Water voles are small, brownish, bewhiskered and charming. Made famous by 'Ratty' in The Wind in the Willows, once they were a ubiquitous part of our waterways. They were a totem of our rivers. Now, however, they are nearly gone. This is their story, and the story of a conservationist with a wild hope: that he could bring them back.
Tom Moorhouse spent eleven years beside rivers, fens, canals, lakes and streams, researching British wildlife. Quite a lot of it tried to bite him. He studied four main species – two native and endangered, two invasive and endangering – beginning with water voles. He wanted to solve their conservation problems. He wanted to put things right.
This book is about whether it worked, and what he learnt – and about what those lessons mean, not just for water voles but for all the world's wildlife. It is a book for anyone who has watched ripples spread on lazy waters, and wondered what moves beneath. Or who has waited in quiet hope for a rustle in the reeds, the munch of a stem, or the patter of unseen paws.
Dr Tom Moorhouse is a conservation research scientist who has worked for twenty years at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, part of Oxford University's Zoology Department. He completed his DPhil on the conservation ecology of water voles in 2003 at Oxford. His work subsequently focused on water vole reintroductions, then the management of signal crayfish and hedgehog conservation. More recently he has studied the impacts of wildlife tourism and of global demand for wildlife products. Outside of conservation research, Tom is the author of award-winning children's fiction. He has also published a number of public engagement pieces based on his own work, including the winner of the 2003 New Scientist New Millennial Science Writing Competition, entitled Reintroducing 'Ratty'. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oxford and spends as much time as possible beside water.
"It flows from the heart, eddies with fascinating information, and runs cool and clear with concern about the state of our rivers. They now have their champion."
– John Lewis-Stempel
"What a book. It has everything I love. It is lively, it is tender, it is fascinating, it starts small and very particular, and then – my God – by the end you are doing the Hallelujah chorus. It feels such an important book and I hope that everyone reads it. It seems to me to deliver on the greatest thing a book can achieve – when, through reading, you feel changed and inspired to act."
– Rachel Joyce, author of Miss Benson's Beetle and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
"Tom Moorhouse has written a book about ecological loss that is also somehow laugh-out-loud funny – passionate, warm and full of fascinating insights into the eccentric world of the field naturalist."
– Isabella Tree, author of Wilding
"Beautiful and important. Tom's book is extraordinary in its gentle curiosity and sympathy for his subjects. In Elegy for a River he takes us back to our childhoods. He then holds our confused moral compass up to a microscope to make us realise that only a return to that place can save us. I love this book."
– Sir Tim Smit KBE, Executive Vice-Chairman and Co-founder of the Eden Project
"Terrific. Lightly but beautifully written. Very moving. Water voles are adorable little beasts. They are also tough, randy and stroppy, as Tom Moorhouse makes clear in this wry, amusing account of the often bloody, painful and frustrating business of conservation fieldwork. Accounts of the decline and degradation of wildlife and the natural world are generally off-puttingly gloomy, but Tom Moorhouse handles his subject with a light, self-deprecating touch. 'I hold stubbornly to optimism,' he declares, and his Elegy for a River demands that we do the same."
– Christopher Somerville, walking correspondent of The Times and author of The January Man