It was that time of the year again; April, and time to complete an annual claim form for the Rural Payments Agency.
This is part of our Countryside Stewardship agreement for Wheatfen, allowing us to undertake various management to enhance the site in the interest of wildlife conservation, with the financial support of Natural England. To aid the concentration, I am one of those people who needs a bit of peace and quiet, with regular refills of coffee, when wading through such office-based work. There would be land parcel numbers, estimates of areas mown, agreement numbers, customer reference numbers, codes and passwords. If I had my way it would all be logged under one name, “Wheatfen”, but I guess it’s all there for a reason.
Unfortunately, my hope for peace and quiet was short lived, for under the wooden floor of my office, in the dark crevices and voids between the railway sleepers, rats had bred. The rat babies (pups) squealed piercingly throughout the day, squabbling amongst themselves, clattering around, screaming out to their mother for food.
“Dirty vermin! Disease ridden varmints,” I called them out loud, shaking a clenched fist in their direction (the actual words I used were perhaps a bit more colourful). They seemed to appreciate the insults, increasing the volume of their wails. This had been going on for weeks now. But still, they are all a part of nature, they have their place out there in the wilds; a great food source for the resident breeding tawny owls no doubt, I thought gleefully. I do feel that their place is not under my office though.
As the days went by, and the racket continued unabating, I began to wonder… after all, rats go through their breeding cycles very quick; these rats should have been weaned and gone ages ago. What on earth was under there? Stoats? Hedgehogs? Mink? An old moggy? All seemed very unlikely, not least because of the sheer amount of noise and disturbance in and around the office, surely a deterrent for any wild mammal? I thought no more of it, until a few days later.
“Come and have a smell ‘round here, Will!” shouted Kevin (volunteer) as he unlocked his bicycle from the racks behind the office. Not the sort of thing you expect to hear every day (I had fallen for that one before). I cautiously approached, wondering what trickery was at play. Kevin pointed to the ground at the base of the office, and I gingerly knelt down and inhaled deeply. No, it couldn’t be… I smelt again, sucking in hard through the nostrils as if my life depended upon it. I didn’t believe it. On closer inspection, just beneath the floor we spied dung, a huge pile of spraints going back weeks. But surely not? We were both grinning in disbelief, dumfounded by our discovery.A night vision trail camera was sure to confirm our suspicions…
On arrival at work, after a weekend full of anticipation and impatience, I unlocked the office, booted up the computer, and whipped the memory card out of the camera and into the laptop. I scrolled through the files, one after the other. A pigeon, a magpie, oh no… a rat. Had we been foolish, was it rats all along? But then, there it was, unmistakably. An otter! A fuzzy video of a female under the cover of darkness trotting past, sliding elegantly underneath the office to feed her hungry kits.
For the next few weeks, I regretted every movement I made above them, every creaking footstep, banging cupboard door or phone call. Apologies to those who had mysteriously whispered conversations with me during that time; now you know why. I heard the kits daily, whickering away, whistling loudly at times, scrabbling around beneath my feet. Another little piece of Wheatfen magic to lift my spirits during the woes of the Coronavirus pandemic.
“Ahh you little darlings, coochy, coochy coo”, how an opinion of a noise can change – sorry rats, it’s nothing personal!
During her tenancy of the office ground-space, the sow otter was lying up with the kits during the day, keeping them warm and safe, before slipping out at last light to hunt for food in the nearby waterways. One morning on checking the camera, a video revealed some pure heart-melting brilliance. An otter kit, out in the open, belly flopping along rather seal-like, only to be called back by the mother to where a second kit also waited, cautiously poking its fluffy head out from the darkness.
It was all rather surreal, even more so one afternoon, around 4pm. Having heard a bit of scratching under the side window, I crept from my chair across the office floor, to press my nose to the murky glass. Nothing. But then I looked down. Separated by an inch of plywood and a sliver of carpet was the female otter beneath my feet. Its head and long neck were poking out like a tortoise, cautiously sniffing the air for danger. Two deep, rounded eyes gleamed; the most beautiful sight I had ever seen in nature. Needless to say, the murky window swiftly received its first clean and polish in perhaps over 30 years, inside and out.
Later that week the noises under the office grew quiet. The otters had left their holt, heading out into the big wide world away from the lumbering warden. The kits would experience swimming for the first time, learn to hunt and fish in the Wheatfen waterways and eventually leave their mother to find their own way in life.
It truly was an honour to have been custodian of them and their home for so long.