Recent headlines stating that “water voles have become the fastest declining mammal in Britain” are quick to draw to our attention the fact that sadly another native mammal is under threat of extinction.
For a long time “Ratty”, as water voles became affectionately known through Kenneth Grahame’s classic book “Wind in the Willows,” were a familiar sight on many rivers and waterways. With the centenary of this novel upon us, now is the time to act swiftly to ensure that water voles can be restored to many of the sites that they have so swiftly disappeared from.
The reasons for the decline are complex but it would appear that there has been a steady decline of water voles from as far back as the turn of the 20th century. It is thought that water voles have disappeared from 95% of their original UK wetland locations since 1900. This reflects the trends of changes in waterway management, land drainage, habitat loss and pollution. However, since the late 1950s, another factor in the form of the accidental introduction of the non-native American mink has accelerated the decline.
The Isle of Wight’s water voles are faring a little better in terms of the national trend, and relatively stable populations on the Island have been carefully monitored by the Trust over the last ten years.
The Island’s gently flowing chalk rivers, with well vegetated banks and relatively soft substrate, provide ideal habitats for water voles colonies. However a combination of over-management and manicuring of river banks, increasing urbanisation and over-abstraction of water is having a negative impact. This means that unfortunately not all the Island’s rivers have viable populations and the distribution of water voles is changing.
Even so the Isle of Wight remains a key site for water voles and, with the added advantage that as yet there are no American mink on the Island, it is likely that the island has the best population left in the whole of the UK.
The loss of water voles across the UK should be a matter of concern for us all. The potential disappearance of ‘Ratty’ from our riverbanks means more than the loss of one part of the wetland jigsaw. Good waterside habitat is not only vital for ‘Ratty’ but also supports a host of other wildlife including kingfishers, damselflies, Atlantic salmon, brown trout and kingcups. Bearing in mind the national picture of overall steep decline, it is essential that we do all we can to protect and expand the remaining water vole populations on the Island. Consequently we are engaging in a number of water vole recovery and reintroduction projects to try and ensure a better future for this charismatic creature.
To help save the water vole and protect other wetland wildlife we have launched an appeal to raise £55,000 to carry out a range of measures including surveys of riversides and streams; carrying out riverside improvement work; trial reintroduction projects and giving advice to landowners whose land includes riverbanks and streamsides.
The appeal has already got off to a good start with a donation of £5,000 towards the costs of the appeal from Hampshire Natural Mineral Water supplier Hildon Ltd. Hildon Ltd have also generously offered to donate 5p to the water vole appeal for every bottle of Hildon Water sold through their home delivery service between 1st July and 30th September. Phone 01794 302002 or go to
www.hildon.com for further information, quoting code HDWV.
Please help us meet our target. Making a donation is easy. You can donate by post to Water Vole Appeal, Beechcroft House, Vicarage Lane, Curdridge, Hampshire SO32 2DP, by telephone on 01489 774414 or online at www.hwt.org.uk
Water Vole Habitat
Water voles live in a range of wetland habitats. Their densities are very much influenced by distinct habitat preferences as well as overall population density and season. Water voles thrive on well vegetated, gently flowing or static water bodies. On rivers, their territories extend linearly along the water course. An average territory for a male water vole being around 180 metres and for a female about half of this.
Many watercourses have been dredged and modified over the years but particularly more intensively in the past 50 years.
Where this work has been carried out over large areas this can have a great impact on water vole recovery in the area. However completely leaving watercourses unmanaged can be just as detrimental, leading to over-shading and the eventual loss of soft vegetation.
All about Water Voles
With their characteristic round body, blunt muzzle, short round and almost hidden ears water voles are our largest native vole. Their fur is normally a reddish brown although black pelage is observed in some parts of the country. They also have thin hair on their tail.
Males have a body weight up to 380grams and females up to 300grams. Average length of an adult water vole is 360mm with the tail accounting for just over a third of the total length.
Water voles favour a range of freshwater wetland habitats being found on rivers, ponds, lakes, canals and ditches. They can also be found in brackish coastal marshes.
Water voles are not long lived as with most small mammal populations. Exceptionally, water voles may survive three winters but just one is more normal.
Breeding normally commences in March or April with up to 7 young being born in each litter and up to five litters can be produced during the breeding season up to the end of September.
Water Voles are now fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 under both sections 5 and 9.