Friday, 8 June 2012

English wildlife

I've been out on the Cam a lot recently - rowing - in the lead up to the annual 'bumping' races. I love the glimpses we get of our wildlife during these several-times-a-week outings. Last night on the stretch of river that passes underneath the busy A14 trunk road, I caught the silhouette of a hunter... flat-faced profile, absolutely silent flight... clearly working the rough ground at the road edges and the embankment for the bridge. The barn owl rose up effortlessly and glided across the setting sun, to plunge into scrubby vegetation and out of sight -- before our cox noticed I wasn't concentrating.

About a week ago we were turning our 'eight' around down by Bait's Bite Lock while mallards laughed at our ineptitude. Movement drew my attention to a very different river-user. Their numbers are in decline in Britain partly because so many of Britain’s rivers are being trained and contained with concrete. I'd already guessed though that there must be a reasonable population of them locally because in several stretches of the river -- in the jungly area opposite the Cambridge Museum of Technology and also along the water meadows near Fen Ditton -- the river bank is pock-marked with their burrows.

The evening sun made his fur look an attractive chestnut-colour, despite a recent dunking in a turbid, fast-flowing river. He had a rounded face that made him look so much more handsome that other rodents, and I could see why friends with a passion for conservation feel it is worth fighting to conserve these water voles. He was shy and soon bolted for cover but it was a lovely encounter, even if this time I earned a stern -- if deserved -- reprimand from our cox for allowing my attention to wander outside the boat. It is fortunate someone was concentrating. We were broadside to the flow. We weren't far from the lock, the river was in spate and we wouldn't have been the first eight to get into trouble by being washed onto the weir.

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