The world has many river-dwelling friends, let’s meet the 7 British natives. You won’t likely come across them unless you live or work near a river or take a lot of river walks. But that does not mean it’s any less important to protect them. Let’s meet them, then see how we can help (mostly by opposing culls and keeping the rivers clean).
Otters alas rarely live a long time, and a lot of this has to do with modern life. Over-fishing has reduced their food and building roads has not helped (some near the sea have been caught in fishing nets). Charities want under-road tunnels and otter ledges to stop them being run over, and pesticides baned.
If you find an otter cub that needs help (talk to the experts below if insure, a lot of wildlife is ‘rescued’ when the parents are nearby), place in a box with a blanket or towel (no fringes to stop entanglement) and don’t place near a radiator, or the cub will over-heat. Wear thick gloves as otters have sharp teeth, and likely try to nip you! Then call Wild Otter Trust for help (you can also report dead otters to them). If you can’t get through, call your wildlife shelter. Find lots of info at International Otter Survival Fund (includes educational packs).
Eurasian beavers are native and in the news a lot, after recovering after almost going extinct due to hunting. They love to build dams, and this is helping to prevent floods. They are herbivores, so even fishermen like them. Yet their anal glands are sometimes used in perfumes and vanilla flavouring. Studies which have released wild beavers in Devon, Wales and Scotland have found that not only do they prevent floods, but also provide homes for other species, as their gnawing helps regrowth of vegetation and the leaky river dams help to reduce flash flooding. Read Bringing Back the Beaver (one man’s quest to re-wild our waterways).
They also help to create wetland homes for dragonflies, butterflies, brown trout and various bats. They live on bark, tree shoots, riverside plants and grasses. Their extremely strong teeth have to keep chomping up wood or they would grow to 4ft in one year. They are ‘nature’s amazing architects’.
Other River-Dwelling Friends
- Daubenton’s Bats are also called our ‘water bats’. Bats are the world’s only flying mammals, and these ones live often near fenlands and wetlands, and can be seen skimming the surface for insects at night. They eat up a lot of our midges, scooping them up with their feet and tail. In winter, they hibernate in caves and tunnels. In the wild they can live over 20 years.
- Stoats are small predators that have very low bodies, which run close to the ground. Larger than weasels, they hunt rodents and rabbits and are England’s smallest carnivores, also eating voles, mice and small birds. They have unique fur that goes pure white in winter, which is the unfortunate reason why they have been used in the fur trade, before fur farming was banned here, although it still goes on abroad (and the sale of fur is still legal).
- Weasels are small and agile. They again eat small rodent prey, and can fit into a small burrow, waiting for something to eat.
- Water shrews are also carnivores and eat shrimp and frogs, giving out a toxin to kill their prey. However they also have lots of natural predators themselves, including owls, pike and mink.
- American mink arrived here for the fur trade many years ago. Some escaped from the fur farms and others were deliberately released. They look like a cross between a cat (with whiskers) and a ferret, and because they are very good hunting carnivores, many people are concerned as they can wipe out whole colonies of endangered water voles.
Restoring Habitats for Water Voles
The knee-jerk reaction regarding American mink is to cull them, due to them eating a lot of endangered water voles. But deeper investigation finds that a lot of the reasons why water voles are endangered is due to habitat loss and poor land management practices. Elegy for a River is the story of how Tom Moorhouse spent 11 years besides rivers, fens, canals, lakes and streams, researching our wildlife. Quite a lot of it tried to bite him! He studied water voles, to try to solve their conservation problems. And what the ripples on lazy waters, means for wildlife that moves beneath. He wondered all of this, as he waited in quiet hope for a rustle in the reeds, the munch of a stem, or the patter of unseen paws.
Many people mistake water voles for large brown rats (‘Ratty’ from Wind in the Windows was a water vole). These cute creatures with brown fur and small black eyes are mostly seen during day, but plop into the water if they are discovered. Living on insects and small mammals, they live in burrows in steep grassy banks, and are active all year round, and quite social. But a lot of their habitat has been lost to pollution and chemicals. It’s an offence to damage or obstruct access to their burrows, as we have less than a million left, and they need to eat 80% of their body weight each day, to survive.
There are less than a million water voles left. It’s true that minks hunt them, but that’s not the only reason. Sussex Wildlife Trust has a detailed manual on how to build habitats for water voles, useful for farmers and landowners. The solutions include:
- Take a survey of your local area.
- Restoring wetlands like reeds, rushes and sedges
- Creating corridors of well-managed watercourses (water voles can’t travel that far).
- Not clearing ditches all in one year, and not using mechanical methods
- Conserving rush pasture, reedbed, hawthorn and willow
- Not using pesticides and herbicides
- Not running heavy plants nearby, that collapse burrows
- Keeping grazing sheep and horses away from burrows
- Not using too much vegetation that smothers burrows
- Not doing heavy work in wetlands during early spring breeding
The changes in flood control methods and farming over the past 60 years has caused 95% of the loss of water vole habitats. The Suffolk Wildlife Trust has carried out drainage work at Redgrave and Lopham Fen, to stop habitats being destroyed. People’s Trust for Endangered Species supported a survey done by the wildlife trust to see if 15 years of mink trapping has been effective. Obviously it’s a serious issue, but there are concerns this is a bit ‘badger cull mentality’ of just ‘killing everything’, rather than looking at whether the main reasons water voles are losing habitats, are due to modern farming practices and flood management.
How to Help All River Mammals
- Many of today’s urban river mammals also live on or near canals. Volunteer for an afternoon to clean your local canal of plastic with the Towpath Taskforce,
- If you eat fish, buy sustainable fish and not from communities that shoot otters as ‘competition’. They were here first and need fish to survive.
- If you are a farmer, transition to organic farming. See above for tips on how to help water vole habitats, which benefit all river mammals and other wildlife.
- The rest is common sense really. Take your litter with you, and don’t leave plastic or other rubbish by riverbanks.
- Don’t wear or buy fur. If you run a small shop, get a free Fur Free Retailer sticker for your window, you will get more customers, as people want to help and support companies like yours. If you have an old fur coat languishing in an attic, then donate it to your local wildlife rescue shelter. They can cut it up into large squares to make ‘surrogate mums’ to comfort orphaned baby wildlife.
- Encounters in the Wild: Kingfisher is a beautifully written book on the utter delight that is our river-dwelling bird. Nature writer Jim Crumley gets up close with his passion and vision, offering insights into the extraordinary lives of these beautiful birds.
From Source to Sea looks at how the writers, artists and amblers have felt the pull of the Thames river and now travel writer Tom Chesshyre is following in their footsteps. He’s walking the length of the river from the Cotswolds to the North Sea – a winding journey of over two hundred miles. Join him for an illuminating stroll past meadows, churches and palaces, country estates and council estates, factories and dockyards. Setting forth in the summer of Brexit, and meeting a host of interesting characters along the way, Chesshyre explores the living present and remarkable past of England’s longest and most iconic river.
Earth Friends: River Rescue is a children’s story about Izzy and Poppy who are taking a walk along the river by boisterous dog Billy, when he decides to chase after a water-rat. Both animals land in the river, which is so choked with rubbish that Billy can’t get out. His paw is stuck in an old bike wheel, and the girls must work to free him. The adventure gives Izzy a great idea for their next project, a very muddy one…