The Water Vole: the story of one of Britain’s most endangered mammals

There are few good news stories about water voles – one of Britain’s fastest declining mammals, but in August they caused a rush of media interest as 100 of them were released into Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales. The tarn is England’s highest freshwater lake with ideal habitat for water voles that had once thrived there. The National Trust owns and manages 8,000 hectares of land in the Yorkshire Dales and the release forms part of a wider landscape restoration programme. There have been around thirty-five similar releases in Britain over the last decade and there are now breeding colonies in every county in England after a successful water vole re-introduction in Cornwall in 2013 where they had become extinct. The decline of the water vole has a long history as habitat has been lost and damaged by intensive farming, urban development and insensitive river management. But it is the expansion of American mink to every river catchment in Britain that has caused the greatest devastation to water vole populations. Mink are specialist riverside predators that were able to thrive in the absence of native otters that were wiped out by the toxic state of our rivers in the 1970-80s. National surveys in the 1990s showed that populations of water voles had declined by eight percent in just seven years. That decline has not halted but it is not all doom and gloom; the otter has recovered and is now present in every county in Britain thanks to the cleanup of our rivers, which we owe to the European Union’s Water Framework Directive. Also, we now know how best to help the water vole, which is a robust species capable of making fast recoveries.

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Water Vole

The water vole re-introduction in Malham Tarn is in the context of a wider approach to land management that integrates the needs of wildlife, farming and tourism while enhancing the vital natural services of river, flood and carbon management. Restoration of wetlands, moors and watercourses undertaken by the Environment Agency, National Trust and others are now key environmental aims in the context of climate change. These days there is less perceived conflict between the needs of wild creatures and those of people as I noted in my book on the water vole:

Caring for our ecosystems and the creatures that depend on them is ultimately about self-preservation. The very landscapes which may be the last refuges for the water vole – our wetlands and moors – need protection and sensitive management for all of our sakes. Another 100 water voles are due for release in Mallam Tarn in the spring and lets hope that they flourish there and expand into the wider landscape but we cannot at present hope for a similar release in the rivers and streams of the Peak District where mink are still present. Small and often isolated populations persist in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire but these are often under intense pressure from agriculture and high visitor numbers. But as I wrote in the conclusion of my book, we do have a role to play:

We can do something big by becoming a volunteer for the Wildlife Trusts, or report what we see to them, or we can just learn to behave better and to consider the small lives lived along our waterways, learn to be quiet, to keep the dog on the lead and out of the water. We can learn to be invisible, to listen and watch and by doing so gain some of the greatest rewards it is possible to have in our rushed and crowded lives – to see a wild animal living its life in peace.

Christine Gregory is the author of The Water Vole: the story of one of Britain’s most endangered mammals. Enter code DWT30 to receive ten percent off (RRP £16.99)

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