeable on the bank; so, regaining confidence, he sat on his haunches, brushed his long, bristly whiskers with his fore-feet, and licked his russet body clean with his warm, red tongue. Then he dropped once more into the pool, and swam across to a reed-bed on the further margin. There he found several of his neighbours feeding on roots of riverside plants. He, too, was hungry, so he bit off a juicy flag at the spot marking the junction of the tender stalk with the tough, fibrous stem ; then, sitting upright, he took it in his fore-paws, and with his incisor teeth—shaped perfectly like an adze for such a purpose—stripped it of its outer covering, beginning at the severed edge, and laying bare the white pith, on which he greedily fed.
While thus engaged, he, as usual, watched and listened. The spot was dangerous for him because of its distance from the stream, and because the water immediately beyond was so shallow that he could not, by diving, readily escape from determined pursuit.
His meal was often interrupted for a few moments by some trifling incident that caused alarm. A moorhen splattered out from the willow-roots, and Brighteye crouched motionless, till he recognised that the noise made by the clumsy bird was almost as familiar to him as the rustle of the reeds in a breeze. The blue heron rose heavily from the backwater, and winged his slow flight high above the trees. Here, indeed, seemed reason for fear; but the great bird was not in the humour for killing voles, and soon passed out of view. Now a kingfisher, then a dipper, sped like an arrow past the near corner of the pool; and the whiz of swift wings—unheard by all except little creatures living in frequent danger, and listening with beating hearts to sounds unperceived by our drowsy senses dulled by long immunity from fear—caused momentary terror to the water-vole. Each trifling sight and sound contributed to that invaluable stock of experience from which he would gradually learn to distinguish without hesitation between friends and foes, and be freed from the pain of needless anxiety which, to Nature's weaklings, is at times almost as bitter as death.
Brighteye was fated to meet with an unusual number of adventures, and consequently to know much of the agony of fear. His russet coat was more conspicuous than that of his soberly gowned companions, and he was on several occasions marked for attack when they escaped detection. But he became the wisest, shyest, most watchful vole along the wooded river-reach, and in time his neighbours and offspring were so influenced by his example and training that a strangely furtive kindred, the wildest of the wild, living in secrecy—their presence revealed to loitering anglers only by tell-tale footprints on the wet sand when the torrent dwindled after a flood —seemed to have come to haunt the river bank between the cottage gardens and the swinging bridge above the pool where Bright-eye dwelt.