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 autumn in the water-vole's life was a season of wonderful beauty. A few successive frosts chilled the sap in the trees and the bushes near the river, but were succeeded by a long period when the air was crisp yet balmy, and not a breath of wind was noticeable except by the birds and the squirrels high among the giant beeches around the old garden, and when the murmur of summer insects was never heard by night, and only by day if a chance drone-fly or humble-bee visited a surviving clump of yellow ragweed by the run-way close to Brighteye's burrow. The elms and the sycamores glowed with purple and bronze, the ash-trees and the willows paled to lemon yellow, the oaks arrayed themselves in rich and glossy olive green; while the beeches in the glade, and the brambles along the outskirts of the thickets, ruddy and golden and glittering in the brief, delicious autumn days, seemed to filter and yet stain the mellow sunshine, and to fill each nook with liquid shadow as pure and glorious as the blue and amber lights on the undulating hills. Spread on the bosom of the brimming river, and broken, here and there, by creamy lines of passing foam, the reflections of this beauty seemed to well and bubble, from unfathomable deeps, around the "sly, fat fishes sailing, watching all".
The water became much colder than in summer; but Brighteye, protected by a warm covering of thick, soft fur through which the moisture could not penetrate, as well as by an over-garment of longer, coarser hair from which the drops were easily shaken when he left the stream, hardly noticed the change of temperature. But he well knew there were changes in the surroundings of his home. The flags in the reed-bed were not so succulent as they had been in early summer; the branches that sometimes guided him as he swam from place to place seemed strangely bare and grey; the clump of may-weed that, growing near his burrow, had served as a beacon in the gloom, was faded to a few short brown tufts; and nightly in his wanderings he was startled by the withered leaves that, like fluttering birds, descended near him on the littered run-ways or on the glassy surface of the river-reach. It was long before he became accustomed to the falling of the leaves, and up to the time when every bough was bare the rustling flight of a great chestnut plume towards him never failed to rouse the fear first wakened by the owl, and to send him on a long, breathless dive to the bottom of the pool.
Brighteye was a familiar figure to all the river-folk, while he, in turn, knew most of them, and had learned to distinguish between friends and foes. But occasionally he made a slight mistake. Though shy, he was as curious as the squirrel that, one afternoon when Brighteye was early abroad, hopped down the run-way to make his acquaintance, and frightened him into a precipitate retreat, then ran out to a branch above the stream and loudly derided the creature apparently drowning in the stream.
An object of ceaseless curiosity to Bright-eye was a water-shrew, not more than half the size of the vole, that had come to dwell in the pool, and had tunnelled out a burrow in the bank above the reed-bed. Nightly, after supper, Brighteye made a circuit of the pool to find the shrew, and with his companion swam hither and thither, till, startled by some real or imagined danger, each of the playmates hurried to refuge, and was lost awhile to the other amid the darkness and the solitude of the silent hours.
Brighteye soon became aware of the fact that some of the habits of the shrew were entirely different from his own. While the vole was almost entirely a vegetable feeder, the shrew, diving to the bed of the river, would thrust his long snout between the stones, and pick up grubs and worms and leeches sheltering there. With Brighteye's curiosity was mingled not a little wonderment, for the shrew's furry coat presented a strange contrast of black above and white beneath, and, immediately after the shrew had dived, a hundred little bubbles, adhering to the ends of his hair, caused him to appear like a silvery grey phantom, gliding gracefully, though erratically, from stone to stone, from patch to patch of water-weed, from ripple to ripple near the surface of the stream. The young brown trout, hovering harmlessly above the rocky shelves and in the sandy shallows, far from being a source of terror to Brighteye, fled at his approach, and seldom returned to their haunts till he had reached the far side of the current. Emboldened by the example of the shrew, that sometimes made a raid among the minnows, and desirous of keeping all intruders away from the lower entrance to his burrow, Brighteye habitually chased the trout if they ventured within the little bay before his home. But there was one trout, old and lean, whose haunt was behind a weed-covered stone at the throat of the pool, and of this hook-beaked, carnivorous creature, by which he had once been chased and bitten, Brighteye went in such constant fear that he avoided the rapid, and, directly he caught a glimpse of the long, dark form roving through the gloomy depths, paddled with utmost haste to his nearest landing place.
