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Author interview: Christine Gregory

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Water Vole at home on a Derbyshire riverbank, photo by Christine Gregory
A water vole at High Peak Junction eating broad-leaved pondweed.

For this blog we caught up with conservationist, author and artist Christine Gregory. Christine's latest book The Water Vole examines the plight of one of Britain's most iconic native mammals and the fight to secure the future of our wild places.  

How did you first become aware of the plight of Britain’s water voles?

Christine GregoryMy first real encounters with water voles date back to 1990 when we moved to Youlgrave in the White Peak. Water voles were then common along the River Bradford and you could watch them feeding or swimming close by the bank or just hear the ‘plop’ if they were startled by your presence. I also used to see them a lot in Bakewell on the Wye. 

The water voles vanished from Bradford Dale later in the 1990s and I was aware of mink appearing to be the main cause of extinctions there, as elsewhere. A small colony re-established and I filmed them with a camcorder in 2007 but these were washed away by floodwater in a devastating summer storm. Those personal experiences obviously mirrored what was going on elsewhere. There is great affection for water voles in Derbyshire as they were once so common here. They are often in the news, but as less and less people now see them, it will be harder for people to relate to their loss.

Why should we be concerned about water voles?

The National Water Vole and Mink Surveys of the 1990s undertaken by the Vincent Wildlife Trust showed a decline of 80% in just seven years. Since then things have only got worse in many parts of Britain, while in other areas water voles are thriving. But along with the hedgehog they are one of our fastest declining mammals.
We should be concerned about the fortunes of all our native wildlife, as so many species have suffered dreadful decline, especially in the last forty years or so. The water vole is one of Britain’s earliest mammals and has persisted for over two and a half million years by evolving as our climate has changed while so many other species became extinct. 
They are one of the very few British mammals that are active in daytime, large enough to see and without the highly attuned sense of danger from humans that make so many mammals so elusive. They are enchanting – with glossy coats, beady eyes, chubby bodies and faces, and very appealing habits. They are utterly harmless and should be part of the scene along all our slow moving streams and rivers. 
Over recent months there’s been much destruction caused by flooding. Has this impacted water vole colonies? 

Almost certainly there will have been widespread extinctions in many parts of Britain. A friend told me today how great chunks of riverbank have been destroyed and rivers have reformed themselves in parts of Lancashire and that will have occurred in many parts of Cumbria, Yorkshire and Scotland. Burrows will have been flooded and many water voles drowned in these immense floods. It is very worrying that a species already in such trouble has extreme weather events to contend with. We won’t know the true impact until spring surveys begin in March and even then we could only get a very partial picture. 
In your book you mention farming as one contributing factor in water vole decline. Farmers tend to take some flack when it comes to environmental concerns. Do you think this is validated? How can we improve the dialogue between farming and conservation groups?
This is such a big question. In the book there are extensive and quite detailed references to changes in farming that have had complex and interrelated impacts on water voles and other species but blame is far from the intent here. Farmers have to work with the directives they get from the Government or the E.U. and it is only recently that we have come to understand how devastating intensive farming is to the health of the ecosystems of farmland. My book on the Brown Hare set out to explore these conflicts and includes the views of farmers as well as outlining wildlife losses on farmland.

While working on The Water Vole I have also been involved with a project on the South West Peak run by the Peak District National Park Authority. This has involved recording interviews with farmers on the Derbyshire/Staffordshire borders. It has been a privilege to hear the views and share the memories of these dedicated men and women who have been working for decades in a challenging landscape to keep their farms going and to produce food. 

Almost every farmer I have spoken to over the last twenty-five years has a deep love of the land and its wildlife; we have to tap into that attachment and to the understanding and insights of farmers, particularly of the older generation. We need to listen and to find common ground. My grandfather was a farmer and my mother’s family on both sides had a farming history that goes back to the sixteenth century and my dad’s dad was a farm labourer. I have lived in and close to the Peak Park for twenty-six years and, while my life is not that of a farmer, I know many. I have great respect for those whose work is 24/7. 

The dialogue that has to happen between conservationists and farmers is the most vital one in our time. We don’t pay enough for our food with many dairy farmers paid less than the price of production – this is just immoral. Supermarkets must be challenged and the destructive way in which the unregulated pricing of farm produce makes life so hard for so many farmers – they just get what they are given and have to deal with it. No other industry works like that. What really pays for our cheap food is a degraded and damaged landscape managed by farmers who have to work themselves and the land too hard. 
Cows in Derbyshire, photo by Christine Gregory
A cow drinks at a badly eroded bankside on the Derwent.
The UK is witnessing rapid degradation of its natural habitats. Why do you think this process isn’t being met with more resistance from the public?
We are locked in bubbles – either sealed off from reality by computer, smartphone or T.V. screens, or behind a car windshield. Most people get their fix on nature from wildlife programmes, and (I hate this) we get a fix of misery from looking at the last polar bear on the last bit of sea ice, or the last tiger – or whatever – but there is often a failure to engage with the disaster going on in our own back yard. 

