Have you ever read The Wind in the Willows - the classic tale of Mr Toad, Ratty, Badger and Mole? I never read the book as a child, but did so about a couple of years ago. Out of all the animals, Ratty was my favourite.
How does this tie in with my job here at the Sanctuary I hear you ask! Well, Ratty was a water vole and today a group of volunteers from the Sanctuary, me amongst them, went along to East Axnoller Farm to rise to the challenge of clearing the Himalayan Balsam that is endangering the habitat along our rivers and streams all in the good cause of helping water voles.
We arrived at the farm to meet Mervyn Newman, the project officer for the Devon water vole recovery project. Mervyn told us that on this part of the River Axe, there had been sightings of water voles and recently signs of otters, although not being seen, tracks had been found along the riverbank.
Armed with gloves and wellies, we headed off in two groups to tackle the two streams that source the River Axe. The group I was with waded into the water and we began clearing our way through the tall nettles and working along the banks to pull up the plant. It was surprisingly easy to pull!
There was a lot of ground to cover and as we worked together it's amazing how enjoyable it was. There were so many different types of plants growing along the riverbank and such an array of insects and butterflies. Vivid blue damselflies were flitting here and there, while dragonflies darted backwards and forwarded through the air. It was very reminiscent of my school days when I used to go on nature walks.
Further upstream the nettles cleared and the Himalayan Balsam was clearly in charge. Large areas of the plant stood to at least 6 ft high. At this time of year, the plant is still growing and very few of them had flowered. Mervyn told us how the seeds can catapult a large distance and that's how the plant spreads so rapidly. There was no time to stand and look up to this plant, but to get down to its roots and pull up.
Steve Stone, the farm manager of East Axnoller Farm said, on looking back at the work we'd done, "It looks like a heard of elephants have been through here! I turned round to take a look and he was right. We certainly had risen to the challenge and managed to clear a good section of the two streams.
It felt good to know that our own native species of plants along this stretch would now be given the chance to make their way into the world and provide a natural habitat for the water voles.