Dr Tom Moorhouse's children's books are inspired by the water voles he spends his days researching.

Tom Moorhouse

Dr Tom Moorhouse first came to Oxford for his PhD and is based at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit in the Zoology Department 

How did you first become interested in water voles?

I worked on water voles for eight years, starting in 1999, initially as a PhD research project where I was looking at their populations and trying to understand how the social structure of the water vole population works. 

You were also involved in a successful reintroduction programme?

We reintroduced 12 new populations to the Thames in Oxfordshire, of which seven are still alive and well. For a reintroduction programme this is phenomenally successful, as these projects often fail miserably because it’s very hard to fully understand the incredibly complicated ecology of a species. Intuitively these kinds of projects are very appealing, it seems so easy to simply put animals back in their native habitat and think that all will be well, but unless we can identify and change the reason they are going extinct in the first place, ultimately we won’t be able to reverse the decline.

What is the biggest threat to water voles?

In the UK they are going extinct at a fairly alarming rate. We lost about 80 per cent of them in the 1990s, and this is continuing because of the spread of an invasive animal, the American mink. It was brought over from America in the 1920s for the fur farming industry, but it escaped and got a firm foothold in the British countryside. Water voles have been in this country for 10,000 years and although they are at the business end of the food chain – they have a highly developed set of strategies to avoid being predated by native foxes, fish and birds of prey, for example – they are not designed to defend themselves against the American mink. The effect is rather like releasing some tentacled alien predator in the middle of Manchester: rapid decimation of the local population.  

Is it possible to save our water voles?

At some point we have to make the hard decision that if we want to go back to the situation we had 50 years ago, when you could go to any river in the country and see water voles, then we have to get rid of American mink nationally. Otherwise water voles will eventually be completely extirpated, except in a few well-defended wetlands. Personally I feel this would be an immense shame, and although it would take a big investment of time, money and energy, pilot studies have indicated that over five to ten years we could hope to eradicate the American mink and save water voles for future generations. 

What is it about these creatures that inspires such affection?

If we lose water voles, we don’t lose anything that’s of economic or other utilitarian significance to mankind, but it’s the same effect as losing all the copies of the complete works of Shakespeare overnight. We would all feel worse because this amazing, wonderful thing has gone from our world and it’s our fault. The water vole has arguably had as much research as any other species ever, so we know how to conserve them, and this vast amount of money has been spent because people really care about water voles – partly because of their nostalgia for Ratty in the classic novel The Wind in the Willows, and partly because they are seen as such a wonderful and important feature of the English countryside. 

How have water voles inspired your own literary efforts? 

When I set out to write my first children’s book, The River Singers, I wanted nothing to happen to my characters that wouldn’t normally happen to real water voles, but to allow them to respond emotionally to events in a human fashion, allowing for just enough anthropomorphising to engage children’s imaginations. The book has been received extremely well, although I had very few expectations at the outset. First and foremost it’s an adventure book about water voles trying to find a new home, as I didn’t want it to feel like I was giving readers a lecture. The sequel, The Rising, is coming out in October this year.

But your research focuses on something more exotic at the moment?

I’m now researching the global exotic pet trade, another massively underestimated problem. It’s in the top five of illicit global activities after narcotics and arms; it’s worth anything up to six billion a year, so that tells you just how many animals are being taken and shipped halfway across the world in terrible conditions to be sold to people who have no idea of the costs, both in terms of animal welfare and the possible danger of potentially fatal infection from zoonotic diseases. We are conducting a desk study into people’s motivations for buying these animals. The idea is that if we can identify the reasons they do it, and find out what might make them stop, we can provide this information to organisations to use for lobbying or education programmes. 

Image © Al Harrington Photography