Drama, unseen

In 1938, American broadcaster Orson Welles broadcast a radio dramatisation of the famous HG Wells’ book “The war of the worlds”. In an era where you got your news from the radio, the drama was taken literally and caused widespread alarm. People listened to their radio sets as a war raged that they could not see.

I was reminded of this broadcast this evening. I’d been to Ravensroost wood in Wiltshire, again seeing what butterflies were around. On my way out of the wood, I paused, standing still by the base of oak tree, to see if I could see the purple hairstreak butterfly ( a lover of oaks) flying at the crown. I also wanted to see if there was a fox or buzzard in the area, as I’d heard multiple alarms calls from birds nearby. And then all hell broke loose.

In the undergrowth at the side of the track, furious, high-pitched squeaking erupted, coupled with rustling of the dry leaflitter under the green vegetation. Grass stems wiggled and shook. I have typical hearing loss for a man of my age and these squeaks were only just in the range I can hear, but there was no doubt in my mind: what I was hearing was a small mammal, perhaps a bank vole or a wood mouse, in deep, deep trouble.

For almost three minutes, the sounds continued. Rustle after rustle as an unseen thing or things rocketed up and down a twelve-foot section of the grassy undergrowth. Squeak after squeak. Like the Orson Welles broadcast, I was listening to a war I couldn’t see: I could only hear the sound effects. And then, suddenly and almost shockingly, all I could hear was silence.

I later worked out what I think was going on. The alarm calls were typical of what woodland birds do when they see a predator – like a fox, a buzzard, or… a weasel. I’ve seen a weasel family in the woods before – they bred very near to this tree,  a couple of years before. And a weasel is very partial to voles. They are, in fact, the perfect vole predator, essentially a fast-moving extremely bendy tube with a set of very sharp teeth at the front. Everywhere a vole goes, a weasel can follow. It’s a deeply one-sided contest, and the vole is rarely the winner. I think what I heard was a vole running for its life, being pursued by an absolutely lethal predator. And as expected, I don’t think the vole won.

I can’t be sure, of course, that that is what was happening. I didn’t see any of the combatants. But it was a reminder that  life and death are a constant in nature, even on a sunny summer’s evening. Whether it is a a slug eating a leaf or a buzzard eating a squirrel, a great many things in the natural word survive only because of the violent death of others. Fortunately, voles breed at an astonishing rate. No matter how many weasels Ravensroost has, we’re unlikely to run out.  So no photos with this blog entry, just a silent prayer for one departed vole.


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