17 December 2004
IT has been described as a golden rat, a small orange fox and a hamster with a stub of a tail.
The beast that has been dubbed the Golden Rat of Kenwood has been seen flashing past bemused walkers, prompting a flurry of speculation.
Wildlife experts, who believe the mysterious animal is an endangered water vole, have now decided to clear up the mystery once and for all
Karen Stoker, of Ellerdale Road, Hampstead, spotted the mystery animal in Kenwood Pond while walking her three dogs.
She said: "It was swimming in a straight line with a wake, and when it got out I thought 'my goodness it's orange'.
"It was bigger than a rat, but smaller than a fox and didn't seem to have a tail.
"When it saw me it scuttled off into the long grass."
Louise Wells, water vole officer for the London Wildlife Trust (LWT) for 10 years, believes the animal could well be a water vole.
On Tuesday she decided to prove it by starting an official survey of the area around the pond.
Ms Wells said: "If it is a water vole that will be excellent, as it is Britain's fastest declining mammal.
"We have no records of water voles on Hampstead Heath, so it is definitely worth a follow-up visit and a survey.
"I haven't been to the Heath since I was a child so I am really looking forward to it.
"We usually survey the droppings as, just like other mammals it goes to the loo, but at this time of year droppings may get washed away."
The water vole burrows into the banks of ponds and canals but its existence has been threatened by the release of American mink which hunt the voles down.
Ms Wells said: "If we find water voles we make the habitat better for them.
"We improve their refuges by stopping water levels from fluctuating so much."
But her enthusiasm is not matched by that of Heath rangers.
Adrian Cosway, deputy head ranger, said: "We had a relatively quick walk round survey two years ago and there was no evidence at all.
"I'd be very very surprised if it was a water vole as our bank structure is not ideal."
And for those who still want to believe in Hampstead's own Loch Ness Monster myth, the mystery of the Golden Rat of Kenwood Pond may not be completely solved.
Ms Wells reflects: "It could also be a ferret."