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Vole Cycles

Humble, but vital
Humble, but vital

The long, warm summer seems to have been excellent for all kinds of species, and one conspicuous winner has been the humble vole. Earlier on in the year, it was impossible to walk more than a hundred yards without seeing two or three little shapes buzzing through the tussocks, and this is in stark contrast to the years when seeing a vole is a novelty. They scuttle across the road in front of the car, and the dog spends hours digging up their runs and noisily sucking their scent into her sinuses.

Short tailed voles provide food for every carnivore in the southern uplands, and some species, base the majority of their menu plans upon these unfortunate souls. When I found a vole beneath a sheet of corrugated iron a week ago, 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 their sorry lot.

The increase in voles has really told in the frankly staggering number of kestrels currently on the move around the Chayne. It is easy to see fifteen or sixteen of these pretty little predators from the car during half a mile’s drive, and although I am something of kestrel novice, it’s clear to see that most are youngsters. These birds are always accompanied by legions of young buzzards, and for the past three weeks there have been at least nine in a fifty acre area of rough grass and heather. I am less delighted with this success, because although this boom of productivity has probably been brought about by an abundance of voles, these predators are big enough to kill a range of other (subjectively) more valuable species, including black grouse. 

This is nothing new, and I see from my notes in 2010 that there was a similar explosion of vole and kestrel numbers, when short eared owls became more than just passing visitors. The cycle of boom and bust for voles is supposed to be six years long, but perhaps the good weather has brought on a boom slightly before it was due. Heading out for a fox with the lamp last night, I was amazed by the number of owls moving around, scanning the same ground which, a few hours before, had been the preserve of the kestrels.

There were loose groups of barn owls numbering three and four in almost every field, and I was particularly delighted to see a family of three long eared owls flying together in close order and hunting like a pack. These birds responded to my rabbit squeak, and two of them came in so close that they were almost in the window of the jeep before they worked out what was going on. So much for “wise owls”.

There was a flash of marmalade orange eyes, then they turned and passed away again. It was a spectacular sight to watch them gliding on motionless wings in the stuffy darkness, fluttering like moths and scanning the ground. I did notice that the light reflected off the long eared owls’ eyes, whereas there was no sign of a spark from the barn owls. I’m sure there is a scientific explanation too deep and obscure for me to understand in there somewhere, but interesting to see in action.

There was a fox, but for the first time in several months, the wind had swung into the Northeast, blowing our scent precisely onto him. Although he looked for a second, the call seemed to mean nothing to him. He trotted away through the grassheads, leaving my girlfriend and I to sit quietly amongst the crackling bats.

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