Water vole appealI'll help water voles
Water voles are at risk of extinction in Britain
Water voles are in a serious decline and nearly died out altogether in the 1990s. Accidental and deliberate releases of American mink and the loss of healthy riverbanks led to a dramatic 90% decline in their population. Now they’re a rare sight, and still vulnerable to extinction.
Eight years ago we launched a field survey to see how water voles were doing. This year I’ve trained more than 350 volunteers in survey techniques. Water voles can be very hard to find, and most people have never seen one. So training is needed to spot specific signs, such as the distinctive piles of plant stems they leave on the riverbank, their tic-tac shaped droppings and the characteristic ‘plop’ sound they make when they dive into the water. Equipping volunteers with the knowledge and skills needed means they can be effective water vole surveyors. I also show them how to spot the water voles’ main predator, American mink. Our new volunteers will help us map the whereabouts of water voles. And I’ll train even more next year.
Water vole reintroductions, where captive-bred water voles are released into rivers, are seen by many as a practical solution to water voles’ decline. There have been many reintroductions since the water voles’ decline and some other populations have been relocated when development or other factors threatened their homes. But there’s been no central assessment of whether these measures worked. Did the water vole populations do well? Are they still being monitored? How have they dealt with the threats of mink and water pollution? So we’ve just commissioned a study to review past reintroductions. It’s a big undertaking, but will result in guidelines for the future, endorsed by statutory agencies, on how to carry out effective reintroductions. We might also find new, unmonitored water vole sites.
As well as monitoring water voles and restoring lost populations, we protect the existing ones that are under threat. We help people living close to rivers restore water vole habitats and link them to the wider countryside. Because water voles improve biodiversity along waterways, people often ask me for help in encouraging water voles back to their land. Water voles improve bankside plant diversity by constructing burrows and controlling dominant plants. This creates sunny and shady areas which benefits amphibians, invertebrates, birds and bats. I visit sites and give the owners bespoke advice on how to make it more water vole friendly.
Water voles have suffered one of the worst declines of any British mammal. We must protect those that remain, and ensure restoration work is effective and sustainable to stop them dying out.
Emily Sabin, Water Vole Officer
Header image Mark Bridger | Shutterstock. In-text image credits Craig Jones, Mark Bridger | Shutterstock, Mike Lane iStock