Video by Stephen de Vere
The water vole has suffered greatly in the UK over the last few decades as a result of loss of habitat and predation by the American mink. Thankfully, the extent of the problem was realised before we lost this wonderful creature from our countryside forever.
Today, projects led by The Wildlife Trusts, from Essex to North Wales to Yorkshire, are working hard to help the water vole thrive once again. Sustaining these initiatives, and creating healthy riverside habitat for water voles and other wildlife is a high priority for us and links to many of these schemes follow, below. Please get in touch with your local Wildlife Trust if you would like to support this invaluable work.
Undertaking water vole surveys and working with landowners and businesses in Avonmouth to improve habitat management
In Avon there are populations of water voles at Avonmouth, and around the Kennet and Avon Canal. A new population was discovered by Avon Wildlife Trust on the Bleadon Levels in 2006. Water voles were released at Portbury by Bristol Zoo in the recent past, and it is this population that is thought to have spread to its nature reserve at Portbury Wharf.
Current work for water voles focuses on monitoring their presence or absence on Avon Wildlife Trust's reserves such as Lawrence Weston Moor and Portbury Wharf (where annual surveys were started four years ago), organising regular public walks and volunteer training days. Working with the HLF Forgotten Landscapes Project run by South Gloucestershire Council, Avon Wildlife Trust is developing a project that will include undertaking comprehensive water vole surveys and working with landowners and businesses in Avonmouth to improve habitat management for water voles. The extent of recent survey work on reserves is not sufficient to make assessments about local status of the species, and additional resources are needed to extend this work and assess the status of mink populations.
Overall across WTBCN’s region, no decline of water voles has been detected through recent surveys. A recovery has been noted in the Cambridge area, with the first records on the main river for many years. Populations in the Fens are also holding up, but American mink remain a continued threat. However, as WTBCN and others have undertaken much less survey work in recent years due to funding difficulties for water voles, there is a feeling that any ‘declines’ noted locally could be more attributable to this reduction.
The Cambridgeshire fens are able to support more robust populations of water vole due to the complexity and interconnectedness of waterways.
Small populations remain close to the Cambridgeshire border at Potton and Sandy (possibly linked) and also at Luton. Isolated occasional observations are known from elsewhere. There is some suggestion that the small isolated populations which remain may be gradually disappearing, but survey effort in recent years has declined as funding for dedicated water vole conservation work has dried up, so hard evidence is lacking.
No decline has been detected through surveys and a recovery has been noted in the Cambridge area, with the first records on the main river for many years. There have been increased numbers of sightings from many of the watercourses in Cambridge over the past couple of years including from the River Cam itself, the first records for over 10 years.
Populations in the Cambridgeshire Fens are also holding up and the Fens are a stronghold in the region. Mink remain a continued threat, but some co-ordinated control work is now underway.
WTBCN is currently working with local charity the Countryside Restoration Trust to improve habitat and control non native invasive species. The work is focusing on the Bourn Brook (about 20km of river in the Cam catchment) and the project is also expanding to the River Rhee (one of the main tributaries of the Cam). Rather than focussing exclusively on water vole, the aim is to control invasive species and improve habitat.
Mink control is in place on the Bourn Brook and most of the Rhee, and the project area has been surveyed for invasive plants and water vole. The project is getting landowners more interested in their river and giving them information about what is there. Both the Bourn and the Rhee were known to have a remnant water vole population, which WTBCN’s surveys confirmed as still present, but signs were only found in low numbers and at scattered locations. WTBCN is aiming to systematically survey the brooks in a couple of years.
Until last year WTBCN was carrying out regular water vole surveys in the South Level of the fens (along with Suffolk WT for the IDBs in Suffolk). It did not record any significant decline in water vole populations over the last five years of survey effort and it seems that the fens are able to support more robust populations of water vole due to the complexity and interconnectedness of waterways.
In 1998, BBOWT began its pioneering 'Water Vole Recovery Project' to halt the loss of water voles in the three counties and aid their recovery. The Project:
- Records and monitors water vole populations to focus our conservation efforts.
- Works with landowners to provide advice on managing sites for water voles.
- Helps to co-ordinate mink control in and around key water vole areas to protect vole populations from predation.
Water voles are persisting in key areas, and populations in some areas are expanding.
