How vegetarian voles got a taste for frogs' legs

A A A

Water voles have developed a penchant for one of the most rarefied delicacies of French cuisine – frogs' legs – conservationists have discovered.

The shy and furry rodents, immortalised by the character of Ratty in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, had previously been considered entirely herbivorous, subsisting on a diet of aquatic plants.

But ecologists from British Waterways found evidence of unusual eating preferences among water voles during a recent survey of the Kennet & Avon Canal in Berkshire. At several of the animals' "feeding stations" in the canalside vegetation were numerous dead frogs – with their legs removed.

"This is incredibly unusual behaviour," said British Waterways ecologist Robert Randall. "As far as we know this is the first recorded evidence we have of them eating frogs' legs, so it's a really exciting discovery."

Water voles need to eat about 80 per cent of their body weight in food every day and often bring their food to the water's edge, leaving the chewed-up remains in neat piles which ecologists use to monitor their eating patterns.

Mr Randall, who carried out the survey with fellow ecologist Oda Dijksterhuis, said: "We found a number of typical water vole feeding areas that were littered with dead frogs, minus their legs. As a water vole's diet is normally vegetarian, this rather gruesome scene wasn't what we'd expect to find at all.

"We're not really sure why it's happening, but as the evidence coincides with the water voles' breeding season, we think it may be that pregnant mothers are snacking on frogs' legs as they lack protein in their diet. We'll be keeping an eye on what happens next over the coming months." Mr Randall added: "There are reports of animals such as sheep, in some low-calcium environments like northern Scotland, eating the chicks of wading birds to get calcium out of their bones, but we think here it could be protein that they need."

Although there is no absolute proof that Ratty is responsible for the legless frogs – no one has seen it happen – Mr Randall thinks it is a "fairly strong assumption". He said: "There were no signs of rats or mink in the area, and anyway, they would have eaten the whole frog, not just bitten off the legs; and grass snakes, which eat frogs too, also swallow them whole."

It is possible that the leg of a frog is an item a water vole could manage, like the thick stem of a reed, whereas the whole body might be more difficult, Mr Randall said.

British Waterways, responsible for maintaining the 2,200-mile canal and river network in England, Wales and Scotland, carried out the survey last month before making improvements to the towpath between Hungerford and Newbury. Water voles, whose population has been ravaged by mink introduced from America in 1929, are Britain's most rapidly declining mammals. Their national population crashed from an estimated 8 million in 1960 to under 1 million by 2000, and their numbers may now be as low as 220,000. Efforts are under way to protect the animals and their habitats from further losses.

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own