I can picture it now: a hot summer holiday in 1972, and my mother and I are crossing a bridge to get into town when suddenly she stops and points downwards to the river. 'Look,' she says. 'That's Ratty out of The Wind in the Willows.' I lean on the stone parapet and see, to my delight, a fat water vole diving about and showing off.
He is about the size of a guinea pig and his fur is the colour of glossy chocolate. He doesn't seem remotely bothered that we are near. After a minute of watching him perform, however, Mum says we have to go. I refuse to budge.
She is surprised. I'm only 8 and normally I do as I'm told. But I just can't leave the vole. In the end, my mother gives up and walks off and I get another quarter of an hour of uninterrupted viewing. By the time she comes back to collect me, I've fallen in love.
How can you not fall in love!
Now, in 2013, water voles are in trouble. We're in serious danger of losing these charming little friends of the riverbank. Habitat destruction and pollution, as well as the impact of imported American mink, have driven them to the brink of extinction.
They need our help.
Which is why, six years ago, I set up my wildlife blog recording the fortunes of my local vole colonies. The idea was that the site would become a public resource for councils and landowners and environmental campaigners, since recording water vole presence and then communicating it to any involved parties is crucial to helping preserve those animals we have left. We can't protect our rare and threatened wildlife unless we know it's there!
Take care Mr Ratty!
Luckily, water voles themselves are compliant and laid-back characters who'll happily pose for a photograph, as long as you're patient and take the time to become properly introduced. I've spent hundreds of hours sitting by the brook, studying their behaviour. Meanwhile I've begun to train professional ecologists and students from the Field Studies Council in the correct way to survey habitat.
I've written for BBC Wildlife magazine, and was an early-stage consultant for Chris Packham's television series The Burrowers.
In 2011 I was interviewed for Radio 4's Saving Species (16 minutes in). I also contributed a chapter – on water voles, of course – for Hugh Warwick's gorgeous celebration of British wild animals, The Beauty in the Beast. And I couldn't resist including them in my 2012 novel, Before She Was Mine. Still, after all these years, I feel compelled to spread the joy of voles.
Well worth a read!
Because a love of landscape and the creatures within it is one of those pleasures that increases for being shared. Passing this enthusiasm onto another human being can be an amazing gift, and one that lasts a lifetime. Any connection with nature boosts your mental health, plus it's free, and it's accessible to pretty much everyone. Even something as simple as watching bees buzzing round a lavender can lift your mood. Not to mention that nowadays technology such as digital cameras and the internet means we can easily hook up with other enthusiasts for chat, information and advice.
So, even in these bleak and dreary winter days, I'd say fill your bird feeders to the brim and indulge yourself in a wildlife-moment. There's never been a better time to jump in and help the environment.
Kates work can be found on Amazon.