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.
Kweek's frequent visits to his kindred beyond the wood led to numerous adventures. Every member of the colony seemed suddenly to have turned to the consideration of household affairs, and a lively widow-vole flirted so outrageously with bachelor Kweek that, having at last fallen a victim to her persistent attentions, he was never happy save in her company. Unfortunately a big ruffian mouse also succumbed to the widow's wiles, and Kweek found himself awkwardly placed. He fought long and stubbornly against his rival, but, unequally matched and sorely scratched and bitten, was at last forced to rustle away in the direction of his burrow as quickly as his little feet could carry him. He slept off the effects of his exhaustion and the loss of a little blood and fur, then returned, stealthily, to his well-known trysting place, but found, alas! that his fickle lady-love had already regarded with favour the charms of the enemy. Kweek caught a glimpse of her as she carried wisps of withered grass to a hole in the middle of the burrow, and at once recognised that his first fond passion had hopelessly ended.
Fortune continued to treat him unkindly: that night, while returning homewards, he was almost frightened out of his wits by the shrieks of some little creature captured by the cruel owl, and, immediately afterwards, a rabbit, alarmed by the same ominous sounds and bolting to her warren in the wood, knocked him topsy-turvy as he crouched in hiding among the leaves. These adventures taught him salutary lessons, and henceforth the confidence of youth gave place to extreme caution; he avoided the risk of lying near a rabbit's "creep," and was quick to discern the slightest sign, such as a shadowy form above the moonlit field, which might indicate the approach of the slow-winged tyrant of the night.
Among animals living in communities it is a frequent custom for a young male, if badly beaten in his first love episode by a rival, to elope with a new spouse, and seek a home at some distance from the scene of his defeat. Kweek suffered exceedingly from his disappointment; it was a shock to him that he should be bullied and hustled at the very time when his passion was strongest and every prospect in his little life seemed fair and bright.
For a time he dared not match himself against another of the older voles. But in an unimportant squabble with a mouse of his own age, he soon proved the victor, and, finding his reward in the favour of a young she-vole that had watched the quarrel from behind a grass-tuft, ran off with her at midnight to his old, deserted burrow in the pasture. After thoroughly examining the various galleries in the underground labyrinth, the fastidious little pair dug out a clean, fresh chamber at right angles to the main tunnel, and, contented, began in earnest the duties of the year.
April came; and often, as he sat by his door, Kweek watched the gentle showers sweep by in tall pillars of vapour through the moonbeams falling aslant from the illumined edges of an overhanging cloud, and through the shadows stretching in long, irregular lines between the fallow and the copse; and night after night the shadows near the copse grew deeper, and still deeper, as the hawthorn leaf-buds opened to the warmth of spring.
The grass-spears lengthened; the moss spread in new, rain-jewelled velvet-pile over the pasture floor; the woodbine and the bramble trailed their tender shoots above the hedge; a leafy screen sheltered each woodland home; and even the narrow path from the field-voles' burrow to the corner of the copse led through a perfect bower of half-transparent greenery. The birds were everywhere busy with their nests in the thickets; sometimes, in the quiet evening, long after the moon had risen l and Kweek had ventured forth to feed, the robin and the thrush, perched on a bare ash-tree, sang their sweet solos to the sleepy fields; and, with the earliest peep of dawn, the clear, wild notes of the missel-thrush rang out over the valley from the beech-tree near the river. The rabbits extended their galleries and dug new " breeding earths" in their warren by the wood; and often, in the deep stillness of the night, the call-note of an awakened bird echoed, murmuring, among the rocks opposite the pines far down the slope.
During the past few weeks great events had happened in the new-made chamber of the field-voles' burrow. Hundreds of dry grass-bents, bleached and seasoned by the winter frosts and rains, had been collected there, with tufts of withered moss, a stray feather or two dropped from the ruined nest of a long-tailed titmouse in the furze, and a few fine, hair-like roots of polypody fern from the neighbouring thicket. And now, their nursery complete, four tiny, hairless voles, with disproportionate heads, round black eyes beneath unopened lids, wrinkled muzzles, and abbreviated tails — helpless midgets in form suggestive of diminutive bull-dog puppies—lay huddled in their tight, warm bed. It was a time of great anxiety for Kweek. While his mate with maternal pride went leisurely about her duties, doing all things in order, as if she had nursed much larger families and foes were never known, he moved fussily hither and thither, visiting his offspring at frequent intervals during the night, creeping into the wood and back along his bowered path, scampering noisily down the shaft if the brown owl but happened to hoot far up in the glen, and doing a hundred things for which there was not the slightest need, and which only served to irritate and alarm the careful mother-vole.
Kweek inherited his timorous disposition from countless generations of voles that by their ceaseless watchfulness, had survived when others had been killed by birds and beasts of prey; and though, in his zeal for the welfare of his family, he often gave a false alarm, it was far better that he should be at all times prepared for the worst than that, in some unguarded instant, death should drop swiftly from the sky or crawl stealthily into his hidden home.
During spring, more frequently than at any other season, death waited for him and his kindred—in the grass, in the air, in the trees along the hedge-banks, and on the summit of the rock that towered above the glen. Vermin had become unusually numerous in the valley, partly because in the mild winter their food had been sufficient, and partly because the keeper, feeble with old age, could no longer shoot and trap them with the deadly certainty that had made him famous in his younger days. Bold in the care of their young, the vermin ravaged the countryside, preying everywhere on the weak and ailing little children of Nature. But fate was indulgent to Kweek; though his kindred in the colony beyond the wood, and the bank-voles in the sheltered hollow near the pines, suffered greatly from all kinds of enemies, he and his mate still managed to escape unhurt.
One night a fox, prowling across the pasture, caught sight of Kweek as he hurried to his lair. Suspicious and crafty, Reynard paused at one of the entrances to the burrow, thrust his sharp nose as far as possible down the shaft, drew a long, deep breath, and commenced to dig away the soil from the mouth of the hole. Suddenly changing his mind — perhaps because the scent was faint and he concluded that his labour would not be sufficiently repaid— he ceased his exertions and wandered off towards the hedge. Next day a carrion crow, seeing the heap of earth that lay around the hole, and shrewdly guessing it to mean a treat in store, flew down from an oak-tree, and hopped sideways towards the spot. He peered inquisitively at the opening, waddled over to another entrance, returned, and listened eagerly. Convinced that a sound of breathing came from midway between the two holes he had examined, he moved towards the spot directly above the nest, tapped it sharply with his beak, and again returned to listen near the entrance. But all his artifice was quite in vain; the voles would not bolt; they were not even inquisitive; so presently, baffled in his hopes of plunder, he moved clumsily away, stooped for an instant, and lifted himself on slow, sable pinions into the air.
The mother vole, assisted in questionable fashion by meddlesome Kweek, spent several hours of the following night in repairing the damage done by the fox. She drew most of the soil back into the shaft, and then, where it accumulated in the passage beneath, made the opening towards the inner chamber slightly narrower than before. Soon, moistened and hardened by the constant " traffic " of tiny feet nearly always damp with dew, the mound of earth formed a barrier so artfully contrived that even a weasel might find it difficult to enter the gallery from the bottom of the shaft.