A day in the life of a BBOWT trainee

Water vole by Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

As an ecology trainee in BBOWT’s Biodiversity team, one thing is for sure, no two days are ever quite the same!

One day could involve a butterfly survey on a beautiful nature reserve in glorious sunshine, the next scrambling along riverbanks looking for water vole surveys in the rain. Today’s survey is the latter.

A section of the River Cole is our destination, a river that has a known water vole population. This makes it an important area to survey, to make sure the water voles are doing okay here, as they’ve declined in many areas.

One of the interesting things about water vole surveys is the fact that they aren’t always on nature reserves. As the voles mainly follow rivers, it’s important to survey as much of a stretch of river as possible.

This can take you through farmer’s fields, back gardens and even pubs. All with landowners permission of course!

Surveying

Water vole surveying by Karen Lloyd

Arriving at our start point, my fellow trainee and I assess the section of river we’re about to survey and make the decision it’s not too deep for wading. This means we can don a set of waders and survey from the river itself. If this isn’t possible we could survey from the riverbank, but being in the river itself can make finding any water vole signs easier, and has the benefit of avoiding the majority of stinging nettles!

You might note that I said we’re looking for water vole signs. Although it would be great to see the water voles themselves, unless we’re particularly lucky, seeing one is quite a rare occurrence.

It’s possible to hear a distinctive ‘plop’ as a vole launches itself back into the river, but the most reliable way to survey for them is to search for signs of their presence.

Water vole lawn

Water vole lawn by Karen Lloyd

These signs can be left over from their feeding. A nice pile of chunky reeds or sedges with a distinctive 45 degree angled tip (from their teeth gnawing) is unmistakable for anything else. If you’re lucky you might even find an entrance to their burrows, with a distinctive ‘lawn’ of feeding signs by the entrance.

The most common sign is often their droppings, charmingly described as little grey tic-tacs by a former colleague!

Latrine

Water vole latrine with tic-tac shaped droppings by Karen Lloyd

Whilst out looking for water vole signs, there’s plenty of opportunity for other exciting wildlife sightings. Such as the distinctive call and blue flash as a kingfisher zips past. Or the ever-present clouds of stunning metallic blue/green demoiselle damselflies, darting about before finally settling on a strand of sedge.

Today’s highlight was a mayfly emergence, with hundreds of the insects on the wing as they look for a potential mate.

By the end of today’s survey we’d waded along three sections of river, two through stretches of farmland and one at the back of a hotel where I managed to flood my waders!

There were positive signs to be found, including the distinctive feeding piles and plenty of droppings, telling us the voles are doing okay here. This stretch will get surveyed again in a few years’ time; there are plenty of other stretches to be checked in the meantime!

But for now all that’s left is a drive back to the office, before storing the record sheets for future analysis.

BBOWT runs volunteer traineeships in four areas of our work: reserves, ecology community engagement, and education.

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Volunteer cutting brambles by Ross Hoddinott