Anyone who thinks the countryside is quiet should spend a summer afternoon working in a Hampshire garden. Apart from the bleating of sheep in a nearby field and the rattle of a tractor in the lane, there’s plenty going on in the garden itself. Dozens of bees buzz around the lavender, blue tits squabble and splash in the bird bath and a squadron of swifts wheels noisily through the blue sky overhead.
Kneeling by a flower-bed to transplant some seedlings, I’m aware of a small scuffling from the back of the border where the shrubs are somewhat lush. It’s probably a toad lounging in the damp shade or a bird searching for insects, but as I continue with my task, I hear a distinct squeak from the undergrowth. Putting trowel aside I peer into the bushes. We’ve had the odd mouse in the garden before, but not in this patch which is dangerously near where the cat likes to sunbathe.
The squeaker goes silent. Then I see it! The fence at the back of the border is of the hazel hurdle variety, part of its rustic character being the undulating woven pattern of the stems, and on the lowest of these, just above the ground, sits a vole. Perched on the fence, surveying the garden from its ‘front porch’, the vole seems oblivious to my presence although I’m only a couple of metres away. Long whiskers twitching, it creeps forward and investigates a hole in the flower bed, scratching at the baked clay with its front claws.
Head-on, the vole has an endearing appearance, with a rounder face than a mouse round ears and beady black eyes. Its body is stouter, legs shorter and its tail only half the length of its body. The fur is chestnut brown and glossy in the sunshine. I’m told that Ratty, from the children’s classic “The Wind in the Willows” was actually a water vole, the much larger cousin of the bank vole. Whereas water voles have been in sharp decline, the bank vole is faring much better, happy to relocate from hedgerow to garden, given some shrubby vegetation and a bank to dig in. Clearly this one has made itself right at home! I notice not one, but several holes, have been excavated by this resident rodent – no doubt assisted by its relatives. Although short-lived, voles can produce up to five litters a year, so there are bound to be others.
I stand up, casting a large shadow on the vole. Sensing danger, it scuttles off into a thick clump of Japanese anemones, where I suppose it will wait until the coast is clear before digging again. There must be a network of runs beneath the garden, linking any number of exits and entrances where a vole might pop up, or drop down. Its only rival in a tunnelling competition would be the mole, but at least (so far) the vole hasn’t dug up any of the lawn. It has however, destroyed several plants, nibbling the roots below ground leaving the remaining stems and leaves withered and wilting. Bulbs are also at risk, and the presence of voles might explain the half-eaten bulbs I’ve found in the borders.
Having finished the planting, I sit down for a mug of tea and a chance to enjoy the sunshine. This time the peace is disturbed by a prowling cat in the shrubbery – Charlie’s clearly caught the scent of a rodent but with such noisy blundering I doubt that he’ll catch anything. A near miss! The vole is flushed from its hiding place and races inches from my feet across the patio and into the sanctuary of a bed of geraniums. It may be cuter than a mouse, but the bank vole is still a rodent, and that was too close for comfort. It will have to go!