The usual practice is to scoop up large quantities of mud from the river bottom and dump this on top of the eroded bank, to build it outwards. This is profoundly unfortunate for the little mammal, which finds its burrow entrance sealed by several feet of wet, thick mud.
Ratty, the most engaging of all of Kenneth Grahame's characters, is actually a water vole, Arvicola terrestris. And while he may have survived all manner of desperate scrapes in The Wind in the Willows, the late 20th century has given him a rather tragic non-fictional treatment.
Now the British Waterways Board, which runs most of the nation's canals, is to install escape tunnels which should allow the water vole to reach the surface once the board's engineers have done their work.
The tunnels will consist of drainage pipes running from the burrow entrance to the edge of the repaired bank. They are to be tried out on an eroded stretch of the Oxford Canal near Banbury. Conservation staff will then
establish if the tunnels are any help.
But even if the problem of entombment is solved, repaired banks provide a poor habitat for water voles. The muddy new canal or riverside is bare of vegetation, leaving the creatures short of food and cover. They and their burrow entrances become dangerously conspicuous to their enemies - foxes, barn owls and mink.
The water vole, which is much larger than the field vole, is an excellent swimmer even though it lacks basic adaptations such as webbed feet and waterproof fur.
They eat plant leaves, stems and roots above and below the water, and live for up to three years. They do not hibernate in winter but are less active then, spending long hours underground in communal nests.
The water vole appears to have been in decline ever since The Wind in the Willows was published, in 1908. The spread of mink (introduced from the US), pollution and habitat damage are thought to be the main causes.
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