I’d just parked up my push-bike after riding up to the village to collect fresh bread for breakfast. (‘up’ being the operative word as it’s 10 minutes uphill all the way – but the return journey is fun. I’ve decided that French bread is a super food as I’ve got to be burning off as many calories fetching it as I consume in a day!)
I could hear Colin calling “Quick, come here. Quick! QUICK!” Wondering what on earth the urgency was all about, I hurried to where he was standing at the living room French windows. Just below the window a water vole was busily swimming along a little way off the river bank. As we watched he (she?) repeatedly swam along to a certain spot on the bank, climbed up the steep slope into our back garden, ran to the thickest clumps of lush grass and tore out great bunches of the stuff, with the calm efficiency of a Friesian cow. Then he dragged his harvest back down the bank to the water, towed it along behind him to his burrow a metre or so down the bank (about 15 feet from our window!!), and disappeared.
Kenneth Grahame, author of Wind in the Willows based his character Ratty on the water vole, but they really are nothing like rats. With his round furry ears and snub nose this little critter looked more like a floating teddy bear than nasty vermin.
Since Wind in the Willows was published in 1908, the shy water vole has become the most endangered mammal in the British Isles. Apparently his European cousin is faring a little better. I’m an absolute sucker for wild animals. It doesn’t matter how common they are,or how many times I have seen them before – there’s just a real magic about being close and watching them go about their daily lives. Or is it just me that can just forget everything I am meant to be doing when a robin comes up close in the garden?
This was our second day back in France and this wasn’t the first time that the long to-do list of jobs to transform this old water mill into the home of our dreams had been put off while we observed the wonderful natural entertainment, just outside our window. Yesterday it had been me who had dragged Colin down from the bathroom, where he had been attempting to have a shave, to watch a Little Grebe fishing in the river right outside. I had glanced out of the window at what looked like a small brown bird sitting in a beige rubber ring on the water.
As I watched she suddenly dived and from my vantage point, looking straight down into the river where it flowed out from the water wheel under the house, I could see her ‘flying’ underwater, darting back and forth at lightning speed as she chased small fish – just like those natural history films you see of penguins whizzing around in the sea. Colin and I stood and watched her for ages as she dived, came back up with a wriggling silver fish, tossed it back down her throat and then set off again. She was soon joined by the male, a bigger and more elegant bird, whose technique was more spectacular as he leapt out of the water before piercing the surface in pursuit of his meal. The pair of them fished for hours and must have eaten more than twice their body weight each before paddling away. I don’t hold out much hope for Colin’s plans of raising baby brown trout in the mill stream with that pair around!