H AVE you ever seen a water-rat? I do not mean a land-rat swimming in the water, but a water-rat, or water vole, as he ought to be called, for he is not a true rat. I saw one once when he did not see me. What do you think he was doing? He was sitting up on his hind legs, and in his front paws he held a piece of the leaf of the sweet yellow flag, which grows so thickly by the river. It was that part of the leaf near the root which is thick and juicy. He was gnawing it so busily that he did not see me at first.
He was a stout little fellow, not quite so big as a rat. He feeds on plants. When he cannot get pieces of yellow flag he eats duckweed, or even the bark of young willows. I could see that he had a short, thick neck and round head, with a short snout. His eyes were small and I could scarcely see his ears, they were so thickly covered with fur. His round tail was not very long and had short hairs on it.
I sat down very quietly on the bank, not far from him. And presently he looked round and saw me. But as I did not move perhaps he did not think I was alive, for he went on munching his leaf.
At last I touched a dead leaf with my foot. His ears heard quickly enough. He turned his little bright eyes to me, and in a second he was in the water and swam away. I was too late to see him go into his hole, but I found one not far from the flags, just under the water.
I knew I should not find his home; for the water-voles make long burrows. I went for several days to the same place, and took some bread to leave there. At last one day, as I sat watching, out came my little friend and ate the bread. After that we met several times, and he became quite tame. But I had to be very careful. The least thing frightened him, and plop he went, into the water!
If you go often to a pond or river, when all is very quiet in the evening or early morning, you may sometimes see a water-vole swimming in the water, or feeding on the bank. He has beautiful yellow teeth. The lower ones are large and show very clearly above his short lower lip.
The young water-voles are such pretty little creatures. They are born in a nest of dry grass, which the old voles make in the burrow, and when they come out they swim about with the old ones, and feed on the duckweed.
But though the water-vole lives mostly in the water, he can come on land to gather his winter store. He is often a great trouble to the farmer, for he likes the carrots and potatoes and even the broad beans, which grow in the fields, and he comes in the evening to eat them and to carry pieces back to his home.
A farmer once dug out a water-vole's burrow and found enough pieces of potato and mangold-wurzel to fill a gallon measure.