An exciting chase involving a stoat and a vole
Once upon a time, my long journey to work took me down country lanes between West Oxfordshire and Berkshire in the early mornings. During the early drives, I sometimes had some very special wildlife sightings – including a polecat – and sometimes had to drive my mini through a flood. Let me take you back to a dramatic moment I witnessed in the lives of a prey animal and its predator, albeit from behind a windscreen …
Something tiny and rounded has left the soft, tangled verge and is proceeding down the road in a straight line. Now something else bounces out after it and lollops behind with easy confidence.
A vole is being chased by a stoat, right along the road. The two of them are so caught up in the chase, that they are oblivious to everything else, including me in my car. I don’t exist to them, yet I now form the tail end of the entourage, driving slowly like a police car following an abnormal load.
The vole leads the field. I think of my pet vole, survivor of a nest of babies brought in to the office at the Wildlife Trust I used to work for. It had been completely devoted to and fixated on me, its parent or carer, and it had resolutely stayed alive until we went on holiday and someone else was looking after it.
Now here is another strong vole that wants to live. I know that her dull brown coat is soft to the touch, her nose is charmingly blunt, her eyes are like little blackcurrants, and her heart – like her tiny legs – is racing.
The stoat has a chocolate-brown coat and offers glimpses of a pure white underbelly as its lithe body bounds, sometimes zig-zagging as if enjoying the fun of the chase. A slender, black-tipped tail bristles behind it. The stoat is many times bigger than its prey. I hold my breath as it gains on its victim. Now it’s almost upon her.
Without warning, the vole makes her move. She takes a sharp, right-angle turn across the tarmac, almost under my wheels. I break sharply. She crosses to the narrow, bramble-flanked verge to the right and is lost from sight in the undergrowth. She has timed it perfectly.
The stoat looks up, aware of my car for the first time. For a moment I can just see it crouching indecisively against the verge, and then it retreats stage left, slithering away like a snake, away from the car and away from the vole, to a hiding place amongst last year’s brown bracken and this spring’s fresh grass.
I feel a surge of triumph. Maybe this vole is a clever one. I have been its tool – the only available weapon in its arsenal. It had been as masterful of its destiny as a diminutive prey animal could possibly be, and it lived to see another day of its short vole life.
As I drive on, my sympathy slowly turns to the stoat. Perhaps it has small mouths to feed, and voles are, after all, ten a penny. Probably the vole didn’t see the car, and its life was saved because the stoat was the clever animal more aware of the deadliness of people and their machines.
Whatever happened, in a small way my presence had changed the course of natural history and I had witnessed an exciting chase that most of us, living our busy human lives and scaring or killing wildlife with our noisy vehicles, will never witness at first hand.