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Nether Lochaber
Chapter XXII


Aurora Borealis—Unfavourable weather for Birds about St. Valentine's Day—The Water-Vole in the Rhi—In the Eden in Fifeshire—In the Black Water, Kinloch Leven—Does it feed on Salmon Fry and Ova?—The Kingfisher—Character of the Water-Vole—Note about the Hedgehog.

A brilliant display of aurora borealis on the early morning of the 8th [February 1871] led us to conclude that a change of weather was not far distant; and before sunset of that same day the wind had gone round from east by south to south-west, and a drizzling rain, with a very much milder temperature than we had known for three months, told us that, for the present at least, King Frost had agreed to suspension of hostilities. Since then it has been mostly wet, with occasional hailstone showers, and turbulent withal, if not actually stormy. The revictualling of Paris under the terms of the capitulation and armistice was not a more sensible relief to the starving inhabitants than was the recent thaw to our wild birds on sea and shore. The moment they became convinced that it was no sham, but a real, veritable thaw, they revived amazingly. Shaking off the torpidity in which cold and want had so pitilessly bound them, they took heart, and bustled about in search of such food as might now be procured by diligent seeking in copse and hedgerow, by pool and stream. An occasional strophe, sadly inconsecutive and discordant, may now again be heard when the sun shines out and the storm has lulled, from some of our hardier warblers, and we have observed that in some instances rooks have begun to pair; but our bird-world, upon the whole, is far from what it should be at this date; more taken up, like vanquished

France, with the thought of the mere necessities of life and the re-establishment of their exhausted energies, than with love or music, or the gaiety and abandon so characteristic in ordinary seasons of our feathered friends on the back of St. "Valentine's Day. The meridian sun, however, is now steadily climbing zenithwards, and the day perceptibly lengthening apace, so that our wild birds, rapidly gathering strength, and daily improving in tone and tune, may, after all, arrive at their day of jollity and joyousness sooner than we anticipated. We captured a beautiful Scarlet Emperor butterfly a few days ago, as brisk and lively as possible, on a window pane in Ardvulin Cottage, Ardgour. How beautiful, by the way, and how suggestive of spring and vernal delights in a land of plenitude and peace, is the following from, the Song of Solomon:—"For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; the fig-tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grapes give a good smell."

Another animal besides the hedgehog has of recent years made its appearance in Lochaber, though previously unknown, so far as we are aware, anywhere in the West Highlands. The animal in question is the water-rat, water-vole, or British beaver. The last is, perhaps, its most appropriate name, for the animal is neither kith nor kin to the rat, while very much in its economy and habits, as well as in its corporeal structure, particularly its dentition, allies it not remotely to the beaver tribe. In size, the water-vole is more robust in body and larger in every way than the common rat, with a more silken pile, and a bigger and brighter eye. It frequents the banks of streams and ponds, feeding on the more delicate aquatic plants, and on the bark and tender shoots of the willow, alder, and such other shrubs as love to grow

"The quiet waters by."

