On disappearance: water voles and lullabies

Evidence of water volesSurvey Map

In October I joined Rachel and the volunteers on a water vole survey in the north of the moors. The water vole has the unenviable privilege of being the fastest disappearing mammal in the United Kingdom. The decline began in the 1990’s and by 2005, 90% of water voles had disappeared from our waterways. However in recent years there seems to have been a modest recovery. Surprisingly, I have seen more water voles in the publically accessible area of the southern moors than in the inaccessible northern moors, where this part of the survey was taking place. The vole has a subtle presence: a small dark smudge on the surface of the river, leaving a signature wake across the water as it swims to the other side. Their audible moniker is even more subtle, a sudden unobtrusive splash as they detect my presence and dive for the cover of the river. Recently I suffered an extremely frustrating vole incident on the boardwalk of the mini-stream. Testing a new hydrophone I monitored the sound of the river: a red light flashing as the recording process was held in pause. I heard a rustle of gravel and looked down to see a water vole appear from under the boardwalk and swim casually over the hydrophone to the opposite bank: I swear it was doing breadth-stroke.

The autumn and winter provide a good opportunity for surveys and maintenance in the moors, avoiding the disturbance of species during the breeding season. The survey involves looking for evidence of water voles, which includes, burrows, runs, feeding remains and that natural scientist favourite latrines. One surveyor dons waders and walks up the river whilst another joins them on the bank, both call-out their evidence to a third person who draws a map of the survey, annotating what evidence was found where? These maps are like conceptual drawings:  process proceeds form and form follows function. I like them.

From a sonic point of view the survey offered an interesting collision of soft wet river sounds and the crisp textures of reeds. Accompanying these aural textures the call and response of ‘evidence’ provides a choral spatiality and a spontaneous narrative of movement through a landscape.

On the way back to the southern area of the reserve, Rachel took in a visit to the cows in order to ensure all were present and accounted for. As I approached I could hear the tearing and chewing of grass, but my presence must have alarmed the cows and their calves as a lowing chorus began around me. Apparently, there are many different kinds of low, which can mean different things depending on tone and duration, but mostly cows low because there is a cause for concern. The chorus that lowed around me had some similarity to the vole survey in its apparent call and response and the spatial aspects that this lowing pronounced. The lowing of one cow announced its presence in relation to the low of another and my[recording]self: the herd acoustically appearing and disappearing in space. At a distance you can hear the sound of voices drifting up from the playing fields.

Hay shed rain

The cows often attempt to feed on grass on the other side of the wire fence field boundaries, and this causes the square metal mesh to bend and warp. As we wandered back, Rachel pulled the fences back into shape and I recorded her tensile voice as it disappeared down the line of the fence.

There is something soporific in the slow disappearance of sound, it is as if an audible movement into distance takes us away with it: perhaps this is why when we attempt to sing someone to sleep we gently lower a voice as if we are drifting into absence. Even the harsh metallic sound of the wire fence has something of the lullaby for me.

Conversely, the constancy of sonic information can also lull us into retreat. The first recording I made on this day was the dripping of the previous night’s rain, which continued to fall from the clogged up gutters of the hay shed. The drops fell chaotically yet rhythmically onto a floor of autumn leaves. The dripping of autumnal rain has a harsher staccato sound, rather like the quiet static between radio stations: a sound that does not move; an ever-changing constancy.  Listening to this precipitate stasis accompanied by voices that linger at the edges of audibility, I find myself acoustically attuned to disappearance, unconsciously inclined to sleep and nothingness.

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4 Responses to On disappearance: water voles and lullabies

  1. Guy says:

    Haha! Brilliant! That’s me that is! ;o)

    Really crisp, clear sounds form the reeds and movement of myself and Rachel in the river, and includes our Clive in the background confirming the sign! This really does encapsulate a typical water vole survey lol.


    • Hello Guy, Thank you for listening. You, clive, rachel and the occasional latrine will of course be featuring in the Autumn sound walk, which I’m currently working on. Listen here again.

  2. Clive Wood says:

    Terrific stuff. A highly evocative piece, bringing sounds that you know are present when undertaking the survey into prominence and pushing more apparent sounds, which I guess our ears have been told by our brains to pay more attention to, to the background. Oh, to stand and listen.

    Our Clive

    • Hello Clive, thanks for listening. I remain slightly envious of your drawing (map/log) skills.
      The splash and crackle of the water vole survey will be included in the Autumn sound walk, which I am currently working on. So there’s more to hear.

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