Wildlife Column: Mammal with a long snout and tail

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When the author Kenneth Grahame wrote about ‘Ratty’ the water rat, he did not mean a troublesome mammal with a long snout and a long tail, but an altogether different animal, the water vole.

Even today, people still get confused and perhaps more so since the vole has declined sharply in recent decades, and the brown rat has done rather well.

The rats travelled in ships and crates of cargo

It is the brown rat that invades homes and outbuildings and spreads damage and disease.

The brown rat came to these shores around the early 1700s, supposedly carried on a ship from Norway. Its British population has been estimated to be something above 6.8 million.

It wasn’t the brown rat that brought plague with it, but its smaller cousin, the black or ‘ship rat’. This little mammal arrived from India, via the Romans, some 2,000 years ago.

The rats travelled in ships and crates of cargo. And they did not travel alone but carried fleas. It was the rats and fleas that brought the bubonic plague or Black Death to Europe in the Middle Ages.

This disease was rampant in the European human community and in England alone killed about three million people.

Today, the black rat is a rarity, squeezed out by its bigger and more aggressive cousin. It lives in packs of 20 to 60 or so individuals and eats mainly plant matter.

Mostly they are nocturnal and, being quite small, are very agile and able to climb ropes and brickwork.

Like brown rats they easily gnaw their way into wooden buildings.

Nevertheless, it was not a brown rat or even a black rat that Dick Pitt saw while out with a local group of walkers from Beauchief.

This rather stocky, plump, brown mammal was in the river in one of the Derbyshire Dales and is definitely a water vole – Ratty from ‘Wind in the Willows’ – and specially protected.

Water voles are strict vegetarians and highly territorial along the banks of rivers and streams.

Sadly, unlike the true ‘rats’, Ratty has not fared well in recent times. It is the same old story of pollution, habitat degradation, and predation or competition.