Julia Lofthouse, the Water Vole Recovery Project Manager with the Wildlife Trust, explains: “Against the backdrop of a continued national decline in water vole populations, locally across our three counties our hard work has paid off and we have seen a steady increase in water vole activity through the years.
“In 2008 the total area of water vole activity in the three counties stood at 321km2. This has increased by 78% over the last 10 years to reach 603km2 in 2018.
“It’s not all been good news though, some of our smaller water vole populations, are continuing to decline. We are focusing our efforts on helping the remaining colonies to flourish, spread out and eventually link up to create larger, robust populations that are more sustainable in the long term.”
The BBOWT Water Vole Recovery Project was set up 20 years ago in partnership with the Environment Agency, the Canal & River Trust and Thames Water. Since 1998 we have been working hard to conserve local water vole populations throughout our counties.
Julia explains: “The main elements of the project’s work are surveying and monitoring local water vole populations and working to ensure our waterways remain suitable for voles to inhabit. This is done through advising landowners on managing their sites sensitively, working on projects to enhance rivers, streams and other water bodies, and advocating mink control in and around water vole hotspots.”
Oxfordshire has some fairly healthy water vole colonies and is home to our two largest populations, which inhabit the River Thames between Lechlade and BBOWT’s Chimney Meadows nature reserve, and the Abingdon area. The water vole populations are continuing to expand; last year BBOWT recorded new populations on the River Leach close to the Gloucestershire boundary and the Frogmore Brook around Stanford in the Vale.
The Kennet and Avon Canal and the River Kennet between Hungerford and Newbury are strongholds for water voles. Activity also extends over the county boundary into Wiltshire, making this an extensive population. BBOWT works with many private estates on the river to control mink; this has led to water vole populations flourishing.
Only two natural water vole populations remain in Buckinghamshire, on the River Chess and River Misbourne. Considerable efforts have been made to help these populations expand and link up. BBOWT is working closely with the Chilterns Chalk Stream Project and the River Chess Association to monitor the water voles on the River Chess and implement mink control.
Much of the habitat on the lower reaches of the River Misbourne is unsuitable for voles. During the last six months we have been carrying out extensive enhancement work, clearing away trees and scrub along the river to help the voles expand their range downstream. The ultimate aim is that they will disperse along the River Colne to eventually link up with the River Chess water voles.
Why water voles are in decline nationally
In spite of the work by BBOWT and other Wildlife Trusts, water vole populations nationally continue to face severe threats across their ranges.
A comprehensive report on the water voles’ national status, produced by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust this week, shows there has been a 30% decline in the places where water voles once lived across England and Wales during the survey period 2006 - 2015. While the new analysis reveals a slight increase in distribution in recent years – thanks to some successful conservation efforts by The Wildlife Trusts and others – the full data covering the whole ten years paints a bleak picture.
There are many reasons for this decline, including the loss of riverside habitats, increased water pollution and more built development, combined with predation by North American mink, which were introduced to Britain for fur farming in the 20th century. The Water Vole in Britain 1996-1998, published by The Vincent Wildlife Trust described the water vole population as the UK’s most rapidly declining mammal, lost from 94% of places where they were once prevalent.
Ellie Brodie, Senior Policy Manager for The Wildlife Trusts, says: “Water voles are an essential part of our wild and watery places and it’s terribly sad that we’re continuing to witness huge declines of this much-loved mammal. The Wildlife Trusts and others are working hard to help bring them back again and care for the places that they need to survive – but much more is needed if we’re going to stop this charismatic creature disappearing altogether.”
The Wildlife Trusts are calling for:
- Government and Local Authorities to enable the creation of a Nature Recovery Network, as set out in the Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment. A Nature Recovery Network should be underpinned by a new Environment Act to protect, link and create areas of habitat which help wildlife move and spread out, benefitting water voles and a range of other wildlife. Funding should be increased to expand water vole conservation efforts including for landscape-scale restoration schemes.
- Landowners to manage river bank habitat sympathetically to help water voles, e.g. provide generous buffer strips to provide shelter and feeding areas; create soft edges to river banks for water voles to create burrows in, and avoid using heavy machinery close to the edge of watercourses.
- People to find out about opportunities to help survey water voles or manage riverside habitat with the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust and other groups involved in water vole conservation.
Water voles used to be regularly seen and heard along ditches, streams and rivers across the UK. A creature which burrows in banks and feeds on reeds and grass, the water vole was a lead character, known as Ratty, in Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic The Wind in the Willows.