Hard times for Ratty, as water vole numbers fall

One of the UK’s most beloved mammals, the water vole, is continuing to struggle after a new survey suggested the animal’s population is down by over a fifth.

Water vole numbers are down 22 per cent across the UK.
Water vole numbers are down 22 per cent across the UK.

The cute mammal, immortalised the world over as loveable Ratty from The Wind in the Willows, has been under intense pressure in recent years - taking a hit from intesive farming and habitat loss, as well as predation from alien species such as the mink.

Signs suggest the water vole is still struggling as new maps indicate the mammal’s presence may be down by 22 per cent, the Environment Agency and The Wildlife Trusts reveal.

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And, while Lincolnshire’s population of water voles is said to be doing “okay” by the local Wildlife Trust, that isn’t the case in many other parts of the UK.

New maps published today suggest that while there are some strongholds where water voles continue to thrive, the species remains vulnerable to further decline and extinctions, especially in parts of England, including the south west, south east, parts of the north west and some areas in the midlands.

The maps reveal that Lincolnshire is a hotspot for water voles with several areas identified as strongholds for the species.

These include the Lincolnshire Coastal Grazing Marshes, from the foot of the Lincolnshire Wolds to the coast; the Humberhead Levels, west of Scunthorpe; the South Forty Foot Drain and associated ditches, west from Boston to the River Glen; the River Ancholme, south of Brigg; and the fens to the north of Billinghay.

Rachel Shaw, Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust PR Officer said: “These areas are all characterised by their networks of interconnected drainage ditches and rivers. How these waterways are managed is critical to the survival of water voles and other wildlife.

“We are fortunate in Lincolnshire that the Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) record sightings of water voles, ensure that maintenance disrupts them as little as possible and create berms in the channels that are beneficial for flood protection and wildlife.”

Elsewhere in the UK populations continue to disappear due to long-term habitat loss, mink predation and extreme weather events, including last year’s spring drought.

Paul Wilkinson, The Wildlife Trusts’ Head of Living Landscape, said: “We must ensure these strongholds persist and renew efforts to save this much-loved species, through targeted conservation action and sustained monitoring programmes.

“This latest information from the National UK Water Vole Database and Mapping Project is a real cause for concern. Not enough is being done to secure this charismatic species’ future.

“In part, the new data reflects a reduced survey effort over the last few years, linked to a reduction in available funding for water vole conservation work. There is clear evidence from some areas, in the south of England for example, that water voles are disappearing fast.”

Alastair Driver, Environment Agency’s National Conservation Manager and Chair of the UK Water Vole Steering Group, said: “Creating new habitat helps protect our native species, like water voles and otters, and helps tackle climate change.

“The Environment Agency has created nearly 5,000 hectares of wetland and river habitats in the last 10 years and we hope to double this in the next 10.

“Added to this, our rivers at their healthiest for over 20 years, but control of the American mink is essential if water voles are to benefit from these healthier rivers and new habitats.”

The Wildlife Trusts and others are working with projects that establish where populations remain and what needs to be done to help them re-connect and expand across larger areas.

Surveyors look for the occurrence of characteristic field signs such as droppings, feeding stations and burrows in order to detect their presence along water courses.

Paul Wilkinson continues: “The benefits of targeted and sustained projects are clear.

“We have many examples of where recovery has been recorded and the water vole has extended its range due to the efforts of conservation professionals and enthusiastic trained volunteers.

“We must ensure that this kind of targeted work is extended. Otherwise there is a risk that we will lose water voles altogether from large areas of the country.”

The UK Water Vole Steering Group, which comprises representatives from the Environment Agency, The Wildlife Trusts, People’s Trust for Endangered Species, Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural Resources Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, believes that a national water vole monitoring programme is needed.

Annually recording populations at a sample of key areas across the UK would provide a better indication of how this vulnerable mammal is faring over time, they said.