Friday, 24 April 2015

The Water Voles of Houghton Brook

Houghton Brook is that rare and special thing, a clear chalk stream with, in places, a gravel bottom.  It rises in the centre of Houghton Regis under the Sports Pavilion, and wends its way alongside Houghton Hall Park and through Parkside to the fields beyond on its way to Luton and the River Lea.  In town it is bordered by back gardens and tall trees, making it rather dark, nevertheless, this year the banks showed a spectacular display of star-like celandines.

Despite the black colour of the water, grey wagtails frequent this stretch, flying back and forth searching for insects.  Grey wagtails have yellow breasts and grey backs.  It is regrettable that so much rubbish collects in the stream along its length, dropped carelessly by passers-by, spoiling the enjoyment of others and endangering the wildlife that live in and depend on the stream and its banks for food and a safe place to raise their young.

Beyond the bus-link the stream flows at present through fields with hawthorn and willow trees along its banks.  Here, it is the home of the secretive, rare and endangered water vole.
From March onwards their holes can be seen along the banks, like this one above, and evidence of their presence can be seen in the blunt ends of grass that they have chewed (below).  They spend all day eating just to stay alive.  On the bare patch to the right, they have also left their mark in one or two sausage shaped bits of 'pooh'!  The grass floating in the water is also a sign that voles have been here.  They also stash food away in a larder underground so are constantly busy!

They only live for a year or two at the most so are extremely vulnerable to predators and could easily disappear from our stream and our town.  Mink have reduced their population drastically, which is why it is so important to protect their habitat, especially if it is free of mink as is Houghton Brook at present.  These pictures were taken in 2014 and 18th April was a special day when, after observing for days, I had my first sighting of a vole.
Hidden behind the grasses, all I could see at first was the grasses shaking as it chewed.  Then it jumped up...
...for a tastier morsel from the bank above so I got a better view.
I wonder if it sensed my presence then because it froze, but didn't run away.  A few days later on 23rd April I got more sightings.
I worked out that I had seen three individuals in April 2014.  Dog walkers often reported the 'plop' as they dropped into the water and I had many more distant sightings.  I watched for ripples on the water not caused by wind, and often found the vole was hidden at the edge of the water, its jaws chewing away or its paws cleaning itself causing a ripple in the water to betray its presence.
But this was all in 2014.  In March 2015 I happened to be walking along the brook when the vole trapping area was being built (below), to remove voles from the place where the Woodside Link bridge will be built over the stream.  I was informed that trapping would begin the following week and so over the next few days I was privileged to watch the process, and to witness one male vole being discovered and released downstream.  Later, I learned that a female had been trapped and released upstream.  I kept my eyes open for evidence of their whereabouts and saw chewed grasses downstream but none upstream.  I met the Licenced vole trapper who explained the next step was to dig up the banks gradually.  I thought he meant by hand, very carefully, in case there were more voles, but actually it was a digger that scraped the soil up the bank into great piles.  That has now finished but I am told the wooden fencing will remain for a year until the bridge is built to prevent voles coming into the 'danger' zone during the building works.  Nothing is being done though to prevent that 'danger' entering into the voles' living zone, such as: logs damming the stream, marker poles being dumped in the stream or used to bridge the stream, vehicles driving close to the edge causing the lip of the bank to fall into the stream, and lunch packets being left behind in the stream. 

