Water voles in the UK
The water vole is a much-loved British mammal better known as ‘Ratty’ in the children’s classic The Wind in the Willows. Unfortunately, the future of this charming riverside creature is in peril; the water vole needs urgent help to survive in the UK.
Water voles are a vital part of river ecosystems. Their burrowing, feeding and movements help to create conditions for other animals and plants to thrive - a bit like beavers do, but on a much smaller scale. The Wildlife Trusts and many other organisations are working hard to keep water voles in our rivers and streams and restore them to places where they've been lost.
Why do water voles need protecting?
Water voles have suffered huge declines as a result of habitat loss, pollution of waterways, industrialisation of agriculture, housing development and predation by American mink which were brought to the UK for fur farming. Once a regular sight in ditches, streams and rivers across the UK, water voles are now absent from much of the country.
How can I help water voles?
It's great that you want to help water voles! The drop down menus below show you the different ways that you can get involved.
Farmers and landowners
Look after riverbank habitats for water voles, in the following ways:
- Leave at least 2 metres of bankside vegetation or grass to provide food and cover for feeding water voles. Wider buffer strips (5 - 50 metres) will trap sediment, absorb run-off and the habitat that develops will provide food and cover for water voles and other wildlife.
- Open up sections of the bank to the sun by coppicing bankside trees in densely shaded areas. This will prevent overshading and encourage grasses and herbs to grow, providing food and cover for water voles.
- If livestock use the fields adjacent to the watercourse and you need to allow them to access the water, reduce the impacts of poaching by fencing off part of the watercourse. If only fencing one bank, choose the steeper, higher one, where water voles can burrow more safely.
Reedbeds, ponds and backwaters provide a refuge for water voles and other aquatic wildlife such as dragonflies, fish and amphibians. Digging deeper junction ponds where ditches meet, or creating low bunds to hold back water for longer, can provide deeper pools for water voles to use when water levels drop over summer.
Don't cut bankside vegetation too short - this results in slower regrowth and so water voles will lose cover for longer.
Cut alternate banks each year so there is always a refuge for the water voles to escape to.
Cut late in the summer to reduce disturbance to the voles during their breeding season. The best time to carry out habitat management is at the end of the breeding season in late September or October. Works can also be carried out by early February ahead of the breeding season.
When de-silting, avoid scraping the bank edges or disturbing them with machinery. Leave a fringe of vegetation along the edge.
Only remove silt from the centre of the channel.
Any machinery that might damage the bank should be kept to one side of the watercourse only, so at least the other side will remain intact.
Deposit silt and weed at the top of the bank, well away from the water.
Donate - Donate to charities helping to protect and restore water voles. Check your Wildlife Trust's website for local water vole appeals.
Tread carefully - Around rivers and streams people should follow the Countryside Code and avoid disturbing water voles.
Conserve water - Water voles need water. By minimising your use of water and avoiding wasting water you can help to keep Ratty's natural habitats wet and water-vole friendly.
Enlarge and expand conservation projects to protect and enhance water vole populations at a landscapescale, to help water vole populations recover and re-occupy their former range and distribution.
Monitor water voles - Continue to monitor water vole populations and invest further in volunteers to help survey. The network of expert volunteer recorders is critical to water vole conservation.Use alert maps to inform the design and implementation of conservation programmes
Share learnings from water vole reintroduction projects - and make this information available to conservation practitioners, in order to share experiences, successes and best practice.
Use River Catchment Partnerships to help water voles - Catchment Partnerships play a key role as they hold the key to reaching all riparian owners at a catchment scale to maintain conservation efforts at a meaningful level.
Revise the UK strategy for water vole conservation - Revise the UK strategy for water vole conservation as the UK Biodiversity Action Plan has failed to achieve its national targets.
Support landscape-scale water vole conservation programmes - including through ensuring that future land management policy and public payments for farmers and land managers help to restore water voles
The Wildlife Trusts' water vole projects
Discover below how Wildlife Trusts across Great Britain are helping water vole populations to recover.
Beds, Cambs & Northants Wildlife Trust
Overall across the county, 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 Cam for many years found in 2011. Populations in the Fens are also holding up, but American mink remain a continued threat. However, as BCN Wildlife Trust and others have undertaken much less survey work in recent years due to funding difficulties, there is a feeling that any ‘declines’ noted locally could be more attributable to this reduction.
BCN Wildlife Trust is working with the Countryside Restoration Trust on the Bourn Brook, controlling invasive species including mink, and improving habitats. Mink control is now in place on much of the Cam catchment and expanding along the Ouse, and this has coincided with a large increase in water vole signs in the area. The fens are a stronghold for water vole but the upper Cam is fast becoming a very significant population too. Surveys on the Bourn Brook showed a very significant increase between 2011 and 2017.
Water voles are only found in a few places in Bedfordshire mostly along the River Ivel in the east of the county and the River Lea in Luton. Although they were once much more widespread habitat degradation and predation from American mink have significantly reduced the population. Volunteers conduct surveys of the key sites each year and the Wildlife Trust are part of a partnership of local charities, volunteers and landowners who have recently started to control mink in the hope that the remaining water voles can be protected and recolonise areas once again.
