Kenneth Grahame’s famous novel The Wind in the Willows, written in 1908, is based on five anthropomorphised animals in a pastoral version of England. It’s not Fairfield, but it’s not far: it’s actually centred around the upper reaches of the Thames in Oxfordshire where the author grew up. His endearing characters – Ratty (actually a water vole), Mole, Badger, Otter and Mr Toad – could be found in abundance a century ago, all over the country – but what of them now? How likely are you to spot them in Fairfield?
Well, the first point to make is that the human population of Britain has increased from 39 million in 1908 to 68 million today, and this has put pressure on all wildlife. Habitat has been sacrificed to housing, factories and roads, and increased industrialisation has caused pollution, particularly of waterways. However, some of Grahame’s creatures have fared better than others.
The Water Vole
The poor old water vole has suffered a 96 per cent drop in numbers in the last 30 years. Loss of habitat has contributed, but the real culprit is the American mink. Introduced into fur farms in Britain after the war, it was released into the wild by well-meaning animal activists and rapidly began to colonise our slow-moving streams and canals.
Water voles are this newcomer’s favourite food, and the female mink is small enough to follow them into their riverside burrows, where the vole is no match for this fearsome predator. Mink are also partial to the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds, which includes most ducks, and have no natural predators in this country. Determined trapping has reduced their numbers drastically and careful reintroduction of the water vole to rejuvenated waterways is now slowly increasing water vole numbers.
Few people have actually seen a mole for the obvious reason that they live underground. About 14cm long with a 2.8cm tail, moles can dig at an amazing rate of 14 metres an hour, throwing up the soil in the characteristic mole-hill. With very poor eyesight and hearing, they rely on their excellent senses of smell and touch. Their diet is almost exclusively earthworms and small beetles. When food is abundant they store the earthworms in a large ball in an underground larder, having first cleaned them by squeezing out the earthy insides.
Female moles, known as sows, have one litter of three to seven young each year. The average life of a mole is two to five years and they have few natural predators. The mole-catching industry is just as busy now as it was in 1908, but despite this the mole continues to do well and the current British population is estimated at 34 to 35 million, though how anyone counts them is beyond me.
The Common Toad
Kenneth Grahame’s Mr Toad was a hyperactive creature with criminal tendencies. The real life common toad couldn’t be farther from this description. For eleven months of the year, toads live a solitary, mostly nocturnal, life. They have a favourite spot they hide in during the day, not moving for hours on end, and they stroll around at night (almost never hopping), looking for invertebrates on which to feed.
In the breeding season in early spring, large numbers of toads converge on the breeding ponds; unfortunately thousands get killed on the roads during this migration. Males become very active, jumping on any toad within range – sometimes another male. Once the correct sex has been found the female lays 300–400 eggs in a long necklace-like string, which the male fertilises as they are laid. The string is secured around vegetation. After that it’s back to the hiding place for another eleven months. The loss of breeding habitat is the only major factor affecting toad populations, but these creatures can live up to 40 years and they are not an endangered species. If you pick them up they exude a smelly substance which is distasteful to their predators but harmless to humans.
The European Badger
The badger has been much in the news of late because of the trial culls in some areas of the South-West aimed at controlling the spread of TB in cattle. However, since the Badger Act of 1992, which prohibited the killing of badgers for sport, their numbers have increased to about 300,000 countrywide. About 10,000 per year are killed on the roads at night, but so far only about 1,000 have been killed in the trial cull.
Badgers live in family setts with up to as many as twenty in one sett. Young badgers are born in the sett during the winter. The setts might have been in the same place for centuries. Badgers are nocturnal and predominantly eat worms. If not killed or culled, they can live up to 15 years in the wild.
Up until the 1970s otters were found throughout Britain and it was common for sportsmen to go out with packs of otter hounds to hunt them under the thin disguise of protecting river fisheries. Although this practice was not banned until 1978, it was primarily water pollution and loss of habitat, rather than hunting, that caused otters to all but disappear from most counties in England. In the last few years conservation efforts have started to show very encouraging results and otters are staging a strong comeback. They are now in every county in England.
Otters can breed at the age of two to three years, producing one cub each year which is looked after by both parents and even siblings. Otters can live up to 16 years in the wild. They eat predominantly fish and crustaceans but also small birds and mammals.
Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind In The Willows’ is free on Amazon if you have a Kindle.