Water vole by Elliott Neep
Once a familiar sighting in Suffolk, the charismatic water vole has suffered the most rapid and catastrophic decline of any British mammal due to habitat loss and predation by the non-native American mink.
Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Water for Wildlife initiative, launched following a national survey that revealed the species was at the point of extinction in some counties, has helped reverse that decline. The following resource highlights this charming mammal’s requirements and explains how you can help ensure it keeps a toehold in Suffolk.
Famed as Ratty in Kenneth Grahame’s novel The Wind in the Willows, the water vole is easily distinguished from the brown rat by its chubby whiskery face, blunt nose and small ears. Water voles are almost wholly vegetarian, feeding on a wide range of plants, roots and tubers. They don’t hibernate but retreat underground where they store food but will emerge when the sun shines in the winter months.
Water voles need luxurious bankside vegetation, particularly grasses, rushes and sedges, to provide food and cover from predators. They also favour steep banks to allow them to excavate extensive burrow systems. In fenland situations they are known to burrow into tussock sedge, which keeps them safely above fluctuating water levels.
Water for Wildlife Project
A national water vole survey carried out in the 1990s revealed the species was 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 vole 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 vole were 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.
Have you seen a water vole?
You can help us monitor water vole populations by reporting your sightings. Look out for the signs such as burrows in the riverbank, often with a nibbled 'lawn' of grass around the entrance. Water voles like to sit and eat in the same place, so piles of nibbled grass and stems may be found by the water's edge, showing a distinctive 45° angled-cut at the ends. 'Latrines' of rounded, cigar-shaped droppings may also be spotted.
But remember, water voles are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) from killing or taking by certain prohibited methods. Their breeding and resting places are fully protected from damage, destruction or obstruction, it is also an offence to disturb them in these places.