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.

Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
News
i100
Travel
Suite dreams: the JW Marriott in Venice
travelChic new hotels in 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015
Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall