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 hunt was started in spirited fashion; the men walked along the bank thrusting their sticks into crevices and holes; but only Joker and Bob entered the water, and rats and otters for a while remained discreetly out of view. Near a bend of the stream, however, Bob surprised a rat secreted by a stone, and, forcing it to rush to the river, followed with frantic speed. Here, at last, was a chase; the other dogs all hurried to the spot, and the landlord, swinging his otter-pole, waded out to perform the duties of huntsman with the now uproarious pack. His action proved infectious —watchmaker, draper, lawyer, and curate splashed into the shallows to help in keeping the rat on the move; and fun was fast and furious till the prey, fleeing from a smart attack by Bob, was captured by a spaniel swimming under a big oak-root between the curate and the bank.
I hardly think I have enjoyed any sport so well as those Wednesday evening hunts in the bygone years, when life was unshadowed and each sportsman of us felt within him the heart of a child. So great was our amusement that the village urchins instituted a rival Hunt in the brooks on Saturdays; they notched their sticks for every "kill," and boasted that they beat us hollow with the number of their trophies.
We had several adventures with otters, but the creatures always, in the end, eluded us, and we soon were of opinion that smaller fry were capable of affording better fun. Some seasons afterwards, when our Hunt was disbanded, the shopkeepers' apprentices continued, with the youngsters, to work our mongrel hounds ; but eventually Joker's death from the bite of an adder put an end to their pastime, for the bobtail and the terrier were the only possible leaders of the nondescript pack.
Bob, the terrier, was always the most interesting of our hounds. He manifested a disposition to use the other dogs to serve his purposes, just as he used the unsuspecting fishermen if he wished to go hunting in the woods. When with me after game on the upland farms, he often seemed to forget entirely that I had taken him to hunt, not for his own amusement only, but also for mine. Directly he discovered a rabbit squatting in a clump of grass or i brambles, perhaps ten or a dozen yards from a hedge, he signalled his find by barking so incessantly that my spaniels hastened pell-mell to the spot. This was just as it should be—for Bob. Dancing with excitement, he waited between the clump and the hedge till the spaniels entered and bolted the rabbit; then he tore madly in close pursuit of the fleeing creature, and my chance of a shot was spoiled through the possibility of my hitting him instead of his quarry.
By the riverside, his tricks were precisely similar. Seeing a moorhen dive, he would call the dogs around him, so that they might bring the bird again to the surface and thus afford him sport. The moorhen, meanwhile, invariably escaped; yet Bob failed to understand that he was the only diver in the pack.
His antics were comical in the extreme if a vole eluded him by diving to the lower entrance of its burrow beneath the surface of a backwater. Having missed his opportunity, but unable to comprehend how he had missed it, the terrier left the water, stood on the roots of a tree over the entrance to the vole's burrow, and furiously barked instructions to his companions swimming in the pool. Disgusted at last by their inattention to his orders, he plunged headlong into the stream and vanished for a few moments; then he reappeared, proud of his superior bravery, sneezing and coughing, and with a mouthful of stones and soil torn from the bank in his desperate efforts to force his way to the spot whither the object of the chase had gone from view.
Bob long survived the big dog Joker, and in his old days loved as well as ever the excitement of a hunt. His originality was preserved to the end ; stiffened by rheumatism and almost choked by asthma, he always, when in search of rabbits, ran up-hill and walked down-hill, thus losing both energy and breath that might with advantage have been kept in reserve.
With the passing of the years, many changes have occurred to sunder the friendships formed during those boylike expeditions. I smile when I think how impossible it would be, now that the veneer of town life has been thinly spread over the life of our village, for the man of law to go wading, with tucked-up trousers, after rats; how impossible, also, for him to frequent with me the bathing pool, as was sometimes his wont, and swim idly hither and thither, while the moon peered between the trees and the vague witchery of the summer night filled his spirit and my own. My youthful feelings, long preserved, have been irrevocably lost; and yet, if only for memory's sake, I would willingly hunt with him again, and, when night had fallen, swim with him once more in the dim, mysterious pool below the garden. But the old hunting party could never be complete. Death makes gaps that Time fails to fill.
