Sunday, 12 November 2017

Novena for the Fallen Through ~ our eighth prayer for our wild kin

Here is the eighth of our November Novenas for the Fallen Through, which for this month are devoted to Saint Cuthbert and to a call for protection for our wild kinfolk. If you would like to read more about this month’s novena you can read our first prayer here.

We have already lifted prayers for our badgers, our hedgehogs, and for the street trees of Sheffield, for otter, cormorant, and seal, and for sharks and orcas, for stag beetles, and for starlings. Today, we will weave prayer around a creature who is familiar to many of us from our childhoods; the water vole, ‘Ratty’ from ‘Wind in the Willows’.

Sadly, I don’t know any stories about St Cuthbert and water voles, so they will have to remain private between them, but I’m sure that they would warmed his feet after prayer if otters hadn’t been available for the task. As we are coming to the end of this Novena though I will share one more story of his devotion and his kindness towards animals.

St Cuthbert statue, Tim Chalk

Vita Sancti Cuthberti’ is the prose hagiography of the ‘life and miracles of St Cuthbert’, possibly the earliest record of a saint’s life from Anglo-Saxon England and written at some point between 699 and 705CE. It tells the tale Cuddy’s first journey to join a monastery. On the way he decided that he must stop in a village, as it was the beginning of winter and he and his horse were tired and without food. Once there he found a house and asked the householder if he could rest for a while and if she might provide some food for his horse. He himself refused to eat as it was a day of fasting. The woman was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to reach his destination before nightfall and there were no further places to stop on his way. Nevertheless he refused. When his horse was well rested he set out again and, seeing that it was becoming dark and they had some distance to travel, he decided that they should stop for the night in some deserted shepherds’ huts, which had been constructed for summer pasture and were now derelict. He chose one of them and he and his horse went inside for the night. Cuddy pulled some hay down from what remained of the thatched roof, gave it to his horse, and began to sing the Psalms. Whilst he was praying he saw his horse pull at the roof and a bundle wrapped in linen fell down. After his prayers, Cuddy went to see what was inside and found half a loaf of bread, still hot, and some cheese or meat, enough for a single meal. As my husband says when we are worried that we haven’t got enough, “we will always get just enough, and a little bit more”, and so we do. It is all about trust and Cuddy was wild with trust. Cuthbert tore the bread in half, shared the food with his horse, and they both settled down to sleep. I love how many of the stories of Cuddy suggest that he saw the non-human people as his equals. May it be so for us all.

Water Vole,

Water voles, also sometimes known as water rats, water moles, earth-hounds, and water dogs, are Britain’s fastest declining mammal. In the 1900s our little island sustained approximately 8 million water voles, and they would have been a familiar sight and sound to anyone who spent time by the water. By 1990 that number had declined to 2.3 million, and some now suggest that numbers may be as low as 100,000; a hugely dramatic decline! In 2002, they were declared extinct in Devon and Cornwall. Unlike many of the other beings in this month’s Novena though this decline is not due to the dislike of humans. Indeed many of us are very fond of water voles, having grown up with tales of Ratty from ‘Wind in the Willows’, who contrary to the suggestion given by his name was a water vole and not a rat at all! Ratty is much loved by generations of children and adults as a cultured, genial, and laid back sort of a fellow who loves the river and likes to compose doggerel in his spare time. It is he who informs Mole, unaware of the joys of water, that “If you believe me, my young friend, there is nothing ~ absolutely nothing, half so worth doing as this ~ messing about in boats!” And water voles really do love the water. They are known as eco-system engineers, like little mini-beavers, constantly managing and micro-engineering waterways to the benefit of us all. Indeed, it has been noted that their foraging and burrowing increases biodiversity for many species, including other small mammals, many species of bees, butterflies, and insects, insect-eating birds, birds of prey, and bats, together with many plants who thrive where water voles are present. A stream, brook, or river without their careful management is deep in mourning.