Berks Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust
In 1998, Berks Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust began its pioneering 'Water Vole Recovery Project' to halt the loss of water voles in the three counties and aid their recovery. Working in partnership with the Environment Agency, the Canal & River Trust and Thames Water, they aim to:
- Record and monitor water vole populations with a team of volunteers, surveying over 150km of watercourses each year
- Work with landowners to provide advice on managing and enhancing sites for water voles
- Co-ordinate mink control around key water vole sites to protect vole populations from predation
- Work to raise awareness of water voles and to protect them in the planning process
Water voles are persisting in these three counties, with populations in some areas expanding. The general trend appears to be that the larger more sustainable populations are expanding and linking up whilst the smaller, fragmented populations are continuing to decline.
Long-term monitoring and mink control is in place on the River Kennet and the Kennet & Avon Canal between Hungerford and Newbury. This extensive water vole population has been expanding its range in recent years whilst the small, fragmented populations in the east of the county continue to decline.
Water vole populations persist on the chalk streams through the Chilterns in south Bucks. Voles were only recorded on the River Misbourne for the first time in 2008. Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust is currently managing a habitats enhancement project on the lower part of the River Misbourne on behalf of the Environment Agency. Long term monitoring on the River Chess is continuing with help from the River Chess Association.
Against the backdrop of a continued national decline, from 2008 to 2017 the total water vole Local Key Areas in Oxfordshire increased from 137 to 438km2. During this period the number of Local Key Areas declined from 17 to 7 as water vole colonies spread out and linked up to create larger and more robust meta-populations. Our two largest sites cover the River Thames and River Ock catchments and are designated water vole Regional Key Areas.
Essex Wildlife Trust
Since work began on the Essex Water Vole Recovery Project (EWVRP) in 2007, voles have been reintroduced to the River Colne and River Stort (in partnership with Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust). Habitat improvements and landscape scale mink removal has resulted in natural re-colonisation across a number of Essex catchments.
The EWVRP is part of the work undertaken by the Water for Wildlife Officer and is integrated into the Eastern Region Mink and Water Vole Project. The EWVRP consists of a network of more than 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. Surveys undertaken within the mink control area have revealed a recovery 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-river locations such as farm ditches, ponds and moats. These areas are now being targeted for expanding the mink monitoring across the whole county as they seem to provide reservoirs for natural recolonization after mink are removed. The establishment of a network of specially trained Essex Wildlife Trust Volunteer River Wardens in 2014 has provided the project with many more opportunities to monitor rafts for landowners who may be too busy to undertake the work themselves.
Mink are now potentially competing with otters and polecats. The otter population is now well established across the whole county after extinction in the 1980s but their presence appears to have little effect on mink. Meanwhile polecats are rapidly recolonising North Essex after 100 years absence and anecdotal records tell us that mink are less common in polecat areas. This cannot be verified at present but data are being gathered to plot the distribution of the two species and interpret how they are interacting. Perhaps a combination of otters in the aquatic environment and polecats on the land will have a downward pressure on mink in the county in coming years and assist the recovery of water voles in the county.
Gwent Wildlife Trust
In 2012, Gwent Wildlife Trust embarked on an ambitious project to reintroduce water voles to the beautiful Magor Marsh Nature Reserve on the Gwent Levels. Historically, this expansive area of SSSI-designated grazing marsh and ditch system supported very healthy populations of water voles. They are thought to have suffered local extinction by the early 2000s, following decades of habitat loss and predation by American mink – a trend mirrored across much of the UK.
The first step towards water vole recovery was for Gwent Wildlife Trust to establish a mink control programme to reduce the large mink population, before carefully planning and undertaking the release of over 200 water voles on to the reserve. Monitoring each year has shown the water voles to be doing well. The highest number of signs were recorded in the post-breeding 2015 survey and with the population still healthy, the water voles are expanding their range outside the reserve.
Water voles have been detected as far as 10km away and these animals are highly likely to have originated from the reintroduced population, as previous surveys from before the reintroduction failed to find signs. Most recently, water voles have been found close to significant rivers, the Usk and Ebbw, which potentially provide a corridor for them to move north out of the Levels and into the rest of Gwent.
Under the HLF-funded Magnificent Marshy Mammals Project (2015-2018), Gwent Wildlife Trust conducted almost 20km of water vole surveys across the Gwent Levels, provided training opportunities for volunteers to learn how to survey for wetland mammals and ran a successful outreach programme, engaging children and young people with the magnificent marshy mammals in their area. They continue to monitor the population of water voles twice yearly and sensitively manage their habitats at Magor Marsh Nature Reserve. With the help of local landowners and a team of volunteers, essential mink monitoring and control is ongoing.
Through the HLF-funded Living Levels Partnership Scheme (2018-2021), Gwent Wildlife Trust and partner organisations will work with landowners across the Gwent Levels to restore key wetland habitats. This ambitious project will see several kilometres of ditches cleared and holding water once again, providing increased habitat for water voles, which is better connected and meets their requirements for food, cover, water and banks.