Those evenings were delightful, not only because of unrestrained mirth and innocent sport, but also because we took a keen interest in our surroundings, seeing the world of small things by the river-bank with eyes such as belonged to anglers and hunters of the old-fashioned, leisurely school. They marked for me the beginning of a pleasant study of the water-voles that lived in their burrows on the brink of the river, and were sometimes hunted as persistently as were the brown rats, but far more frequently eluded our hounds than did the noxious little brutes we particularly desired to destroy.
Wherever they take up their quarters, about the farmstead during winter or in the open fields during summer, brown rats are an insufferable nuisance. There is no courtesy or kindness in the nature of the rat; no nesting bird is safe from his attacks, unless her home is beyond his reach in some cleft of a rock that he cannot scale or in some fork of a tree that he cannot climb. He is a cannibal—even the young and the sick of his own kind become the victims of his rapacious hunger—and he will eat almost anything, living or dead, from the refuse in a garbage heap to the dainty egg of a willow-wren in the tiny, domed nest amid the briars at the margin of the river.
The water-vole is often called, wrongly, the water-rat, but it is of very different habits, and is well nigh entirely a vegetable feeder, and one of the most charming and most inoffensive creatures in Britain. To the close observer of Nature, differences in the character of animals—even among the members of one species—soon become apparent. I was struck with manifestations of such unlike-ness when I kept small communities of ants in artificial nests between slips of glass, so as to watch their doings in my hours of leisure. One nest of yellow ants contained at first a dozen workers and a queen; and when I began to study them I used to mark with minute spots of white the bodies of the particular ants under observation. These spots would remain till the ants had time for their toilet and either licked themselves clean or were licked clean by sympathetic companions. At the outset I found that under a magnifying glass two of the dozen workers were readily distinguishable from the others because of their size and shape. Gradually, by detecting little peculiarities, I could single out the ants, and so had no need to mark my tiny pets in order to follow their movements, except on occasions when they clustered round the queen, or rested, gossiping in little groups, here and there in the rooms and passages of their dwelling. One ant was greedy, and, if she was the first to find a fresh drop of honey I had placed outside the nest, would feed to repletion without ever thinking of informing her friends of her discovery. At such times she even became e intoxicated, and I fancied that, when she did at last get home, eager enquiries made as to the whereabouts of the nectar met with incoherent replies, since the seekers for information generally failed to profit by what they were told, and had to cast about aimlessly for some time before finding the food. I also observed that another ant was perfectly unselfish, and not only would inform her companions directly she discovered honey, but would assiduously feed the queen before attending to her own requirements. And so my pets were separately known because of faults and failings or good qualities that often seemed quite human.
A certain vole, living in the river-bank near the place where the villagers met to hunt, was not easily mistaken for one of his fellows. Whereas the general colour of a water-vole's coat—except in the variety known as the black vole—is greyish brown, which takes a reddish tinge when the light glances on it between the leaves, his was uniformly of a dark russet. In keeping with this shiny russet coat, his beady black eyes seemed to glisten with unusual lustre; and so it happened that the question, " I wonder if Brighteye is from home?" was often asked as we sent our hounds to search among the willows on the further bank; and later it became a custom for the Hunt, before the sport of the evening was begun, to pass up-stream for a hundred yards or so in order that he might be left in peace.
He was quite a baby water-vole when first I made his acquaintance, but the colour of his coat did not change with the succeeding months, and, evening after evening, when the noisy hounds were safe at home or strolling about the village street, I would quietly make my way back to his haunt, and, hidden behind a convenient tree, carefully watch him. In this way I learned many secrets of his life, noticed many traits in which he differed from his companions, and could form a fairly accurate idea of the dangers that beset him, and of the joys and the sorrows that fell to his lot during the three years when his presence was familiar as I fished in the calm summer twilight, or lay motionless in the long grass near the place where he was wont to sit, silent and alert, before dropping into the back-water and beginning the work and the play of the night.