Author interview: Christine Gregory
- Thursday 4 February 2016
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?
My 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.
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.
A cow drinks at a badly eroded bankside on the Derwent.
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.
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.
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.'
Baby water voles in spring.
Finally, any plans for your next book?