Long-term monitoring and mink control has been taking place on the River Kennet and the Kennet & Avon Canal between Newbury and Hungerford. In 2013 the extensive population on the canal had spread eastwards through Newbury for the first time. Sadly, there have been no recent sightings of water voles on the Moor Copse Nature Reserve, which the River Pang runs through, thought to be an inspirational site for E.H. Shephard’s illustrations for Wind in the Willows.
An increase in water vole populations has been recorded along the River Chess and River Misbourne in south Bucks, due to work that has been carried out with landowners and volunteers. Habitat management has been undertaken and American mink control is in place on the River Chess. Long term monitoring has provided evidence that water voles have made a very good recovery after almost becoming extinct due to mink predation in 2003. In 2013 monitoring surveys were undertaken by a local community group, the River Chess Association.
The River Windrush near Witney was the site of a water vole reintroduction in 2006. The water voles are continuing to do well and expand up and downstream. In West Oxfordshire a significant water vole population inhabits the River Thames from the county boundary with Gloucestershire to Chimney Meadows Nature Reserve near Bampton. The population was first identified in 2011 and subsequent surveys have shown it is expanding with voles spreading eastwards.
This project has discovered new vole populations and it appears that the county supports some water vole strongholds
The two-year Cheshire Water Vole Project concluded in January 2014, having conducted 92 surveys and assessed over 100 km of waterways for water vole habitat suitability with the help of over 390 volunteer days. New water vole populations were discovered and it appears that the county supports some water vole strongholds, for example along the River Gowy near Mickle Trafford/Bridge Trafford and in the surrounding ditches and some brooks, as well as in Crewe/Nantwich area.
Encouragingly, the isolated population on Wade Brook in Northwich (identified by the Trust's previous North West Lowlands Water Vole Project, which concuded in 2011), is still there, with water voles also still on Frodsham marshes and along Kingsley Brook in Nantwich. Water voles also remain at an historic site near Halton (Manor Park), but in fewer numbers.
For an overview of the project, its achievements and the Trust's future water vole plans, please see the project overview report.
The data collected during the course of the Cheshire Water Vole Project has enabled targeted habitat improvements to be made through a project called Canal Connections, with the initial phase completed in March 2014.
The project aims to reconnect water vole populations in Nantwich and Whitchurch using the Llangollen Canal corridor. The completed work was focussed on protecting the banks and improving vegetation along the canal in and around Whitchurch, with the intention of attracting further funding and continuing work on both the canal and associated brooks towards Nantwich. You can see the final report for the first phase of work here.
Video by Simon Goodall
Seeking funding to repeat the county-wide water vole studies of 1997-1999
Derbyshire Wildlife Trust is seeing a decline in water vole records through the county. However, this is in part due to a lack of recent survey effort and the picture is not yet clear. Based on data for the period 2007-2011, the county still supports some regionally important key areas for the species – including the Peak District Moors.
Derbyshire Wildlife Trust would like to repeat a county-wide survey undertaken in 1997-1999, which discovered that there were important populations on the Upper Derwent-Etherow Moors, the Eastern Moors, along Chesterfield Canal, in the Erewash valley and on the Wye-Derwent rivers. This survey also found that water voles had disappeared from 45% of historical sites, with many sites lost from the south and west of the county. One of the best-recorded sites in the county is Cromford Canal.
Water Voles in the White Peak
Water voles are found in several rivers, streams and other wetlands in the White Peak. Habitat quality is good overall, but the conditions of some river and stream corridors are not so good, and development has increased the fragmentation of water vole populations. The most serious threat to these populations is the American mink, followed by fluctuating water levels - low levels in summer leave them vulnerable to land-based predators, and high water levels in winter destroy water vole habitat and cause water voles to drown. Derbyshire Wildlife Trust is committed to protecting remaining water voles in the White Peak by working with landowners and land managers to manage sites for water voles and to reduce the impacts of mink predation.
Water Voles in the Dark Peak
The Dark Peak moorlands support regionally important populations of water voles. Living along tiny headstreams, these upland water vole populations are naturally fragmented. Flooding can have a devastating impact on water vole habitat in these river systems. Derbyshire Wildlife Trust is working with landowners including United Utilities to create wetland areas that are less likely to be impacted by flooding.
