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 dawn, with easy movement, comes across the eastern hills; the mists roll up from steaming hollows to a cloudless sky; the windows of a farm-house in the dingle gleam and sparkle with the light. So came the fair, unhesitating spring; so rolled the veil of winter's gloom away; so gleamed and sparkled with responsive greeting every tree and bush and flower in the awakened river valley. The springs and summers of our life are few, yet in each radiant dawn and sunrise they may, in brief, be found.
Filled with the restlessness of spring-tide life—a restlessness felt by all wild creatures, and inherited by man from far distant ages when, depending on the hunt for his sustenance, he followed the migrations of the beasts —Brighteye often left his retreat much earlier in the afternoon than had been his wont, and stole along the river-paths even while the sunshine lingered on the crest of the hill and on the ripples by the stakes below the pool.
Prompted by an increasing feeling of loneliness and a strong desire that one of his kindred should share with him his comfortable home, he occupied much of his time in enlarging the upper chamber of the burrow till it formed a snug, commodious sleeping place ceiled by the twisted willow-roots ; and, throwing the soil behind him down the shaft, he cleared the floor till it was smooth and level. Then he boldly sallied forth, determined to wander far in search of a mate rather than remain a bachelor. He proceeded down-stream beside the trout-reach, and for a long time his journey was in vain. He heard a faint plash on the surface of the water, and at once his little heart beat fast with mingled hope and fear; but the sound merely indicated that the last of winter's withered oak-leaves, pushed gently aside by a swelling bud, had fallen from the bough. Suddenly, from the ruined garden above him on the brow of the slope, came the dread hunting cry of his old enemy, the tawny owl. Even as the first weird note struck with far-spreading resonance on the silence of the night, all longing and hope forsook the vole. Realising only that he was in a strange place far from home, and exposed to many unknown dangers, he sat as moveless as the pebbles around him, till, from a repetition of the cry, he learned that the owl was departing into the heart of the wood. Then, silently, he journeyed onward. Further and still further —past the rocky shelf where he had landed after his escape from the salmon, and into a region honeycombed with old, deserted rat-burrows, and arched with prostrate trees and refuse borne by flood—he ventured, his fear forgotten in the strength of his desire.
Close beside the river's brink, as the shadows darkened, he found the fresh scent of a female vole. He followed it eagerly, through shallow and whirlpool and stream, to a spit of sand among some boulders, where he met, not the reward of his labour and longing, but a jealous admirer of the dainty lady he had sought to woo. After the manner of their kind in such affairs, the rivals ruffled with rage, kicked and squealed as if to declare their reckless bravery, and closed in desperate battle. Their polished teeth cut deeply, and the sand was furrowed and pitted by their straining feet. Several times they paused for breath, but only to resume the fight with renewed energy. The issue was, however, at last decided. Bright-eye, lying on his back, used his powerful hind-claws with such effect that, when he regained his footing, he was able, almost unresisted, to get firm hold of his tired opponent, and to thrust him, screaming with pain and baffled rage, into the pool.
The female vole had watched the combat from a recess in the bank; and, when the victor returned from the river, she crept out trustfully to meet him, and licked his soiled and ruffled fur. But for the moment Bright-eye was not in a responsive mood. Though his body thrilled at the touch of her warm, soft tongue, he recognised that his first duty was to make his conquest sure. His strength had been taxed to the utmost, and, since his rage was expended and his tiny wounds were beginning to smart, he feared a second encounter and the possible loss of his ladylove. So, with simulated anger, he drove her before him along the up-stream path and into the network of deserted run-ways by the trout-reach. There his mood entirely changed; and soon, in simple, happy comradeship, he led her to his home.
Brighteye was a handsome little fellow. At all times he had been careful in his toilet, but now, pardonably vain, he fastidiously occupied every moment of leisure in brushing and combing his long, fine, soft fur. Both in appearance and habits he was altogether different from the garbage-loving rat. His head was rounder and blunter than the rat's, his feet were larger and softer, and his limbs and his tail were shorter. On the under side his feet were of a pale pink colour, but on the upper side they were covered, like the field-vole's, with close, stiff hair set in regular lines from the toes to the elbows of the front limbs and to the ankles of the hind-legs, where the long, fine fur of the body took its place. A slight webbing crossed the toes of his hind-feet—so slight, indeed, that it assisted him but little in swimming—and his tiny, polished claws were plum-coloured. Except when he was listening intently for some sign of danger, his small, round ears were almost concealed in his thick fur. His mate was of smaller and more delicate build—this was especially noticeable when once I saw her swim with Brighteye through the clear water beneath the bank—and she was clad in sombre brown and grey.
Household and similar duties soon began to claim attention in and around the riverside dwelling. The green grass was growing rapidly under the withered blades that arched the run - ways between the river's brink and the woodland path; and, as the voles desired to keep these run-ways clear, they assiduously cut off all encroaching stems and brushed them aside. The stems dried, and in several places formed a screen beneath which the movements of the voles were not easily discernible. Selecting the best of the dry grass-stalks, the voles carried them home, and, after much labour, varied with much consultation in which small differences of opinion evidently occurred, completed, in the sleeping chamber beneath the willow-roots, a large, round nest. The magnitude of their labour could be easily inferred from the appearance of the nest: each grass-blade carried thither had been bitten into dozens of fragments, and the structure filled the entire space beyond the first of the exposed roots, though its interior, till from frequent use it changed its form, seemed hardly able to accommodate the female vole.