April Letter from the vicarage

In August last year I went out to post a letter, and when I returned I could see Bank Voles darting in and out of the dense planting under the study-window. They were snatching fallen grain from under the bird-feeder. I watched them for five minutes, but because I didn’t have my spectacles with me, I could only make out that there were at least three individuals, one of whom was smaller. Bank Voles are not very tolerant of each other in my experience, so were these three related? I went in to the house to get my binoculars, and scooped up a handful of sunflower hearts on the way out. In the past, when I have tried this, I have returned only to discover that it’s a case of show over. I made three small piles of food under the bird-feeder and took up position behind the picket-fence. Thankfully my movements hadn’t scared them away, and they were dashing in and out as before. I had excellent views of these engaging beauties with their jet-black eyes, mahogany fur and twitching whiskers. After another ten minutes of good vole-some entertainment I made my way back towards the front door. Ten feet away from the feeder I stopped again and raised my binoculars hoping for one last look. They were still feeding. I inched forward and watched some more. Still they came. So I moved closer still, and closer again. By now I was only six feet away. There was a breeze, I was upwind of them, I was out in the open and so I expected them to melt in to the undergrowth and return to their grassy nests. But no! There was food to be gathered and nothing was going to stop them! I get the sense that Bank Voles have a fatalistic approach to life and death. They know that life is short and that the world is full of predators, so they just continue eating; there’s no need to meet your maker on an empty stomach. Moments like these are more than sufficient reward for all the efforts of wildlife gardening.

It reminded me of an earlier encounter in the vicarage garden. One of my ponds has a waterfall and it needed maintenance. As I carefully removed a large stone it revealed a nest with four, teeny, tiny baby voles in it. There was also their mum, and she was not pleased to see me. She took a baby in her mouth and disappeared. I was taking a close look at the remaining babies, new-born, hairless and blind, when to my amazement the mother reappeared and took another baby away. She returned yet again but accidentally dropped this baby in the pond. As I rescued it, she removed the remaining baby. I put the wet baby in the nest. What a brave act on her part! She was fearless in protecting her children.

The Wood Mice are plucky too. Shortly after I arrived in Hockley Heath I encountered one in the vicarage. Did it run away? No, it came straight at me and ran up my arm. So now I had a Wood Mouse on my shoulder…except, I didn’t. It had gone. I didn’t hear it fall, it hadn’t made a sound, and I never saw it again.

It strikes me that the garden birds are very brave too, because every time they land on the bird-feeder they take their lives in their hands… well, in their beaks. Sparrowhawk are ambush predators, they come without warning and at great speed to snatch away the unwary. Every time I watch a bird on the feeder it is turning and scanning between every beak-full.

And then I joined the dots and saw myself in this picture. Every time I go to gather food from the supermarket I am at risk of death from COVID-19. And like the mice and voles too, I’ve weighed the risk and have chosen to just get on with life; after all, a man’s got to eat.



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