Water Voles of the Henmore Brook system
The Henmore Brook system and sites at nearby Carsington Water represent one of the few remaining areas that supports water voles in the Dove catchment. Derbyshire Wildlife Trust is working with Severn Trent Water, the Environment Agency, local volunteers and the local angling club to protect these important populations. The aim is to ensure that development and flood alleviation works in the Ashbourne area protect water voles and their habitat. At Carsington Water the Trust is working with Severn Trent Water to monitor populations and extend the area of suitable water voles habitat.
The last major water vole surveys carried out by Devon Wildlife Trust in 2002 returned no positive results at 100 sites with around 50km of waterways surveyed.
Work that will benefit water vole habitat is currently being undertaken on the River Tale in east Devon, for example by working with Escot Country Park on repairing the structure and bankside vegetation on the River Tale following major flooding in 2012. This work will restore good habitat for water voles in the area of Devon most viable for any future re-establishment of the water vole population.
Specific funding for water vole surveys is needed
Water vole surveys are carried out every five years to take a 'snapshot' of the status of this species in Dorset. There are Core Area populations of water voles in the Lower Frome, the area around Gillingham, the Wey & Jordan and the Bride & Brit, as well as other smaller populations. Dorset Wildlife Trust is working with the gamekeeping community and organisations such as British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC) and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) to promote best practice in controlling mink and to advise landowners on how to manage riparian habitat for water voles.
The first phase of Durham Wildlife Trust’s water vole conservation work began in 2003, when all available survey information was gathered together to give as accurate a picture as possible of the water vole population. This work was done as part of the Heritage Lottery funded ‘From Coals to Voles’ project, which also provided funding for further work to help safeguard the remaining populations.
In the majority of cases the most effective and sustainable way to protect a species is to provide it with as large an area of suitable habitat as possible, which allows the species to increase in numbers and expand in range. DWT adopted this approach with ‘From Coals to Voles’ and worked with a variety of partners including Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland Councils and the Environment Agency to improve habitat around and between existing colonies to allow water vole numbers to naturally increase. This important work is still ongoing and the new water vole project is now throughout the whole Durham Wildlife Trust area.
Coastal locations such as grazing marsh ditch networks and brackish borrow dykes are now the main strongholds for voles, but water voles have disappeared from the majority of Essex Rivers
Since work began on the Essex Water Vole Recovery Project (EWVRP) in 2007, voles have been reintroduced to the River Colne and habitat improvements and targetted mink removal has resulted in natural re-colonisation across over 500km2 of North East Essex.
The EWVRP is part of the work undertaken by the Water for Wildlife Officer and is integrated into the Eastern Region Mink Control Project. The EWVRP consists of a network of over 200 private landowners/land managers monitoring rafts and traps on a voluntary basis. Support and co-ordination is provided by Water for Wildlife - a partnership of The Wildlife Trusts, Environment Agency, Water Companies and other local partners, dedicated to providing a consistent, targeted approach to all types of wetland conservation. Surveys undertaken after the first years of the project (2007-2012) within the mink control area revealed an increase in water vole distribution back to 1998 levels.
Outside this area, coastal locations such as grazing marsh ditch networks and brackish borrow dykes are now the main strongholds, but water voles have disappeared from the majority of Essex Rivers, with just small pockets of voles present in non main-channel locations such as farm ditches, ponds and moats.
The largest water vole translocation ever attempted in Eastern England was undertaken between 2010-2012 with around 600 water voles (displaced from a container port development on the Thames, and the widening of the M25) being reintroduced along 7km of the River Colne.
A five year, fully-funded professional mink control project and post-translocation surveys are ongoing. Water voles are still thriving despite 2012 suffering the worst flooding on the river in living memory, right in the middle of the breeding season. This project was instigated as part of the expansion of the Essex Water Vole Recovery Project and will be adopted into the landscape-scale mink control area in 2014.
The county surveys of 1978-9 and 1997-8 found that water voles had been lost at 83% of historical sites in Gloucestershire. Further surveys in 2009 confirmed a decline.
There are whole river catchments that no longer support water vole but populations remain along the Cotswold Rivers, and work is being undertaken by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust to protect these and improve habitat to encourage their expansion.
Part of the Cotswold Rivers Living Landscape Programme work includes providing advice and support to landowners and communities, undertaking habitat restoration work and mink control. Water voles have re-colonised areas where habitat management work has taken place and in places populations have been reconnected. It has been discovered that water voles can survive in very low numbers, expanding when the conditions improve.