The scientific community, professional environmentalists and the people who are out and about counting butterflies, watching birds and keeping an eye on their local patch really know what is going on. But we have failed to get the truth about the degraded environment onto the mainstream political agenda. Cameron talked of leading the greenest government ever and yet they have invested in huge dirty power deals, insensitive development goes on apace and there is less and less money for conservation. Big operators and landowners are subsidised in their destructive management of huge tracts of land.
We need to understand that the choice isn’t between human progress and development and nature. Humans are part of nature, albeit a uniquely destructive one. If we have a greater understanding and the will and investment to conserve the extraordinary natural resources that Britain has, then both people and wildlife will benefit. If we continue destroying and degrading natural systems then we do so at our own peril. 

I am one of a substantial army of older people who knew times when there was abundance in nature and experience the loss of wildlife as a continual heartache. I often speak to groups of Wildlife Trust members, field clubs and rambling groups and so on, and am so often one of the youngest people in the room and I am nearly sixty-three. Oh dear! Lets get the young people out there and caring. Lets get a government committed to saving our environment. 

There is an intrinsic value in robust and diverse ecosystems. But, on a human level, what is the importance to the individual and to society?
We are a species dependent on a functioning, biodiverse planet. Beyond this, the simple magical truth is that we can experience intense joy from watching wildlife and unraveling the mystery of other lives. And it is really better to focus on what is down the road or just a bus ride away instead of dumping carbon on the planet in order to view the exotic.

One of the greatest joys in my life from childhood onward has been watching wild creatures. A wood warbler sang near my house for a week last spring, black cap and garden warbler sing outside my kitchen window every spring and summer. There is a siskin feeding off sunflower seeds in my back garden. I go up my hill daily to visit the kestrels, buzzards, ravens and hares. This is heaven and I am very, very lucky.

So, I’ve finished reading The Water Vole and feel inspired to join the fight to protect our native species. Where’s the best place to start?
Join any or all of our organisations dedicated to helping wildlife and get actively involved in volunteering in any way that works for you in your life. If you live in town find out more about your green spaces and the health of the waterways running through them and see if you can contribute in some way to protecting them. You could well see something fantastic. If you are out in the countryside report sightings of water vole to your local wildlife trust. If you are near water where water vole colonies have lived, keep an eye out and make a note of any things that might cause the voles a problem – such as bank erosion or dogs going in the water. There are signs in some places that ask for dogs to be put on the lead to protect local wildlife. If you see a dog swimming or sniffing near to nesting birds or water vole burrows (and if you can face it) politely explain to the owner that a rare and endangered mammal needs to be left undisturbed. 
If you have the time become a volunteer water vole surveyor. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) is working on a nationwide survey to give us a clearer picture of the current status of the water vole. You could be involved with that or with monitoring for your local Wildlife Trust. Encourage children to have a greater interest in and sensitivity around wild creatures and try and sustain that interest – which so many young children have – on in to their teenage years.

When it comes to conservation, is there any particular person or group to which you look for inspiration? 
My earliest influence was my big brother who was a dedicated birdwatcher and both of my parents were country people with a deep knowledge of the countryside. I grew up sneaking around the forests of Sussex and was stricken when the M23 severed the forest that we’d explored as children.

I was immensely influenced as a teenager by the wisdom and words of the First Nation Americans whose words were recorded by the colonisers as they stole their lands from them. This influence has stayed with me throughout my life. To quote Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Lakota (now known as Sioux) and speaking of his people and their relationship with nature:

'Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky and water was a real and active principle. For the animal and bird world there existed a brotherly feeling that kept the Lakota safe among them and so close did the Lakotas come to their feathered and furred friends that in true brotherhood they spoke a common tongue. The old Lakota was wise. He knew that man’s heart away from nature becomes hard: he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too. So he kept his youth [young people] close to its softening influence.'
This comes from Touch the Earth: A Self Portrait of Indian Existence (ed T.C. McLuhan), which is full of words from the greatest visionary conservationists who ever lived, each one of which speaks deeply to me still.

Baby water voles playing on a riverbank, photo by Christine Gregory
Baby water voles in spring.
Your book contains some remarkable images. What was the most memorable scene that you experienced while out with your camera? 

You have to realise that I saw water voles once in about twenty times of searching during 2014, and in 2015 it was about one in thirty times. So any sighting at all was a cause for celebration. Seeing the babies on the Cromford Canal was fantastic and watching one about a mile from where I live clambering along the banks of the Derwent. It looked so tiny and alone and I have seen one there just once, despite going back many times. It was so exciting to see one so close to home! I saw some tracks last week – perhaps one or two have held on there. 
Some of the best memories I have are not recorded. The camera lens is an obstacle to seeing as well as an aid!

Finally, any plans for your next book?  
No, not for now. The Water Vole was a very big undertaking. I’m going to focus again on my sketchpad and paints. But I may be working on a book next year through the South West Peak Project. 

Did someone mention roe deer? Oh dear – I’ve always had my biggest soft spot for them ...
Click HERE for more about Christine's latest book The Water Vole.
The Water Vole: The story of one of Britain's most endangered mammals  by Christine Gregory

All photographic images used in this blog post are copyright of Christine Gregory.
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