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  • Writer's pictureBecky Faulks

Britain’s Most Endangered Mammal is Making a Comeback

Water voles have been spotted on the Montgomery Canal in Shropshire and Wales


Photo by Jonathan Ridley


If you’ve seen The Wind in the Willows, you’ll probably recognise the water vole, whose character ‘Ratty’ is one of the stars of the film. In real life water voles aren't actually rats, although at first glance they may look similar. Water voles are rodents that live in rivers, streams and ditches around waterways, making burrows in riverbanks. Much larger than other vole species, water voles are chestnut-brown with small ears, a blunt, rounded nose and a furry tail. They provide an important ecological role, serving as ‘engineers of the landcape' as their burrowing moves nutrients around in the soil, benefitting many plant species. This helps shape the environment where they live.

The Berkshire, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) has reported that, since 1900 (around the time The Wind in the Willows novel was first published), water voles have lost 95% of their range. This is partly due to habitat destruction, but also due to the invasion of the American mink, which were released from fur farms by activists during the 1970s. It was a lucky escape for the mink, but a disaster for Britain’s native wildlife. Mink are voracious predators, particularly during the spring, when water voles are particularly vulnerable. To combat this, the BBOWT has spearheaded a longstanding project to bring water voles back to Britain’s waterways. The project sees the organisation monitoring water voles, identifying their needs and helping local landowners to manage sites sympathetically for the species, with mink-control measures put in place. While many water vole populations have been decreasing, the areas the project covers have seen a marked increase in their numbers.

The Canal & River Trust (CRT) is also involved in the recovery, mentioning several focused projects that are underway to help the endangered mammals. One of these is called ‘The Green Recovery Challenge Fund’, which uses money from the Heritage Lottery for environmental renewal. This identifies mink-free areas (areas where there have been no evidence or sightings of mink) to create habitats. CRT ecologist Jenny Spelling said that water voles were ‘an integral part of our ecosystem and their burrowing, feeding, and hiding places provide the conditions for other animal and plant-life to flourish.’ She added that the trust was making good progress, even if it was a little slow.

This isn’t the first time an CRT effort to boost biodiversity has paid off. Last year, new floating reed beds were introduced to Gloucester docks and Reading to attract birds and insects and provide shelter for fish. The introduction is part of an ongoing series of projects to bring greenery back to cities and give them a more natural feel. Mark Avon, a CRT representative for Reading, explained: ‘We have seen how successful these floating reed beds have been on other parts of our canal network and were keen to bring them to Reading. It is especially important as the Kennet & Avon canal gives people living, working and shopping here a place to escape city life and enjoy a breath of fresh air.



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