Teeth and Sympathy Lacking Both, Britain's Voles Helpless in Fight Over Minks

 October 11, 1998

By T.R. Reid Washington Post Foreign Service Page A1

PENKRIDGE, England Even before that notorious slander of the species in "The Wind in the Willows," life was no picnic for the water vole.

The adorable, fuzzy brown creature spends its days burrowing through mud and slime on the banks of England's waterways in a desperate struggle to escape the countless natural predators foxes, fish, otters, owls and all manner of hawks that consider a vole the perfect midday snack.

For the past century, human activity has further undermined vole viability. Factory runoff fouls the streams where voles used to thrive, and farmers extend their fields right down to the riverbed, clearing away the reeds and rushes that voles like to feast on.

But now the kitten-sized critter that bears the unhappy title "Britain's most-endangered mammal" faces the most lethal, and most unlikely, enemy of all: the animal rights movement.

Since mid-summer, animal rights activists here have stepped up use of a furiously controversial tactic in their never-ending guerrilla war against fur farmers. Under cover of night, militants from the Animals Betrayed Coalition have been cutting fences and smashing cages to "liberate" thousands of minks into the surrounding woods.

Most of the freed minks are run over on nearby roads, or quickly starve to death in the unfamiliar surroundings of a forest. But others make their way to ponds and streams, where they discover the delicious, but defenseless, water vole.

Contrary to what you may have read in the children's classic "The Wind in the Willows" where the vole character was stuck with the unfortunate name "Ratty" the water vole is not a rat. Lacking the rat's sharp teeth and claws, it has almost no protection against a cunning carnivore like the mink.

"The mink is an extremely efficient vole-killer," said Nick Mott, the Otter and Water Vole Project Officer here in the county of Staffordshire, a lush green carpet of farm and forest just north of the industrial belt around Birmingham. "The strategies that work for the water vole against other predators don't stop the mink. A female mink can squirm down those burrows and reach the vole and her cubs. And your mink, now, she won't stop feeding until she's wiped out every vole within her range."

"In a way, I can understand what the animal rights people want to do," said Derek Crawley, a lecturer in environmental management who serves as Staffordshire's official mammal recorder. "But we have to get across to them that liberating minks amounts to a death sentence for our cuddly water voles."

Robin Webb, spokesman for Britain's Animal Liberation Front, the militia arm of the Animals Betrayed Coalition, is unmoved by this plea. "It was nature, not our members, that made the mink a carnivore," he said. "If water voles are killed, at least they are being killed by an animal seeking food. That's certainly better than having the minks killed for no reason but human vanity and profit."

Webb said the recent mink releases came because Parliament killed a bill to outlaw fur farms. "Our people felt betrayed by the democratic system, so they had no choice but these raids."

In a sense, the mink liberations do no one any good. The mink farmer loses his livelihood, the vast majority of freed minks quickly die and for miles around other animals fall prey to hungry minks ducks, dogs, cats and especially water voles. "These lunatics don't even help animal rights," noted James Barrington, director of the Wildlife Network, "because they just infuriate everybody."

But this hard tale does have a soft side to it, according to the water voles' defenders. "The one good thing about it," said Georgette Shearer of the Mammal Society, "is that we are finally getting real public concern about the plight of the water vole. Up to now, that has been a problem."

It seems surprising that the nature-loving people of Britain have not been vigilant about the valiant little vole. In the homeland of Winnie the Pooh and Paddington Bear, in a nation where TV networks consistently score high ratings with weekly programs like "Countryside Journal" and "Meetings With Remarkable Trees," in a country where village councils allocate sizable hunks of the budget to the annual "Britain in Bloom" competition, a furry forest creature should be guaranteed a massive popular following.

The problem, say professional water vole watchers, is "The Wind in the Willows."

When Kenneth Grahame published his charming story about the adventures of Badger, Mole and Toad in the Wild Wood, he included a small animal that had a twinkle in its eye, "a brown little face, with whiskers," and a long orange tail. This chubby round beast lived by the river or rather, "by it and with it and on it and in it."

In E.H. Shepard's famous drawings for the book, this "good-natured fellow" clearly has the soft, round face of a vole, quite different from the pointed snout of a rat. But Grahame described the vole as "the Water Rat" and named him Ratty.

"It's a slander, and it's a big problem for us," said Crawley, the mammal recorder. "This shows you the power of literature. Because this animal is known as Ratty, people think it's a rat. And rats have bad press. We need that cuddly-little-thing image. Instead of Ratty, we need 'Volely.' "

Crawley, who lectures on wildlife at Rodbaston College here, said some naturalists are so upset with "The Wind in the Willows" that they even question the provenance of the book's most famous character, Mr. Toad.

"A lot of people in wildlife circles," Crawley noted snidely, "will tell you that the so-called Toad of Toad Hall is actually a frog."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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