Over the past two years, I have learned a great deal about moorland ecosystems. Everything is irrevocably linked together by mutually dependent relationships, and food chains are extremely complicated. With the exception of top predators and generalists, if one species gets out of hand, mechanisms will click into place to redress the balance and supress the advantage. It is one of the great beauties of moorland management, and the scope and scale of the process is breathtaking.
At least, it is to me. For the actual participants in this struggle for survival, life is probably less interesting and far more terrifying. Particularly if you have the misfortune to be at the bottom of the heap.
The Chayne is dominated by white grasses and moss. Hundreds of acres of hill ground are dedicated to a bland mixture of uninteresting plant life which is characterised by its inability to support a wide variety of animal species. The only things that prosper in a molinia dominated sward are meadow pipits and their mammalian equivalents, voles. These two species are the ubiquitous fall guys upon which a huge variety of predators base their lives.
Short tailed voles provide food for every carnivore in the southern uplands, and some species, like short eared owls and adders, base the majority of their menu plans upon these unfortunate beasties. When I found a vole beneath a sheet of corrugated iron this afternoon, I couldn’t resist having a closer look at nature’s whipping boy. He was essentially a fluffy cylinder of calories, passive, inoffensive and just waiting for a stomach to digest him. It seemed hard to imagine that without him and his kin, many more conspicuous species would struggle to survive, but voles perform the vital function of turning grass into meat, and that is his sorry lot.
With the world set against him and an enemy lurking behind every corner, I released him back into the wild. I wished him luck in the certain knowledge that this hapless comestible was going to need it.