Soggy sheep, soaking ‘roos, squelchy paddocks, slippery bush tracks, joyful swimming creatures and luckless ducks have brought spring vividly into my focus this year.

Observing and enjoying nature properly requires that we slow down and tune in. Sitting on the river bank which runs alongside the car park below the weir at Laanecoorie recently, I deliberated on the state of our waterways as I gazed slowly up and down the barely moving dark green stream, looking for signs of life. Slowly the heads of water tortoises began to appear and disappear, bobbing gently in the green algae saturated soup. A swamphen called a couple of times from the reed bed on the far bank, and then all was quiet. Suddenly the water swirled a short distance in front of me and I wondered what it could be! A large carp maybe, or even one of the big Murray Cod the locals say still survive in the Loddon river around here? A platypus maybe? Suddenly, a furred creature appeared, quite large; it was a water rat – or rather two water rats!

Water rats Hydromys chrysogaster – meaning ‘water-mouse with golden belly’ – spend most of their day in creek-bank burrows, coming out at night to feed on yabbies, shellfish, fish, plants, insects and even small mammals, but you can sometimes spot them feeding or playing in the early morning or late afternoon. It is a different species to the Bush-rat Rattus fuscipes, and neither is it related in any way to the common house rat Rattus rattus.

For the next half-hour or more these energetic creatures entertained with their antics, diving and muzzling one another playfully, then disappearing to reappear at the edge of the far bank and then back again. Sometimes, when one was feeding or doing something in the mud in the shallows, I could see only its long tail with its distinctive white tip. The water rat was once valued for its dense fine fur and was hunted in some states until quite recently and which probably provided the lesser known name for the animal, Beaver rat. A new name, ‘Rakali’ has been officially put forward as the prefered common name. I wonder how long it will be before we hear people saying “I saw a Rakali in the dam today”? (See links below.)


CREDITS : © J Gould © Victoria Museum,

I cannot recall having seen much mention of our water rat in Australian literature, and one wonders whether it has or ever will attract the attention of writers of children’s picture books and fiction in a similar fashion to the animals depicted in say Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind-in-the Willows or the Beatrix Potter stories. It has the same endearing anthropomorphic qualities of those small creatures that inspired these writers. My guess is that apart from giving animals human attributes being out of favour, so too would the water rat face very strong competition from our Aussie line-up which would include the platypus, bilbi, koala, possum, echidna and all things that hop and along with some popular lizards. Perhaps the name rakali will help.

Another ‘wheel of life’ story, which I did not witness but which was passed on to me this week from a well-known local resident, relates a drama played out above the town rooftops.

In the tall chimney of a large Victorian house in Templeton Street, a pair of Australian Wood Ducks had made their nest and laid a clutch of eggs. Whether the eggs had hatched, or were close to hatching, we do not know but the two Kookaburras who spent the best part of a day removing the contents of the duck’s nest, knew what they were after. Who needs a TV natural history documentary showing animals eating other animals when we’ve got the real thing in our own backyard?

The rains have invigorated the natural world around us. Yes, the grass is growing faster than you can mow it but remind yourself that just a few months ago you would have said “What grass?” Meanwhile, it’s the right time to think about planting native shrubs and trees. It is a good time for digging up the dreaded oxalis in the flower beds and even digging up the flower beds and the lawn and planting native plants to reduce the need for watering later on. Native plants – shrubs and trees, flowers and grasses – should go in now so that next year the harsh summer dry will seem less a time of desperation and more a quiet connection with the real and wonderful Australia. After all, you are living in it.

More than just a rat. Rakali website
Link for Wikipedia entry for Australian Water Rat or Rakali

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