But what has led to this huge decline in what was one of our most prolific wild kin? As ever, some of it is due to the behaviour of humankind. We live in the sixth most densely populated country in the world. This means that we are often in far-too-close proximity to our shy little water voles and other wild family. Urbanisation of floodplains, and development in general, have led to a direct loss of the habitat that they need. In addition, heavy grazing by livestock leads to a lack of waters~edge vegetation and the trampling of banks, both of which prevent water voles from nesting and denies them the cover they need to hide from predators, of which more later.

Water voles live in colonies by slow moving water and string themselves out along a watercourse; females requiring a territory of 30-150m, and males 60-300m, overlapping several females. They guard these territories with fierce tenacity, excavating complex burrow systems with sleeping chambers at various levels and with several underground entrances. They will also weave ball-shaped nests in reed beds if no bank is available. They are active during the day, which of course means being out and about at the same time as us, and consume around 80% of their bodyweight every day, mostly in grasses and other vegetation. What isn’t eaten is then left in a neat pile for later. They have been recorded eating 227 different species of plant. The breeding season, which lasts from March until October, will see the females giving birth to up to five litters of between two to eight young, and so, although individuals only live for around two years, the water vole are well able to replenish their numbers if allowed the conditions to do so. It seems too that they are quite adaptable, as the Scottish population, who have a different ancestry than those in England, often live far from open water and behave more like field voles.

Surely then they are well placed to thrive, especially as they were given full protection by the UK Government in April, 2008, which makes it an offence to disturb, damage, or obstruct their breeding places. Since that time, there have been several reintroductions of water voles, with 325 individuals being released in the Kielder Forest in Northumberland this June and 350 more to follow later in the summer. A separate reintroduction in the Yorkshire Dales in 2016 saw the population spreading by half a mile within a short time. Eventually it is hoped that these small groups will meet one another, as fragmentation of habitat is another threat to their wellbeing. In addition, they continue to thrive in their strongholds of Snowdonia, the Fens, and the Somerset Levels, with numbers rising in Oare Marshes in Kent. It is unclear what effect the large quantities of pollutants that formerly entered waterways, from farmland and industry for example, had on the water vole population but it is of course likely to have at least contributed to their decline. Our waters are now increasingly sweet and so one might think that all was well for our little water voles, or soon will be, but it is not so and all the time that I have been writing this novena I have been avoiding the reason why.

Because it seems that the majority of the decline in the water vole population is due to predation from another, of course blameless but non-indigenous, creature, the American mink. These mink, who Derbyshire Wildlife Trust describe as ‘the villain of the piece’, were brought here in the 1920s and farmed for their highly prized fur. By the 1970s there were 800 of these farms in operation, some of which had up to 5,000 mink. It seems that many have escaped, with some released by well-meaning activists, before the farms eventually closed. They were first recorded in the wild in 1957. Estimates now suggest that there are as many as 110,000 living here. I saw one once beside the canal in Wiltshire. It was wild and beautiful.

American mink by Peter Thomas for Gwent Wildlife Trust

When threatened a water vole’s defence strategy is to dive in order to access an underwater burrow entrance, often kicking up a ‘smoke screen’ of mud and silt as it flees. This is effective against their usual predators; fox, stoat, kestrel, pike, or heron, and sometimes cats, but not against mink, who can smell underwater and so have no need to rely on sight. To exacerbate that problem, a breeding female mink is small enough to enter a water vole burrow and can cause the extinction of a whole colony in just one season. How are we to live with ourselves for the suffering that we have caused?

It is generally accepted that the only way to resolve this situation, as far as water voles are concerned at least, is to control the American mink population by trapping and shooting. Even this hasn’t been easy as, because mink aren’t seen to pose an economic threat and despite the protected status of the water vole, efforts to limit mink numbers receive no Government support or funding. In areas though where this has taken place, water vole populations have begun to increase, although they remain vulnerable to weather changes such as flooding.