That such an animal inhabited Lochaber was accidentally revealed to us two years ago, and so unmistakeably that there was no room for doubt or hesitation in the matter. We were returning from Fort-William on a beautiful summer afternoon, walking by the hill route through Lundavra, when having already accomplished more than half the distance at our best pace, we sat down to rest and solace ourselves with a pipe—not the Arcadian musical instrument, observe, but the more prosaic article anathematised in the royal Counterblast—by the side of a canal-like reach in the River Rhi, as it slowly winds through Glenshelloch, when our attention was drawn to a splash in the water at a short distance above us, to which, however, we gave but little heed, taking it for the lively flop of a half-pound trout engaged in fly-catching for supper. Another and a louder splash, however, aroused our curiosity, and induced us to creep cautiously in the direction whence the sound proceeded, and there, sure enough, disporting themselves round a gnarled alder stump that projected into the stream from the water-line on the opposite bank, were a pair of water-voles, full-grown, and brisk and lively as ever we had seen them in our younger days in the upper reaches of the beautiful Eden in Fifeshire, a favourite habitat. After watching their gambols for some time, we threw a pebble into the pool, when they instantly dived and disappeared, only to emerge in a few seconds near a large boulder further up the stream, behind which, and cunningly concealed beneath the overhanging bank, was their hole, into which they popped as readily as does an alarmed mouse into a wall crevice. As they dived and pursued their subaqueous flight in the direction of their hole, the eye could follow their every movement, for the water was as clear as crystal. Keeping very near the bottom, it seemed as if they progressed partly by swimming and partly by running along the gravel, at any rate with amazing celerity and ease. We noticed that about their necks and shoulders their pile appeared as if adorned with numberless tiny pearls—air bubbles, in fact—that adhered to their fur, and that, frequently shifting the position like quicksilver drops, as the animals moved, had a very pretty effect. Since that time the water-vole has been repeatedly seen about the lower reaches of the same river, between the Inchree Falls and the highway. It has also been seen in some parts of the Blackwater above Kinlochleven. Ardent disciples of Izaak Walton and others interested in the preservation of trout and salmon hold the water-vole in great dislike, under the belief that it feeds largely on fry and ova. The accusation we believe to be unfounded, as much so as the egg-eating charge against the hedgehog. We shall not attempt to prove a negative, the onus probandi of their averments logically resting with the accusers; but we will say that we have known the water-vole for many years, and at one time had every opportunity of studying its habits, and we never had cause to entertain the slightest suspicion that it was anything else than a vegetable feeder. We recollect once questioning old John Robertson of Perth, than whom a better fisher, whetherjDn lake or stream, never cast a fly or impaled a worm, about the water-vole's alleged liking for fish-spawn and fry. His reply was in these words, "I dinna believe it, sir; I have fished in maist feck o' the rivers, burns, and lochs in Perth, Fife, and Kinross, and other counties forbye, and the fish were just as plentiful where the splash o' the gleb (a local name for the water-vole) was heard a'maist at every cast o' the line, as where none could be seen for days together." We know, besides, that the late Professor John Reid of St. Andrews, one of the most distinguished comparative anatomists of his day, and who had dissected many of them, was of opinion that the water-vole was a vegetable feeder and nothing else, he having never been able to detect anything to lead him to the conclusion that it fed on fish or their spawn. Suspicion of the water-vole's being addicted to the malpractices in question was first of all grounded on the fact that fish-hones were frequently-found along the hanks of the streams he inhabited, and sometimes about the entrance of, and even in, the hole which was his habitat and home; and on this evidence alone the water-vole soon got into very bad repute indeed. As to the finding occasionally of fish bones along a water-vole inhabited stream, although the fact is indisputable, it really goes for nothing, suspicious as it looks, for similar relics of defunct trouts and troutlets may be seen any day on the margin of streams where a water-vole was never yet known to exist. The real culprits in such cases are the otter, the common rat (a great fish-eater in shallow streams and almost as expert a swimmer as the vole itself, only that it cannot dive so well), the heron, king-fisher, and grey crow, all of whom are fond of fish, either as an article of constant diet, or as an occasional make-shift in default of more legitimate fare. As to the fish bones to be sometimes met with in the water-vole's holes, the dusky-coated and white-vested dipper and the beautiful plumaged king-fisher are alone to blame. The castings, indeed, of a single pair of king-fishers would of itself suffice to account for all the fish bones one meets with by the banks of ponds and streams, for the beautiful Alcedo is a voracious fish-devourer, and his hole going backwards and upwards some three or four feet into the bank, invariably a perfect charnel-house of bleached fish bones of minnows and troutlets. The number of small fish that a pair of king-fishers, with their young, dispose of in a single season must amount to many thousands, and as the larger bones at least are always cast or regurgitated, their presence may always be taken as a sure indication that the spot has recently been the haunt of the most beautifully coloured of British birds. When the bones of larger fish, however, are met with, the blame, if blame there be, must be shifted from the king-fisher to the shoulders of one or other or all of the animals above mentioned. It is only fair that the spirit of our laws, which accounts a man innocent until he is proved guilty, should he extended to beasts and birds as well. In this view of the matter the water-vole has good reason of complaint that it has been over hastily and unwarrantably condemned on insufficient evidence, without even the form of a fair and impartial trial. Unlike Ritson, the antiquary and balladist, who, although he was a strict vegetarian in diet, holding all manner of animal food in utter abhorrence, and writing a volume on the subject, was yet as cross-grained and as irascible as a wasp, the water-vole, like a true vegetarian, is quiet and unobtrusive even to timidity, leading an inoffensive life, and in his play hours, which—in proof of his good sense, let us remark—are very numerous, as frolicsome and sportive as a kitten. He will show fight, it is true, if attacked in his hole or otherwise brought to bay, and his bite, whether on the nose of an over-venturesome terrier, or the hand that would rashly seize him, is very severe and difficult to heal; but it is only doing him the merest justice that those who know him should bear witness that in general character and disposition he is the most peaceable and harmless of animals.


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