Since, under the care of his mother, he made his earliest visit to the reed-bed, Brighteye had seen hundreds of giant salmon; the restless fish, however, did not stay long in the pool, but after a brief sojourn passed upward. Often at dusk the salmon would leap clear into the air just as Brighteye came to the surface after his first dive, and once so near was a sportive fish that the vole became confused for the moment by the sudden turmoil of the "rise," and rocked on the swell of the backwash like a boat on the waves of a tossing sea. During the summer Brighteye had suffered nothing, beyond this one sudden fright, from the visits of the great silvery fish to the neighbourhood of his home; and, notwithstanding his experience, he was accustomed to dive boldly into the depths of the " hovers," and even to regard without fear the approach of an unusually inquisitive salmon. Late in the autumn, however, Brighteye noticed, with unaccountable misgiving, a distinct change in the appearance of these passing visitors. The silvery sheen had died away from their scales, and had been succeeded by a dark, dull red; and the fish were sluggish and ill-tempered. Besides, they were so numerous, especially after a heavy rainfall, that the stream seemed barely able to afford them room in their favourite "hovers," and the old trout, previously an easy master of the situation, found it almost beyond his powers to keep trespassers from his particular haunt in mid-current at the throat of the pool. So occupied was he with this duty that he seldom roamed into the little bays beneath the alder-fringes; and Brighteye, so long as he avoided the rapid, was fairly safe from his attack. The reed-bed, though partly submerged, still yielded the vole sufficient food; and to reach it straight from his home he had to pass through the shallows, which extended for a considerable distance up-stream and down - stream from the gravelly stretch immediately outside the reeds.
About the beginning of winter, when the migration of the salmon had become intermittent, and the sea-trout had all passed upward beyond the pool, two of the big, ugly "red fish," late arrivals at the "hover" nearest the burrow, made a close inspection of the pool; then, instead of following their kindred to the further reaches, they fell back toward the tail of the stream and there remained. After the first week of their stay, Brighteye found them so ill-tempered that he dared not venture anywhere near the tail of the stream; and, as the big trout at the top of the pool showed irritation at the least disturbance, the vole was forced to wander down the bank, to a spot below the salmon, before crossing the river on his periodical journeys to the reed-bed. His kindred, still living in the burrow where he had been born, were similarly daunted; while the shrew became the object of such frequent attack—especially from the bigger of the two salmon, an old male with a sinister, pig-like countenance and a formidable array of teeth—that escape from disaster was little short of miraculous.
Having calculated to a nicety his chances of escape, and having decided to avoid at all times the haunts of the pugnacious fish, Brighteye was seldom inconvenienced, except that he had to pass further than hitherto along the bank before taking to the water, and thus had to risk attack from weasels and owls. But soon, to his dismay, he discovered that the salmon had shifted their quarters to the shallow close by the reeds.
He was swimming one night as usual into the quiet water by the reed-bed, and, indeed, had entered a narrow, lane-like opening among the stems, when he felt a quick, powerful movement in the water, and saw a mysterious form turn in pursuit of him, and glide swiftly away with a mighty effort that caused a wave to ripple through the reeds, while the outer stalks bent and recoiled as if from the force of a powerful blow. On the following night he was chased almost to the end of the opening among the reeds, and barely escaped; but this time he recognised his pursuer. Afterwards, having unexpectedly met the shrew, he crept with his companion along by the water's edge as far as the ford, and spent the dark hours in a strange place, till at dawn he crossed the rough water, and sought his home by a path the further part of which he had not previously explored.