I find that I don’t know how to weave a spell around this horrible situation. I dislike the reduction of this tragic circumstance into a battle between a cartoon villain and a cute little character from a children’s book, but water voles do occupy an important niche in our ecosystem and they have been here since ice sheets last retreated 10,000 years ago. I have few words to say and I pray that Life will forgive us for what we have done, although I’m not sure that we deserve it.

Water vole, 'On Boot Hill' by Peter Trimming for Wiki Commons

There is one tiny glimmer of hope. It seems that there is anecdotal evidence that in areas where otters have returned, which is now almost everywhere, mink populations decrease. And, although otters will occasionally prey on water voles, they certainly don’t present a threat to their survival. Perhaps if we hear an angler suggesting that an ‘infestation’ of otters should be culled to ‘restore the balance of nature’ we might mention the mink and the water voles. It may be though that we have a more positive role to play than one might think. It has been observed that water vole populations will withstand high levels of human disturbance if their stream is close to a busy area, such as a supermarket, and they have had the opportunity to become habituated to our comings and goings. American mink, on the other hand, will stay well away, allowing the water vole population to thrive. If we can become more aware, more mindful, staying on designated footpaths, keeping dogs on leads where water voles are present, then it may be that the streams and rivers in our villages, towns, and even cities, have a role to play in keeping this timid little mammal on our shores. And that is a spell that I am more than willing to weave.

As he sat on the grass and looked across the river, a dark hole in the bank opposite, just above the water’s edge, caught his eye, and dreamily he fell into considering what a nice, snug dwelling-place it would make for an animal with few wants and fond of a bijou riverside residence, above flood level and remote from noise and dust.

As he gazed, something bright and small seemed to twinkle down in the heart of it, vanished, then twinkled once more like a tiny star. But it could hardly be a star in such an unlikely situation, and it was too glittery and small for a glow-worm.

Then, as he looked, it winked at him, and so declared itself to be an eye, and a small face began to gradually grow up round it, like a frame round a picture.

A brown face with whiskers.

A grave round face, with the same twinkle in its eye that had first attracted his notice.

Small neat ears and thick silky hair.

It was the Water Rat!”

(‘The Wind in the Willows’, Kenneth Grahame, 1908)

Peter Trimming for Wiki Commons

Novena for the Fallen Through

Protection, justice, and shining health for our wild kin.

This is a prayer is for the water vole people, and for the trickster mink.

Blessed Cuthbert,
Beloved Cuddy,
Saint of Salt and Fire,
Antlered ancestor,
Friend of otter, eider, cormorant, and crow,
Walker of the untamed edge of Land and Spirit,
Lover of wild places, wild creatures, and wild grace,
Threader of sea-stars into wild prayer.

We stand in solidarity with you at the roots of the Tree of Life.

We come to you again in sorrow and shame
to lift a prayer for the mending of this web we share
with our community of wild kin,
a web which we have broken, left ragged and torn,
through greed, ignorance, neglect, and indifference.
And we pray that in reigniting the spark of awareness
for all that we have burnt to the ground
we will not turn away but weave ourselves more deeply in,
to the place where we should have always been,
an equal thread, a mending stitch,
a gossamer chance, a just braid,
in the beauty blanket of all beings.
Let water vole and American mink be our waulking song,
our warp and weft,
let sorrow and shame have voice,
and in the voicing, acceptance.
And in acceptance, forgiveness.
And, if not forgiveness, grace,
for we have such work to do.

Blessed Cuthbert,
Beloved Cuddy,
Saint of Salt and Fire,
Antlered ancestor,
Friend of otter, eider, cormorant, and crow,
Walker of the untamed edge of Land and Spirit,
Lover of wild places, wild creatures, and wild grace,
Threader of sea-stars into wild prayer.

We stand in solidarity with you at the roots of the Tree of Life.