In March the vegetation clearance along the route of the Woodside Link also began with the result that, time and again, logs from the felled trees and scrub filled with litter have been dumped in the stream.  I have repeatedly reported this with photographs to CBC and sometimes clearance has been done, but as I write, there are still a number of branches and logs forming dams in the stream.  When it rains these will float and damage the banks, and dam up against the netting of the vole trap area.  The netting needs to be kept clear of debris, otherwise water will stop flowing and pressure will build up against the trap.  It is OK at present and water is flowing.  At least the stretch downstream of the vole trapping area is now clear of logs so the water can flow freely.  These were some that have been removed, but others still remain.
One day as I was collecting rubbish along the stream I came upon this shocking sight at the top of the bank.
Whilst not a vole hole, as it is well above the water, some poor little creature has been sleeping in our debris, amongst plastic, cardboard, cloth and paper.  In fact, the whole bank is littered with our rubbish which gets buried layer upon layer when the water rises.  We humans are doing serious damage to our fellow creatures by our careless and thoughtless behaviour, while they struggle to survive, bringing us joy and breathless wonder when we catch sight of them.  Other small mammals I have spotted by the stream are mice and shrews.  These deserve to live in a litter-free environment.  There are rats too which do no harm to us when they are in their natural environment, not ours.
My interest in the stream is that it should survive as a living organism, full of wildlife for us to enjoy watching out for, and not just a feature of the landscape that the developers and contractors have to take account of, and build bridges over, because it is unpredictable and once in a hundred years it just may flood and damage our homes and roads.  To me there's nothing worse than a sterile polluted stream that supports no life at all and acts just as a drain for rainwater. 
There is extraordinary potential here for harmonious co-existence between new housing, transport and the natural environment.  If you go down the cycle/footpath to Limbury Meads this is how the River Lea looks.  The houses are built well back from the stream and there are plenty of trees and grassy areas to play games, or just sit and enjoy the silence.  There are supposedly voles here too, but there's not as much cover for them, nor long grass to eat, as there is in Houghton Brook!  Can we not do the same for Houghton Brook?
To complete this post, I am sorry to say I have not seen any evidence of the presence of voles in Houghton Brook since early April.  This is worrying, unless the male has moved downstream to Luton.  Have they been too stressed by being trapped and released?  Have the rats chased them away?  Where have they gone?
What can I do?
You could look out for the signs of voles yourselves, and listen for the 'plop' as they drop into the water from their holes in the bank.  Then please report via this blog.  I'd love to hear from you.
If you take a drink with you please take the bottle or can back home with you.  Do not drop sweetie or crisp wrappers or let others drop them.  Put them in your pocket till you get home. 
When I was a child my favourite Ladybird book was The Sleepy Water Vole which is still available now.  Buy a copy and read it to your children, or give it to the school library. 
Search online for 'water voles' and watch the many video clips to learn more about them.
Report to our Parkside Ward Town Councillor Alan Winter on Houghton Regis News Desk any damage to the environment, or if on the Woodside Link site, to Howard Dobson at CBC (
It has been a pleasure to talk to so many people whilst clearing rubbish by the brook and all are supportive.  You can do much more by telling others about this blog and encouraging them to care for our environment and wildlife throughout the changes ahead.
Thank you to Sue for the above picture.
Future posts are planned on the birds of the area, the copses that have been decimated, and the hedge that has been saved.  I look forward to reading your comments on this post either below or on HRND and facebook.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Wild Flower Meadows

I love walking through tall grass in a meadow and this small patch next to the old buslink is rich in flowers which attract butterflies and bees in the summer.  For several years I have seen a pyramid orchid (below) in the same spot beside one of the footpaths, and looked out for it flowering again each year.
In 2012 I was surprised to see broomrape (below), a parasitic plant without any green pigment to create food, which lives on the roots of other plants.  I happened to meet one of the ecologists working on the Woodside Link who had also noticed this unusual plant and we chatted about the richness of grasses and wild flowers in this area that will go under the road.
I have also recorded butterfly sightings here on for several years and the number vary considerably depending on the weather.  Here are two I have seen: common blue (female), and large skipper.


But the most wonderful surprise was when I came upon bee orchids hidden in the tall grasses right beside the buslink. 
These are a rare and protected species so I reported them to the CBC Ecologist and the site is meant to be being protected, except that the marker posts around the site keep disappearing, or being blown down by the strong winds.  I am told by the Principal Project Manager that 'It is still the intention to translocate the orchids to the agreed receptor site as part of the site clearance works undertaken by the main contractor, probably within the next 3-4 months.'  So they will have flowered once again before that happens.  Keep your eyes open for them!
Of course, nothing can be seen of them right now but the first flower to bloom in this meadow is coltsfoot and you can see it everywhere poking through the matted grasses.  The leaves don't appear till later and then they can been seen everywhere as they are very large, heart-shaped leaves.
There are plans to sow wild flower seeds in what was the copse alongside the buslink, and alongside the Woodside Link.  I hope coltsfoot will be included, as they are such a cheerful sign of spring, as well as clover on which the butterflies are feeding.

While it won't look like this anymore, we are promised there will be wildflower meadows in the new landscaping for the Woodside Link.  I look forward to seeing several varieties of orchids amongst the flowers, and lots of different grasses when the area is restored to nature.