During 2012 and 2013, Gwent Wildlife Trust led an ambitious project to reintroduce water voles to the Gwent Levels.
Historically, water voles were very common on the Gwent Levels - some say as common as rabbits! Sadly, a combination of habitat loss and predation from the non-native American mink has reduced the UK population of water voles to just 10% of its former size. On the Gwent Levels, water voles suffered dramatically as well, becoming seemingly extinct by the early 2000s.
Gwent Wildlife Trust have since worked with landowners and volunteers to create a mink monitoring network, centred on our Magor Marsh Nature Reserve. This has seen mink numbers drop considerably and together with the excellent habitat we have at Magor Marsh and the surrounding area, it became the perfect time to release water voles onto the reserve.
During 2012 and 2013, more than 200 water voles were released within the reserve. The voles were supplied from the Derek Gow Consultancy, and were subject to vigerous genetic and disease screening. These voles have been specifically bred for reintroduction projects. Three years on, the voles are doing well. We continue to survey for them at Magor Marsh as well as maintaining our mink monitoring network.
Mink can quickly predate local water vole populations.
In 2014, water voles were spotted at Amwell nature reserve, near Ware, for the first time since the Trust took over the old quarry in 2006. The Trust has been restoring wetland habitat in Lea Valley nature reserves, including Rye Meads and King’s Meads as well as Amwell, for many years, and advising farmers on how to make the best of their land for wildlife by maintaining refuges for wetland creatures such as water voles between farmed land and rivers. The return of the water vole to Amwell after a ten year absence shows just what a landscape-scale approach to conservation can do.
Much of Hertfordshire is monitored annually for water voles, especially the areas where they are known to occur. In the last four or five years there has been little change in the situation, so where water vole populations occur they seem to be fairly stable - with the exception of an extinction on the upper part of the River Mimram, almost certainly due to mink predation.
Further resources are needed to sustain the monitoring effort and extend mink control work in the county. The lack of widespread/consistent mink control (including across county boundaries) means reservoirs of mink remain where control isn’t being carried out, and these can quickly predate local water vole populations.
Donate to Kent Wildlife Trust's water vole appeal
Two years ago, Kent Wildlife Trust launched a landmark water vole recovery project on the internationally important wetland region of the North Kent Marshes - this was the first time there had been a co-ordinated effort to monitor and protect the water vole in this area. By working hand-in-hand with like-minded organisations and private landowners, Kent Wildlife Trust hopes to be able to create a safe haven for water voles stretching from the Seasalter Levels to Ferry Marshes, north west of the Isle of Sheppey.
Having already surveyed 101 miles of bankside habitat, recording well over 4,000 water vole signs, the Trust has produced one of the best water vole datasets in the country and is working to improve habitat for water voles and control American mink. At Ham Marshes, water voles had become restricted to just a couple of ditches due to trampling and grazing by livestoc, so bankside fencing was installed to safeguard the habitat and bank re-profiling and island creation is being trialled on connected ditches in the hope that this will encourage the population to expand.
There is now an urgent need to help Kent Wildlife Trust continue to protect this extraordinary little mammal. Funding is required to continue water vole surveys, implement simple enhancement measures and further develop conservation projects to avoid further acceleration of water vole decline.
The Northwest Lowlands Water Vole Project, which reported its findings in 2011, concluded that water voles may have been lost from up to 56% of previously occupied sites within the Northwest Lowlands over the last 10 years, indicating that the national decline in water vole populations is continuing to affect the project area significantly.
However, some regionally important populations were discovered with mosslands and agricultural drainage ditches proving to be valuable habitats for water voles, along with sites that were dominated by reeds/sedges/rushes and tall grass. High levels of presence were found on the highly suitable agricultural drainage ditches of the Alt & Crossens catchment and along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.
Careful management is needed to safeguard existing habitat for the species, especially in agricultural drainage ditches, where water voles could be vulnerable to maintenance works, such as de-silting.
The Water Vole Project has come to an end but Lancashire Wildlife Trust still takes out volunteers to teach them to survey for voles.
East Anglia is an important national stronghold for the water vole. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the water vole population within the Norfolk Broads is healthy. However, the spread of mink arrived late to Norfolk and there are now concerns that they could start to impact on water voles. Certainly at Martham Broad Nature Reserve, since mink arrived, numbers of water voles have declined.
Monitoring for mink presence is ongoing as part of the Wissey Valley Living Landscape (wetland recreation for habitat loss on the North Norfolk coast).
Denbighshire County Council (DCC) has carried out survey work in the north of the county (around Rhuddlan and Rhyl) and Gronant, and there are concerns that water vole have declined in number so DCC is planning on doing further survey work. North Wales Wildlife Trust is developing a Living Landscape scheme in Flintshire and Denbighshire, and another in Wrexham, which will also undertake survey work for water voles. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) has been leading mink trapping work in North Wales.
In Snowdonia, water vole monitoring work has been undertaken by Snowdonia National Park staff and the Migneint area (an area roughly between Betws y Coed and Bala) has been identified as the key area within the Park and annual transect monitoring generally looks positive. This builds on survey work done a few years ago as part of the Pwllheli-Blaenau gas pipeline, and the Porthmadog bypass scheme. However, recent data is generally lacking outside of the Migneint key site.
Radnorshire Wildlife Trust carried out significant works for water voles within the Gilfach nature reserve and the wider Cwm Marteg Living Landscape area between 2008-2012. Creation of ponds, pools and enhancement of wetland habitats have created linkages between existing populations in the Elan Valley and the Marteg valley. There are particularly good signs of water vole at newly created ponds on Gilfach nature reserve.
The Whitchurch-Whixall area is a water vole hotspot and supports a well-known and well recorded population. Recent surveys have found water voles to be persisting at or near to the known sites, with some new records in areas previously unsurveyed. Whitchurch lies at the centre of the Meres and Mosses Living Landscape.
Between 2008 – 2012 WTSWW was involved in a multi-partnership project assessing the benefits of the Welsh Agri-environment scheme for water voles.
As well as managing several nature reserves with water voles on them (Cors Ian, Rhos Fullbrook and Llyn Eiddwen) WTSWW has also been involved in some large landscape-scale water vole conservation projects in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire and has employed a Water Vole Officer to work in these areas.
WTSWW have been working in partnership with Natural Resources Wales who have led a water vole reintroduction project at Ffrwd Farm Mire nature reserve (Gwernydd Penbre SSSI) in Carmarthenshire a part of a longer-term aim to increase resilience in the population of water voles remaining in the Llanelli area.
The Tywi Wildwood in Ceredigion is a partnership landscape-scale conservation project with Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and covers a vast area of upland habitat and conifer plantation. As part of the project, WTSWW is monitoring water vole populations and working to create more water vole habitat and connectivity throughout the area. Initial monitoring for water voles identified eight new sites in the area with water vole and previous anecdotal evidence indicates that new records have been found elsewhere in the Ceredigion uplands. However, little is currently known about these populations such as whether they are all small isolated populations (and therefore very vulnerable) or whether they form part of a larger metapopulation. It is clear that far more work is needed before the species’ status in the region can be confidently concluded.
A similar landscape project has been undertaken in the lowlands of Carmarthenshire around the Town of Llanelli, where water voles have been recorded at several sites. Here, WTSWW mapped the entire potential habitat available for water vole in the area. The survey suggested that although there is potential habitat for water vole, much of the connectivity has been lost due to developments and infrastructure.
A national water vole survey carried out in the 1990s revealed that water voles were on the brink of extinction in several counties. A subsequent survey of all of Suffolk’s river catchments by the Trust between 2003-2005 echoed these findings. For example, in 2003 no water vole could be found on the river Alde’s main channel.
The Trust’s Water for Wildlife Project, now in its tenth year, has involved liaising with landowners to improve wetland habitat management and setting up a mink control project throughout all of Suffolk’s rivers. By carrying out regular water vole surveys of our rivers, the Trust has established that wherever sustained mink control is carried out, water vole can successfully re-colonise our rivers, ponds and lakes.
The ongoing project has already had a positive impact. A survey in 2005 indicated there was a healthy water vole population at key coastal sites and by 2007 a new survey of the Alde revealed that water vole site occupancy on the main channel had increased from 0% to 55%. In 2010 water vole recovery in the River Blyth catchment was found to be the most successful of any catchment in Suffolk since the surveys began.
Currently, water voles are being found in most suitable Suffolk habitat, but more mink are also being seen and the mink trapping results in 2012 showed an increase on some rivers. A population of water voles was completely wiped out from a small tributary of the River Lark (R Kennet) due to lack of mink control.
