Posted 3rd Apr 2014
The once familiar sight of the water vole is sadly in serious decline, but with a little conservation help this mild-mannered mammal is starting to populate our rivers once again
Over 100 years ago the loveable water vole captured the imagination of people everywhere through the character ‘Ratty', a friendly, river-faring vole portrayed in Kenneth Grahame's classic book, The Wind in the Willows. Whilst the tale of the wise water vole and his sprightly friends will raise a nostalgic smile, the reality of this cute creature is sadly more stark.
Once upon a time the water vole was Britain's most common small mammal, with an estimated 6.7 billion water voles thought to exist in Britain in the late Iron Age. Its major decline began with the development of agriculture and more recently, predation by the American mink. Today, the water vole is Britain's fastest declining mammal, with the population believed to have dropped from 1.2 million to just 400,000 in 10 years. Loss of habitat, from canalisation of rivers, drainage of wetlands and natural river shade being removed, and the impact of non-native mink have both contributed to the rapid decline of this increasingly elusive creature.
Despite the bleak current conditions, help is at hand. Moors Valley, an east Dorset country park on the edge of the New Forest, commenced an extensive water vole reintroduction programme in 2011, in which 200 water voles were released into the Moors Valley river system, which has SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) status, and a further 120 released in 2012. Overseen by rangers from the East Dorset Countryside Management Service, the first release into the river took place after a period of careful monitoring for predatory mink. The team were helped by water vole conservation specialist and breeder, Derek Gow, and the advice and experience of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, who invented the simple but effective ‘mink raft'. The mink rafts were designed and used to attract mammals who, once on board, would have to walk over a clay pad which cleverly records their tracks. 11 rafts were placed around the Moors Valley Park river system, enabling rangers to collect information about the local mammal population, and, after a year of regular monitoring, confirmed that the area was free of mink and therefore safe for the reintroduction of water voles.
Three years on and the population of water voles along the Crane and Moors river system is thriving, with the mink rafts confirming the survival of the voles through their track prints, along with regular visitor sightings and a recent survey finding well-established water vole colonies in some of the quieter areas of the park. Though Moors Valley is the first country park to have taken this kind of initiative, there are Wildlife Trust reserves around the UK that are also leading conservation projects to help create healthy riverside habitats crucial for the water voles' survival, with the added benefit of legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which prohibits killing or disturbing water voles and their resting places.
A huge part of water vole conservation is actually spotting them, and letting your local parkland or reserve know that they are present. A quick and well camouflaged mammal often confused with a rat, the water vole can be hard to spot. The water vole is most easily recognisable for its cute, chubby face, short blunt nose, small rounded ears and plump body covered with chestnut brown fur. It is the largest vole in Britain, growing up to nine inches long, found residing along slow-moving rivers, ditches, ponds, canals and in wetland habitats, preferring to rest where there is dense vegetation. The water vole can be spotted in areas throughout England, Wales and Scotland, even recorded at altitudes of over 1,000 metres in upland areas such as the Cairngorms. Genetic evidence suggests water voles in Scotland actually differ to those elsewhere in England and Wales. Known as ‘fossorial' water voles, who interestingly prefer living on land away from water, these water voles are likely the result of a separate colonisation route many centuries ago.
Photos courtesy of Moors Valley: Brian Chard, Hattie Miles
Read the rest of this feature on p.84 of the May/June 2014 issue...