Dear Readers, I was rushing off to a meeting on Tuesday (yes, even us retired folk still have meetings) when I was stopped in my tracks by this little rodent, all alone in the middle of the pavement. What on earth was s/he? With those tiny ears it wasn’t a mouse, and I wondered for a second if s/he was an escaped gerbil, but then it clicked. I was looking at an East Finchley bank vole.
Two young women popped out from the house and we all looked at the vole. I was worried because you would never normally get this close to a wild rodent – bank voles are very skittish and can climb trees and shrubs. My Guide to British Mammals says that they ‘walk and run, often in quick stop-start dashes’, but not this one.
“Do either of you girls have a box?” I asked. I knew that the vole would get eaten by a cat or pecked to death by a magpie if s/he was left where she was.
Neither girl had a box, so I dashed back home to get one. I thought that we needed to check a) if it was actually some kind of rodent pet and b) if it was a wild animal, I’d keep it safe until after dark and then release it if it was well enough.
When I came back, the mother of the girl was also there, and all four of us stood and gazed at the oblivious rodent.
“He’s rather sweet”, said one of the girls. I always find it heartening when people aren’t scared of small furry things.
And so I scooped the vole up and popped them into a box. I got the slightest of nibbles (which didn’t break the skin) so I felt as if there was still some feistiness left, a good sign. I told my poor long-suffering husband what was going on, and left him to find food/shelter/water etc for our guest.
When a message went out on the Whatsapp for the road, the little rodent was quickly christened ‘the Community Vole’.
When I got back, the Community Vole was having a little nibble at some muesli, but clearly they weren’t well – there was a slight tremor that I’ve seen before in mice that have eaten something poisoned, either by rat/mouse poison, or from their foodplants being sprayed with pesticide or herbicide. But bank voles only have a lifespan of a year, so s/he could simply be getting to the end of their natural life. I realised that s/he was much too weak and wobbly to be released into a night-time garden full of cats and foxes. Plus, if s/he was poisoned, anything that ate them would also pick up some of the toxin.
Meantime, the street was full of suggestions for Community Vole’s name.
But in between the jollity there was genuine concern for the well-being of this small animal.
I put some bedding into the box, made sure there were various kinds of food (grass, grapes, cashew nuts, sunflower seeds), covered the box and found a quiet spot for it. If the vole rallied by the next morning, I could release them. If they were still unwell, I would see if I could find a vet. But in my heart I knew that this little one was on its way out.
Next morning, they were tucked up in their bed, dead.
People were genuinely sad that s/he’d died. There are an estimated 23 million bank voles in the UK (their numbers actually go up and down according to whether it’s a beech mast year – see yesterday’s post), but there’s something about seeing an individual animal, or person, that activates our empathy. It’s easy to dismiss whole rafts of animals as ‘vermin’, and frighteningly easy to do that to people as well, but when we hear the story of one creature or person we can somehow understand and start to build connections. Maybe that’s how we save ourselves, one story at a time.