The Trust’s work for water voles continues to be supported by small amounts of funding from the Environment Agency Central and Eastern Area, but more is needed to protect remaining populations and to encourage expansion.
In addition funding is needed to undertake repeat water vole surveys, which is the only way to continue to measure the result of the conservation efforts. Assessing current status is difficult without repeating surveys.
Generally water vole are being found in most suitable habitat, but more mink are being seen and the mink trapping results last year showed an increase on some rivers.
At Greene King water meadows, which has been monitored for nine years, drought and changing water levels are the main issues for the resident water voles and have caused the population to crash in some years. Data collected through surveys shows that populations crash a year or two after drought years with 2011 being catastrophic due to virtually dry ditches. The 2013 survey showed a marked increase in water vole activity with average water levels.
Suffolk Wildlife Trust work for water voles continues to be supported by small amounts of funding from the EA Central and Eastern Area, but more is needed to protect remaining populations and to encourage expansion. In addition funding is needed to undertake repeat water vole surveys, which is the only way to continue to measure the result of the conservation efforts. Assessing current status is difficult without repeating surveys.
This autumn Surrey Wildlife Trust will begin a review of sites surveyed in 2000 in order to evaluate the number of sites with water voles still present.
Monitoring water voles in Surrey has been undertaken since 2000, initially by the county Mammal Officer and more recently as part of the Trust’s Otters and Rivers Project. Since 2010, water vole work sits within the Surrey Waterbodies Project, a collaborative agreement with the Environment Agency, to enhance Surrey’s rivers at the catchment level and in line with Surrey Wildlife Trust’s Living Landscapes approach.
Surveys for water voles took place in 2001 and 2006/7 and the formed the basis of Alert areas for Surrey which are used in advice on planning and targeted habitat management. Surrey Wildlife Trust detected a definite decline in the number of sites positive for water voles in the 2006/7 surveys.
Surrey Wildlife Trust is now reviewing sites surveyed in 2000 in order to evaluate the number of sites with water voles still present.. This work is facilitated by new RiverSearch volunteers trained in water vole survey techniques. Any sites still confirmed to be supporting water voles will form part of a recovery strategy that will follow best practice guidelines and include habitat creation and enhancement and mink control. Mink are common in Surrey. Failure to detect water voles in this survey will lead to a reintroduction programme, which is being developed at a site in the east of the county.
In 1998, a report commissioned by the Environment Agency concluded that the species was on the brink of extinction in Sussex (Ryland, 1998). In 1989, the National Water Vole Survey of Great Britain showed water voles at 75% of the 58 sites surveyed in Sussex. By 1996, only 5% of Sussex sites had water voles present, and in 2009 only 1% of sites (a new colonisation from a re-introduction - M. Smith, 2009). If this survey is assumed to be an accurate reflection of the true decline of water voles in Sussex then water voles have declined by 99% in Sussex in the last 30 years.
Overall, Sussex WT believes that there is insufficient habitat at a landscape-scale to support viable populations of water vole in the county and that the majority of its wetland species and habitats are still declining rapidly.
Fragmented and isolated water vole populations remain in Sussex, all of which are vulnerable to extinction. Only three core breeding populations are found in the Chichester Coastal Plain, Arun Valley and the Rye and Romney marshes. In both Chichester Coastal Plain and the Arun Valley, natural populations have been boosted by re-introduced animals, making the population found in the Romney Marshes/Rye, the only remaining fully natural Sussex population. There are unlikely to be any other viable core populations remaining outside these areas.
Sussex Wildlife Trust believes that water voles is more or less extinct in the whole of the rest of the county and that at least two of the remaining populations are still declining. The other is only being sustained because of a large reintroduction programme in an area where they were previously extinct.
Overall, Sussex Wildlife Trust believes that there is insufficient habitat at a landscape-scale to support viable populations of water vole in Sussex and that the majority of our wetland species and habitats are still declining rapidly. Wetland habitats in Sussex are at 'critical' and yet we still see them regularly being destroyed and damaged by development.
What is required to restore populations of water voles to their natural levels once more, is a Sussex-wide cluster of colonies, with core breeding populations and a number of interacting outlying populations. Without this, the water vole population in Sussex is still very much in danger of extinction.
