Following on from our expedition in search of Wandering Water Voles earlier this year in Upper Glen Nevis we set out again, this time looking for signs of water voles in the Lower Glen in one of the series of wildlife events being held by The Friends of Nevis over the summer.
In the first event in May we learnt how to identify signs of water voles in known locations to gain some basic field craft experience. Above all, we had a great day out learning about the natural history of Wild Lochaber and were keen to learn more.
Whilst water voles have been recorded in the Upper Glen for many years, they have not been recorded in the Lower Glen. Suitable habitat does exist though no systematic field survey looking for signs of water voles has yet been conducted. This presented an ideal training opportunity to introduce us to basic survey techniques, building on our field craft knowledge picked up in May.
So, on Sunday 9th June 2013, we once again set out from the Ben Nevis Highland Centre led by Becks, a water vole expert and ecologist, together with other eager volunteers.
We drove up the Lower Glen to one of the car parks below the Lower Falls and set off in our search for 'ratty' looking for areas with gently flowing streams and ditches. Many of the small streams in The Glen are marked on 1:25000 OS maps. We focused on areas where the contour lines are over 4mm apart as the gradients and water flow would likely be suitable for water voles. Following the lead from our expert guide, we slowly walked down a number of ditches and streams looking for field signs and attempting to assess 'quality' of habitat. Water voles like streams with fairly deep, slow moving water, providing a means of escape from predators and enthusiastic surveyors. The habitat should not be too shaded, banks not too rocky or steep, and soft rush and other tall herbaceous vegetation should be nearby.
Given that there are no records for water voles in the Lower Glen, we did not really expect to find any signs. The habitat is grazed, forested and well managed and there are believed to be American mink in the area.
Imagine our surprise and excitement when the call of 'POO' was called out on discovery of some droppings by the water's edge. Ironically, the site was shaded and the water rather murky and had been dismissed as suitable habitat for 'ratty'. A sample of poo was taken for confirmation and the area was more intensively surveyed for runs, burrows and other latrines. Unfortunately we did not find any burrows as the area was maybe a little too marshy and wet, but we did find another latrine. We speculated over lunch as to where the water vole had come from and whether they were resident or not.
Not only did we see signs of water voles, we were treated to a wealth of wildlife in the Lower Glen. We saw a greater spotted woodpecker feeding it's chicks, a willow warbler nest, amazing damselflies and an abundance of spring flowers, as well as signs of otter.
Again, we would like to express our thanks to The Friends of Nevis for organising these water vole events and to Becks for leading them so expertly. We learnt how to read maps to identify potential sites, how to assess potential quality of habitat, and how to record findings in a systematic way. Above all, the hands-on experience of surveying with an expert has given us the confidence to apply our skills to new situations. We hope to conduct water vole surveys in our own little patch of Wild Lochaber in deepest Moidart later this summer.
If you would like to find out more about water voles, check out the great resources on the SNH website.
The next Friends of Nevis water vole event is on the 21st August 2013.
Andrew & Jayne for Wild About Lochaber