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.
In this tight snuggery, at a time when the corncrake's nocturnal music was first heard in the meadow by the pool, five midget water-voles, naked and blind, were born. Brighteye listened intently to the faint, unmistakable family noises issuing therefrom, and then, like a thoughtful dry-nurse, went off to find for his mate a tender white root of horse-tail grass. For several nights he was assiduous in his attentions to the mother vole; and afterwards, his housekeeping duties being suspended, he became a vigilant sentinel, maintaining constant watch over the precious family within his home.
When the baby voles were about a week old, a large brown rat, that on several occasions in the previous year had annoyed the youthful Brighteye, returned to the pool. Wandering through the run-ways, the monster chanced to discover the opening from the bank to Brighteye's chamber, and, thinking that here was a place admirably suited for a summer resort, proceeded to investigate. The vole scented him immediately, and, though the weaker animal, climbed quickly out and with tooth and nail fell upon the intruder. An instant later, the mother vole appeared, and with even greater ferocity than that of her mate joined in the keen affray in order to defend her home and family to the utmost of her powers. But the rat possessed great strength and cruel teeth, and his size and weight were such that for several minutes he successfully maintained his position. With desperate efforts, the voles endeavoured to pull the rat into the water, where, as they knew, their advantage would be greater than on land, They succeeded at last in forcing him over the bank, and in the pool proceeded to punish him to such an extent—clinging to his neck by their teeth and fore-feet, while they used their hind-claws with painful effect on his body—that, dazed by their drastic methods and almost suffocated, he reluctantly gave up the struggle, and floated, gasping, down the stream.
The mother vole, though she and her spouse had proved victorious, was so unsettled by the rat's incursion, that, as a cat carries her kittens, she earned each of her young in turn from their nest to a temporary refuge in a clump of brambles. Still dissatisfied, she removed them thence to a shallow depression beside one of the run-ways, where, throughout the night, she nursed them tenderly. At daybreak she took them back to the warmth and the comfort of the nest. Shortly afterwards, when their eyes were opened and they were following the parent voles on one of their customary night excursions, the mother found herself face to face with a far more formidable antagonist than the rat.
The baby voles, like the offspring of nearly all land animals that have gradually become aquatic in their habits, were at first strangely averse from entering the water, and had to be taken by their parents into the pool. There the anxious mother, firm yet gentle in her system of education, watched their every movement, and encouraged them to follow her about the backwaters and shallows near their home.
But if either of them showed the faintest sign of fatigue, the mother dived quietly and lifted the tired nursling to the surface.
Late one evening, while the parent voles were busy with their work of family training, the old cannibal trout suddenly appeared, rose quickly at one of the youngsters swimming near the edge of the current, but, through a slight miscalculation, failed to clutch his prize. The mother vole, ever on the alert, plunged down, and, heedless of danger, darted towards her enemy. For a second or two she manoeuvred to obtain a grip, then, as she turned to avoid attack, the jaws of the trout opened wide, and, like a steel trap, closed firmly on her tail. Maddened with rage and pain, she raised herself quickly, clutched at the back of her assailant, and buried her sharp, adze-shaped teeth—that could strip a piece of willow-bark as neatly as could a highly tempered tool of steel—in the flesh behind his gills. So sure and speedy was her action, that she showed no sign of fatigue when she reached the surface of the water, and the trout, his spinal column severed just behind his gills, drifted lifelessly away.
Though the young voles, in the tunnelled buttress of the river-bank, lived under the care of experienced parents ever ready and resolute in their defence, and became as shy and furtive as the wood-mice dwelling in the hollows of the hedge beside the pond, they were not always favoured by fortune. The weakling of the family died of disease; another of the youngsters, foraging alone in the wood, was killed by a bloodthirsty weasel; while a third, diving to pick up a root of water-weed, was caught by the neck in the fork of a submerged branch, and drowned.
During the autumn and the winter the survivors remained with their parents; the burrow was enlarged and improved by the addition of new granaries for winter supplies, new water-entrances to facilitate escape in times of panic, and a new, commodious sleeping chamber, strewn with hay and withered reeds, at the end of a long tunnel extending almost directly beneath the river-path. The supplies in the granaries were, however, hardly needed: the winter was exceptionally mild, and the voles were generally able to obtain duckweed and watercress for food. Often, on my way to the ruined garden, I noticed their footprints — indistinctly outlined on the gravel, but deep and triangular where the creatures climbed through soft and yielding soil—along the path leading to the pond in the pasture near the wood.
When spring came once more, and the scented primroses gleamed faintly in the gloom beside the upper entrance to the burrow, and the corncrake, babbling loudly, wandered through the growing grass at the foot of the meadow-hedge, the household of the voles was broken up. The young ones found partners, and, in homes not far from the burrow by the willow-stoles, settled down to the usual life of the vole, a life of happiness and yet of peril.
For still another year Brighteye's presence was familiar to me. I often watched him as he sat at the water's edge above the buttress, or on the stone in mid-stream, or on the half-submerged root of a tree washed into an angle of the pool above the stakes, and as, after his usual toilet observances, he swam thence across the reed-bed opposite the " hover" where, in autumn, the breeding salmon lurked.
Then, for many months, I lived far from the well loved village. But one winter evening, after a long journey, I returned. The snow, falling rapidly, blotted out the prospect of the silent hills. The village seemed asleep; the shops were closed for the weekly holiday; not a footfall could be heard, not even a dog could be seen, down the long vista of the straggling street. The white walls of the cottages, and the white snow-drifts banked beside the irregular pavements, were in complete contrast to the radiant summer scene on which my eyes had lingered when I left the village. My feeling of cheerlessness was not dispelled even by the warmth and comfort of the little inn. Oppressed by the evidences of change, which in my disappointment were, no doubt, much exaggerated, I left the inn, and, heedless of the piercing cold and the driving snow, made my way towards the river. As I approached the stakes below the pool, a golden-eye duck rose from beside the bank, and on whistling wings flew swiftly into the gloom. I crouched in the shelter of a holly tree, and waited and watched till the cold became unendurable; but no other sign of life was visible; the pool was deserted.
In summer I returned home to stay, and then, as of old, I often wandered by the river. Evening after evening, till long after the last red glow had faded from the western hill-tops, I lingered by the pool. The owl sailed slowly past; the goatsucker hawked for moths about the oaks; the trout rose to the incautious flies; the corncrake babbled loudly in the long, lush meadow grass. A family of voles swam in and out of the shallows opposite my hiding place; but none of the little animals approached the buttress near the stakes. Frequently I saw their footprints on the sandy margin, but never the footprints of Brighteye. Somehow, somewhere, he had met relentless fate.