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24 September 2014
Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

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   Inside Out - South West: Monday January 10, 2005


Photo gallery
Water vole
Can Ratty still be found in the Wild Wood?

Every great work of fiction draws inspiration from real life places and events and Kenneth Grahame's children's classic The Wind in the Willows is no exception.

Join Inside Out as we journey down the riverbank and into the Wild Wood to meet Badger, Ratty, Mole and Otter.

Despite being written almost a century ago, The Wind in the Willows is still one of the best-loved children's books and was voted one of the UK's top 21 books in the BBC's Big Read, 2003.

The lively imagination of Grahame which created a rich cast of characters and captured the essence of a quintessentially English countryside, was inspired by his home near the Thames and many hours spent holidaying at Fowey, Cornwall.

Although Grahame was born in Edinburgh in 1859, he spent most of his childhood with relatives in Berkshire which gave him his eternal love of the countryside.

Grahame's son Alastair, affectionately known as Mouse, was the original audience for the stories told through a series of letters.

In 1908 the letters became the novel The Wind in the Willows and the book has been in publication ever since.

The Wild Wood

Russell travelling up the river Lerryn
The rivebank near Fowey was a source of inspiration

Inside Out joins Russell Labey as he journeys up to Lerryn in search of the animals that fired Grahame's imagination all those years ago.

Russell's journey firstly takes him into the heart of Ethy Woods - the Wild Wood - in search of the reclusive yet hospitable character Badger.

The wood is owned by the National Trust and the Forestry Commission to help conserve its ecological integrity.

David Blake who works for the commission, explains how the landscape differs today from the scene Grahame would have been presented with at the turn of the century.

"In his day there would have been oak growing all over the wood," David explains.

"Nowadays we've got Douglas Fir and Norway Spruce."

By planting new oaks, the commission is hoping to return the woodland to its original state.

Setting up home

And it's not only the woods' appearance that has changed, as David goes on to explain.

"We also have different animals here. He wouldn't have recognised the woods full of roe deer or grey squirrels."

Badger filmed at night
Badgers keep a clean set

But it's not the deer or squirrels that Russell is searching for - it's badgers - and it's not long before David spots a set.

The presence of grass and leaves outside the entrance to the set indicates it belongs to a badger, as the ever house-proud badger clears out his bedding.

Although it is difficult to be certain, David estimates that the badger population in Ethy Woods has grown over the last 100 years.

Unfortunately the same can't be said for the water vole.

A new villain

You may be wondering why Russell is going in search of a water vole, when there is no character in the novel of that name.

But the character Ratty is in fact a water vole and sadly their presence in Lerryn creek has declined so dramatically that Russell has to travel 50 miles away to Broadwidger, Devon, to visit a captive breeding programme.

"Water voles are the "MacDonald's" of the food-chain."
Water vole captive breeder, Derek

"They're at the bottom of the food-chain. Anything that can nosh water vole - will," explains Derek.

Whilst stoats and weasels are the villains in The Wind in the Willows, a new and more deadly predator has entered the real Wild Wood.

Herons, pike, pole cats and otters are all native predators of the water vole.

The introduction of the female North American mink however has spelt disaster for the water vole, as it is the only predator able to fit into the water vole's underground tunnels.

Mink have been responsible for wiping out colonies of water vole and their population was completely eradicated from Lerryn creek, several decades ago.

The mole is also in decline, although thankfully sill present in the area.

Being a pest to farmers' land and crops moles are often hunted in a bid to reduce population size.

The otter population is thriving

Up the creek

Whilst Lerryn creek is now sadly without a water vole population, the otter is thriving here.

"The otter has been a great success over the last 30 years," agrees David.

"Here in Cornwall we have more otters than probably anywhere else in the country."

The changing landscape

The introduction of the grey squirrel, roe deer and North American mink has certainly altered the ecology and landscape of the Wild Wood.

Had Grahame holidayed in Fowey today, The Wind in the Willows would have featured some very different characters indeed.

For some of the animals of Wind in the Willows at least, the future looks bright. Let's hope with help from the breeding programme that Ratty may one day return to complete the tale.

And as for troublesome Mr Toad, Russell is still searching…

See also ...

On the rest of Inside Out
Water vole gallery

BBC Science and Nature: Animals

On the rest of the web
English Nature
National Trust
Forestry Commission
Kenneth Grahame

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Readers' Comments

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Fiona Cresswell
It was great to see the active badger sett in the woods. However all around the village of Lerryn, where this report was filmed, is a badger culling area. This fact was not mentioned in your report. The programme described badgers as being "plentiful" despite many hundreds having been trapped and killed by the Government over the last few years alone. I'm sure Kenneth Grahame would have been appalled, as i am, by the massive level of (legal) persecution the badger receives today. It is tragic that one of of best-loved, and supposedly protected, native mammals has been unfairly blamed for the spread of bovine TB.

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