The National Water Vole Steering Group now suggests that water voles need a minimum of 6km of linear watercourse for long-term population viability. This will equate to a network of inter-linked ditches, ponds, pools, wetland habitats and watercourses on a site which would need to be between 100 and 600ha. There are very limited areas of wetland in Sussex which can accommodate a sufficiently large wetland habitat network to support one of these core water vole populations.
With many Sussex water voles confined to ground level habitats within drained and farmed floodplains, they are extremely vulnerable to flooding, drought, grazing pressure, disturbance and vegetation management. Currently man-made ditch networks are cited as being ‘ideal’ habitat for water voles. However, ditches have been created as land drains, and as such they only provide marginalised wetland habitats within strict linear confines, more easily hunted by mink.
There is an urgent need to create viable networks of vertical wetland habitat such as fen and reedbed, in order to increase the ability of water voles to respond robustly to environmental and landscape change in Sussex.
Most of the work for water vole is now carried out purely through charitable organisations raising funding and through volunteer work. At a time when community grant funds are so oversubscribed this is unsustainable.
On a positive note, Sussex Wildlife Trust is in the process of developing a water vole potential model to show areas where habitat can best be restored to increase the likelihood of populations surviving/migrating/integrating at a landscape-scale.
Thanks to the Coventry Water Vole Project, water voles appear to be increasing in Wolvey, Nuneaton and along the Ashby Canal and the Coventry Canal (North Warwickshire). There are a few strong colonies around Long Marston and Lower Quinton (South Warwickshire), but many have disappeared in this area. Elsewhere in the county, numbers have drastically declined or populations have gone extinct, including in areas of Coventry where Warwickshire Wildlife Trust has been working, although there are some indications that they may be returning in small numbers to Coventry, via the canal network – due to habitat improvements and mink monitoring. The main threats are mink, plus flooding and accidental poisoning by people, particularly in Nuneaton and other urban areas where they are re-colonising. Water voles are sometimes perceived as rats and poisoned, possibly before they can re-establish a robust population.
Bromsgrove Brooks’ is a conservation partnership which seeks to expand populations of water voles - by habitat creation and enhancement.
Water voles were once a common sight along Worcestershire's river banks but their numbers have dropped dramatically and their only known Worcestershire population is in Bromsgrove. We’re working with Bromsgrove District Council to protect this remaining population and increase its chances of survival.
Mirroring losses elsewhere in Britain, the decline of Worcestershire’s water voles has been caused by habitat loss and predation by the invasive American mink. The mink’s rapid colonization along the waterways of the county has led to decimated vole populations. Surviving colonies are often in locations that are either inaccessible or undesirable for the predators and this is one theory as to why a water vole population remains in Bromsgrove. The presence of regular traffic, dog walkers, culverts, and public usage is usually a challenge for wildlife, but in this case it may be the water vole’s saving grace as it has kept the mink at bay.
To improve the water voles’ chances, Bromsgrove District Council are leading efforts to improve habitats along the town’s watercourses to ensure that the expanding vole populations have suitable bankside habitat in which to spread. Habitat enhancements include the creation of features such as backwaters and re-naturalising inhospitable concrete canal-like channels making the banks more hospitable for the voles' usually subterranean homes. This also increases the suitable foraging areas for these herbivorous critters whose diet is typically varied for a rodent, being mainly made up of grasses, roots, fruits including wind-fall apples, which they are particularly fond of. Amazingly populations elsewhere in Britain have also been observed supplementing their diet by tackling frogs and eating only their legs al la cuisine Francaise!
It is believed that by dealing with the invasive predation and maintaining suitable habitat the voles could once again thrive in the county. Of course this places even more value and importance on the last remaining survivors if we are dependant upon them to re-populate areas from which the species has previously disappeared.
Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has run a number of water vole conservation projects in the past, but these have generally been on a small scale or concentrated on a very specific area. There is scope and opportunity for wider-scale surveys across Yorkshire with a more strategic approach to conserve this species on a landscape-scale – particularly in terms of identifying opportunities for habitat creation and improvement, mink control, surveying, landowner engagement and provision of management advice. Yorkshire Wildlife Trust recognises the need for longer-term monitoring projects which would enable changes in water vole populations to be measured, allow assessment of habitat works and ensure mink control is continued.
Longer-term monitoring projects would enable changes in water vole populations to be measured, allow assessment of habitat works and ensure mink control is continued.