Kent Wildlife Trust
Kent Wildlife Trust work in partnership with Tarmac on their nature reserve Holborough Marshes on the River Medway at Snodland, near Maidstone.
The partnership has been in place since 1996, with the management and protection of the reserve significantly funded by Tarmac. Water vole population are still thriving due to careful habitat management such as dredging of the ditch system on rotation and protection of bankside vegetation where grazing has to take place.
Northumberland Wildlife Trust
Northumberland Wildlife Trust has undertaken two releases of a total of 570 water voles across Kielder Forest during 2017 – a vast area of 650 square kilometres after a 30-year absence in the largest reintroduction to one place ever attempted in the UK. There are two releases planned for summer 2018, of a further 500 water voles. The project aims to restore populations of this endearing mammal to the Kielder catchment of the north Tyne with a view to their eventual spread throughout western reaches of Northumberland.
The Forestry Commission has done much to improve the habitat across the Kielder Forest and has ceased to plant trees right up to river and stream edges, thus allowing banksides to have more light and a greater range of plants to grow. Mink monitoring has taken place in the Kielder areas intensively for the last 5 years and has shown that mink are absent from Kielder. Although they are fast breeders, water voles need help to recolonise the Kielder area as the nearest sustainable population is in the North Pennines.
Restoring Ratty is a five-year partnership project between Northumberland Wildlife Trust, Forestry Commission England and Tyne Rivers Trust, is aimed at the reintroduction of water voles to the Kielder area of Northumberland has all been made possible by National Lottery players and a grant of £421,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).
Surrey Wildlife Trust
Once common across all river catchments in Surrey, water voles have not been recorded in the county since 2008. Following work by Surrey Wildlife Trust, as part of the ‘Surrey Water Vole Recovery Project’, surveys so far suggest that the species may be ‘functionally extinct’ in the county.
Since 2015 around 100 surveys have been carried out across six different river catchments, searching for signs of water voles. The vast majority of surveys were carried out by volunteers trained in water vole survey techniques, through the Trust’s RiverSearch project.
Surveys took place on sites with past records of water voles and in areas either with suitable water vole habitat or anecdotal records of the species. Unfortunately no evidence of water voles was reported, though signs of brown rats and American mink were identified.
The work was led by the Trust’s Alex Learmont, who said: We recognise that these surveys are not extensive and cannot provide conclusive evidence that water voles have disappeared from the county.
“However, the continuing lack of sightings or signs, despite the increased survey effort and general public awareness, suggests that the Surrey population has significantly reduced in size, if not disappeared altogether.
“We have been working hard with dedicated volunteers and through catchment partnerships to restore our degraded rivers, manage bankside vegetation and monitor pollution levels and we are extremely grateful to all those who have helped us so far.
“We would love residents to get involved by submitting sightings which will help with our aim to restore these delightful mammals to their rightful place on our waterways.”
It’s believed the main reason for the dramatic decline of the species in Surrey is two-fold: the widespread destruction and degradation of suitable wetland habitats and the continued presence of non-native invasive American mink.
While there has been some discussion about the possibility of the future reintroduction of water voles at specific wetland sites in the county, the Trust has no plans to progress this in its new five year strategic plan. However it is still working to improve habitats as part of its catchment partnerships and targetted wetland restoration work.
Water vole sightings can be recorded at the Surrey Biodiversity Information Centre by emailing email@example.com.
Warwickshire Wildlife Trust
Water voles in Warwickshire are making a comeback! We now have a regionally important population of water voles in North Warwickshire. This is due to a combination of American mink seemingly reducing in number and continuing habitat enhancement work by Warwickshire Wildlife Trust (supported by local Councils). Warwickshire Wildlife Trust is working to strengthen and expand this central population hub along the well-connected canal and river networks particularly the Coventry Canal, Oxford Canal and River Anker.
Warwickshire Wildlife Trust is training local people to help conserve their valuable local waterways and working to enhance the river and canal bank habitat to help water voles move freely, with more nesting and feeding opportunities. Where canal edges are concreted or lined with metal the Trust is creating platforms and ladders to help water voles get out to feed. This includes trialling new ‘water vole motels!’ woven from willow and hawthorn. National Lottery Funding has been vital to this Water Vole Recovery Project.
Tame Valley Wetlands Landscape Partnership Scheme, a Heritage Lottery funded project led by Warwickshire Wildlife Trust is also working to prepare the scheme area for the return of water voles. Water voles were once common place in the area but were wiped out following predation by American mink. With water voles not far away in North Warwickshire this work will help to expand the species range. For the Tame Valley this means that water voles will be encouraged along the River Anker and Coventry Canal which links into the Tame Valley scheme area.
These complementary Heritage Lottery funded projects offer a truly landscape scale conservation initiative for water voles in the Midlands.
The National Water Vole Database & Mapping Project
The National Water Vole Database and Mapping Project is managed by The Wildlife Trusts. The project collects data every year from volunteers, Local Environmental Records Centres (LERCs), the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), The Wildlife Trusts and other suppliers in England, Wales and Scotland.
A report published in 2017 revealed that between 2006-2015, water vole distribution declined dramatically. There was a 30% decline in the places where these river mammals once lived across England and Wales. Read the report here.