A new analysis of data collected over ten years by a network of experts led by The Wildlife Trusts has revealed that water vole distribution has declined dramatically. There has been a 30% decline in the places where these river mammals once lived across England and Wales during the survey period 2006 – 2015. While the new analysis reveals a slight increase in distribution in recent years – thanks to some successful conservation efforts by The Wildlife Trusts and others – the full data covering the whole ten years paints a bleak picture.
Great conservation efforts have been made to ensure a future for this mammal: The Wildlife Trusts and many other individuals and groups carry out river restoration and reintroductions of water voles across the UK. At a local level, these projects appear to have been successful; however, these successes are not enough to reverse the national distribution trends.
Habitat loss, water pollution and built development have led to massive declines in the number of water voles since the 1960s – this has been exacerbated by predation by North American mink which were introduced to Britain for fur farming in the twentieth century. The water vole is the UK’s most rapidly declining mammal and has been lost from 94% of places where they were once prevalent. The latest data revealing a ten year decline of 30% shows an ever-worsening situation: their range is continuing to contract.
Mark Dinning Head of Conservation at Durham Wildlife Trust said:
“We’ve noticed a continuing decline of water voles in the Durham Wildlife Trust area. Thankfully there are still populations in the North Pennines and around the River Don, but if the trend continues the water vole faces extinction in our region unless action is taken. Durham Wildlife Trust is currently investigating what practical steps we can take to reverse the decline.”
The Wildlife Trusts are calling for:
- Government and Local Authorities to enable the creation of a Nature Recovery Network, as set out in the Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment. A Nature Recovery Network should be underpinned by a new Environment Act to protect, link and create areas of habitat which help wildlife move and spread out, benefitting water voles and a range of other wildlife. Funding should be increased to expand water vole conservation efforts including for landscape-scale restoration schemes.
- Landowners to manage river bank habitat sympathetically to help water voles, e.g. provide generous buffer strips to provide shelter and feeding areas; create soft edges to river banks for water voles to create burrows in, and avoid using heavy machinery close to the edge of watercourses.
- People to find out about opportunities to help survey water voles or manage riverside habitat with local Wildlife Trusts and other groups involved in water vole conservation.
Water voles used to be regularly seen and heard along ditches, streams and rivers across the UK. A creature which burrows in banks and feeds on reeds and grass, the water vole was a lead character, known as Ratty, in Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic Wind in the Willows. Water voles are ecosystem engineers – their burrowing and feeding behaviour along the edges of watercourses creates the conditions for other animals and plants to thrive. Kingfishers, for example, often use water vole excavations for nests.
The Wildlife Trusts are at the forefront of reintroducing water voles and caring for the wild places that they need to survive. In 2017, for example, Northumberland Wildlife Trust released 570 water voles across Kielder Water and Forest Park – the first step in the largest reintroduction ever undertaken.
See www.wildlifetrusts.org/water-voles for details of how people can help water voles.