Ea Beck Water Vole Refuge Project
This was a two year project funded by SITA Trust. Water voles were present in the area before the 2007 floods, in which Doncaster suffered badly. The project ended in September 2013 and there is no funding in place for it to continue. Several issues were identified which constrain the success of water voles in the area and our understanding of their status:
• Lack of suitable water vole habitat
• Presence of mink
• Lack of survey data
Therefore the project has focused on water vole surveys, mink monitoring and control, and water vole habitat creation. There have been few signs of water voles in surveys conducted to date, but two small populations at Bentley Community Woodland and the village of Thorpe-in-Balne have been detected. Further efforts are underway to survey more drains and waterways, but the lack of evidence thus far suggests that water voles were either wiped out by the flooding, or by mink, or both. Consultants conduct annual water vole surveys on drains around the Ea Beck for the IDB, so Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has co-ordinated efforts and can advise on areas it sees as a priority for monitoring post project.
Volunteers have been trained in water vole surveying and have been integral to completing survey work.
The Co-operative Farms funded a two year project to survey for water voles on its Pasture Farm in Goole as part of its ‘Habitat Heroes’ project. Detailed water vole surveys of the farm’s drainage ditches were completed and a healthy population discovered. Land management advice was provided by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and monitoring of the population through surveys over the project period. Staff, their friends and families were also engaged through a number of events on the farm looking at water vole ecology and habitat management.
Since the completion of this project further funding has been secured from Natural England and the Humberhead Levels Nature Improvement Area (NIA) enabling Yorkshire Wildlife Trust to extend the project area and scope.
An extensive programme of surveying is underway around Goole, Swinefleet and Thorne Moor. A healthy population has been detected on Thorne Moor, whilst a more fragmented population has been detected around Goole and Swinefleet.
Volunteers are being actively recruited for water vole survey work.
River Hull Catchment
Whilst there is now no funded water vole project in the East Riding, the River Hull catchment is a focus for Yorkshire Wildlife Trust through its Living Landscape approach. River restoration work is being carried out on the headwater chalk streams and water vole is one of the key species considered for this habitat management work.
Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has recently bought a 70-acre former commercial fish farm, with 60 ponds and one mile of SSSI chalk stream. It will be carrying out a programme of habitat creation and restoration over the next three years using money recently secured from WREN BAF. The fish farm site will be transformed into a mosaic wetland nature reserve, whilst six additional chalk stream sites will be restored for the benefit of a wide range of species including water vole.
Water vole surveys have been conducted using volunteers over the past four years, with the same set of volunteers carrying out repeat surveys. During this time water vole numbers have remained constant. However a second site approximately 5km’s away from the survey site has seen a population crash with local extinction.
Ideally funding and volunteers would be secured to re-start a water vole specific project in the area, which would focus on pond and scrape habitat creation, survey and monitoring work, and mink control.
Dearne Valley NIA Riparian Mammals
This project is a continuation of a water vole project that was being run by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust in the Barnsley area. The results following survey work were very promising and a lot of good data was collected.
Yorkshire Wildlife Trust is re-surveying for water voles through this new project for a third year so that population changes may be studied. Survey work is not solely concentrating on water voles, but on all riparian mammals. Volunteers are being actively recruited for survey work.
Living Went Project
This is a new project which is looking to create and restore river habitat to benefit many species, with a specific focus on water vole. The Went and its tributaries are a stronghold in the local area for water vole, but their numbers have declined.
The project will improve the bankside habitat through planting, re-profiling and removing brash. It is hoped this habitat work will help connect currently isolated populations of water voles in the area to help these populations become stronger. Staff and volunteers have already started this work and have to date cleaned up rivers, surveyed for water voles and cleared scrub vegetation. Contractors have also been creating ponds.
Funding for this project is through SITA Trust and the Environment Agency and builds on work started by the Wild Went Water Voles project which carried out survey work and some habitat restoration work.
Yorkshire Wildlife Trust is actively seeking volunteers to help with the habitat maintenance work.
The Outer Humber Project
This three-year project funded by WREN focused on creating and restoring saltmarsh habitat found on the Outer Humber from Spurn to Hull. This work benefitted a number of species including water voles. To provide a benchmark, water vole surveyswerecarried out with the help of volunteers in the ditches, on the saltmarsh and in wetland fields.
Volunteers are still being actively sought for survey work. Training is provided.