Our riverbanks are home to incredible animals and birds. Here are some to look out for...
Animals that you might spot near Britain’s riverbanks
Britain’s largest vole, the water vole, has thick brown fur, short ears and a round nose. Sadly, its numbers are shrinking fast, although measures to help, including better control of American mink (the water vole’s fiercest predator), are under way. Living in riverside burrows, water voles forage along the banks, eating up to 80% of their body weight each day. They munch on up to 227 varieties of plant and it’s thought that their grazing encourages wild flowers to grow. When disturbed, the water vole ‘plops’ into the water and swims to safety, kicking up a cloud of mud like a smokescreen. Females have up to five litters a year, with youngsters leaving the nest at four months.
With a large head, dagger-like beak, and electric blue and orange feathers, the kingfisher is a jewel-like bird. Hard to spot (other than a glint of blue), it emerges from its dense waterside cover to dive for minnows, stickleback and shrimps. Nesting birds will tunnel into sandy banks, laying a clutch of six or seven eggs. Once hatched, the adult has to catch up to 120 fish every day to feed the hungry chicks. The aerodynamic kingfisher’s beak was the model for the Japanese bullet train.
If you happen to spot a beaver gliding through the water, snubby nose aloft, you would be one of the first people in the UK to encounter these originally native rodents for over 400 years. Having disappeared by the 16th century due to overhunting, beavers were reintroduced some 10 years ago. They gnaw through vegetation to build dams, and in doing so, dramatically reshape the landscape, supercharging the ecosystem. Insects, amphibians and birds flourish in a beaver-made world.
Perfectly adapted to an aquatic life, these gentle herbivores have waterproof fur and transparent eyelids that act as goggles underwater. They use their paddle-like tail to steer when swimming, and as an alarm when threatened, thwacking the water to make a mighty racket.
As dusk falls, the Daubenton’s bat, aka the water bat, leaves its roost to skim the river surface, using its feet and tail to scoop up midges, flies and mosquitoes. Just 5cm long, this bat is incredibly fast and agile, executing aerial displays at speed in search of prey.
With a pointy snout and velvet-black waterproof fur, the water shrew weighs little more than a £2 coin. Yet it is a ball of furious action, constantly in search of prey or defending its territory against other shrews. It hunts along the riverbed for shrimps and insect larvae, or the occasional small fish. Nocturnal and solitary, water shrews live for around two years and usually die off after breeding.
Around 50 years ago, otters were almost extinct in the UK until it was realised they were being killed by the pesticide DDT, which was then banned. Now, these sleek, whiskered predators can be found in every county. An important barometer of healthy rivers, their numbers have increased as watercourses have been cleaned up and fish stocks replenished. Shy and solitary, otters are mostly nocturnal, patrolling rivers in search of fish, frogs, even eggs and small mammals. Territorial, they leave tar-like droppings to mark their patch and attract mates. A female gives birth to two or three cubs, and the young stay dependent for over a year, leaving at around 14 months.