We lift a prayer for the continuance
of the water vole people in this land,
for sweet waters and safe burrows,
for lush vegetation, and many children,
for quiet days, and long life lived well.

Blessed water vole, little earth-hound,
twinkle-eye, bright-heart.
We honour you for your deep weaving into
our childhood stories,
we thank you for the young hearts
you have opened to nature.

May we take up your mantle
in speaking out for our wild kin,
casting a spell of love and affection
for nature wherever we go.

May your days be long on our shores, little water dog.
May your prayer be peaceful and filled with light.

Blessed Cuthbert,
Beloved Cuddy,
Saint of Salt and Fire,
Antlered ancestor,
Friend of otter, eider, cormorant, and crow,
Walker of the untamed edge of Land and Spirit,
Lover of wild places, wild creatures, and wild grace,
Threader of sea-stars into wild prayer.

We stand in solidarity with you at the roots of the Tree of Life.

We lift a prayer for the American mink people,
sleek of body, sharp of spirit,
fierce of temperament, perfect hunter.

May we be forgiven for what we have done to you
in this land where we have been blessed
to take in so many from other lands,
where we have woven and strengthened our song with theirs.

We are so sorry and ashamed that we valued your skin above your life,
that we took you from your own land
where you were honoured as trickster and earth-diver
in the stories of the First People.

Forgive us that we cannot seem now to find a place for you.
But, whatever comes, let us surround you in love,
in compassion, kind words, in self-awareness,
not condemnation, knowing that we too would
take our freedom if we could.

And may we remember what we have done to you
when we condemn, despise, turn away from,
any being who comes seeking safety on our shores.
May each soul taken in and offered home
in some way be a mending prayer to the mink people.

Beloved Cuddy, friend to all creatures,
you always trusted that good would come,
no matter how hard the path.
Help us to walk this long road with water vole and American mink
in the hope of finding resolution without suffering for any being.
Let the healing of this broken thread be our penance and our prayer.

We ask this in the name of badger and water vole,
hen harrier and natterjack toad,
red fox and red deer,
dotterel and dormouse,
red squirrel and seal.

Of starling and sparrow,
sand lizard and slow worm,
hedgehog and hare,
corn marigold and marsh cleaver.

Of great crested newt and small fleabane,
ringed plover and oystercatcher,
pasque flower and mountain ringlet butterfly,
wildcat and skylark.

Of marsh fritillary butterfly and shrill carder bee,
blue ground beetle and white-clawed crayfish,
freshwater pearl mussel, cormorant, and crow.

Blessed Cuthbert,
Beloved Cuddy,
Saint of Salt and Fire,
Antlered ancestor,
Friend of otter, eider, cormorant, and crow,
Walker of the untamed edge of Land and Spirit,
Lover of wild places, wild creatures, and wild grace,
Threader of sea-stars into wild prayer.

We stand in solidarity with you at the roots of the Tree of Life.

May the water vole people thrive,
once more become the tiny engineers,
the cornerstone of the cathedral of our wild,
find safety and peace in our waters,
help us to regain balance,
allow us again to sink into stories
without the taste of bittersweet,
become the awe-filled, open-hearted earth-children
that we were born to be.

The first is for badger.
The second is for hedgehog.
The third is for Sheffield’s street trees.
The fourth is for otter, cormorant, and seal,
for salmon, and elver, and eel.
The fifth is for shark and orca,
the sixth for stag beetle,
the seventh for starling,
the eighth is for water vole and for American mink.
May our string of prayer beads,
formed in the starry sea where all things are one,
gathered on the shore of meeting,
be filled with life, love, and wild justice
for all beings on this earth we share.

For this we pray.

Aho mitake oyasin, amen, blessed be. Inshallah.

American mink,

References and Information ~

Cuthbert tale:

On water voles -

Helping water voles - ~ the National Water Vole Database and Mapping Project

On American mink -

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