Water voles make a welcome return to Exmoor

A water vole

This September, 150 water voles were reintroduced at six carefully chosen sites on the Holnicote Estate on Exmoor. The water vole is one of the fastest declining land mammal, disappearing from 94 per cent of its habitats. The plan for one of Britain’s most adorable, yet rare creatures is that it will be given a whole new start in a healthy environment, where they can breed and flourish.

This is the National Trust’s first reintroduction of water voles in the South West with the hope that they could soon be spotted swimming along by the river banks of its former home on the estate on Exmoor.

Why we’re re-introducing water voles 

As a conservation charity,  we believe that water voles can once more become an important and integral part of the whole ecology of Holnicote, contributing to the richness of the wildlife and also giving future generations the chance to get to know these special wild residents – immortalised in Kenneth Graham’s classic ‘Wind in the Willows’.

" In true ‘Wind in the Willows’ style, these voles should soon be busy burrowing into the muddy banks and creating more natural-looking edges to streams with shady pools that are great for so many other small creatures. I very much look forward to making their acquaintance once more."
- Alex Raeder- National Trust’s South West Conservation Manager

Water voles are low in number 

Water voles became endangered for two main reasons –

  • Fragmentation and loss of habitat due to farming intensification and urbanisation after the Second World War
  • North American mink – predators of the vole – escaping, or deliberately bring released, from fur farms (especially in the 1970s and 80s). 

Mink are not native UK animals and can be voracious predators of voles. In preparation for the vole reintroduction, on-going investigations on the Holnicote Estate have to date found no evidence of the American mink that might threaten their return.

On the Holnicote Estate, the Trust rangers and tenant farmers are working together to improve agricultural practices for the benefit of wildlife conservation and for floodplain and river management. 
 

Why this is so important 

Alex Raeder, the National Trust’s South West Conservation Manager, said: “I remember being enchanted by these creatures as a child, and hugely welcome their return. They were once a vital part of the Holnicote ecosystem, and could be again. This ambitious project not only brings back to its rightful home a much-loved small animal, which sadly became locally extinct due to human activity, but also adds to the whole wealth of wildlife and enjoyment of this wild and stunning estate. 

This project means we’re working to create a healthier environment and ecology in the Exmoor area, but also making sure future generations don’t miss out on these native creatures.  

Water vole
Water vole close up
Water vole

How they’ve been re-introduced 

These water voles have been specially bred from British animals by a local expert ecologists and will be released in sibling groups and breeding pairs. The plan is to release another 150 water voles next spring.

The precious new arrivals will be closely monitored to see how they are settling in. Rangers, special ‘vole-unteers’, students and the public will be joining forces and using simple field signs to record their presence and behaviour – from actual sightings and ‘plopping’ sounds as they dive in, to droppings, vole runs and burrows, and grass blades nibbled off at distinctive 45 degree angles. 

Sweeping view of Bossington
View of Bossington and Porlock
Sweeping view of Bossington

This ambitious reintroduction is part of the National Trust’s new Riverlands project where it has committed £10 million to restoring and reviving five rivers across England and Wales – part of the Trust’s wider aim to restore 25,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitats by 2025. 
 

Video

Water vole release on Exmoor

Listen to Alex Raeder, the National Trust’s South West Conservation Manager talk about this exciting project, and why it's so important for future generations and for the health of the local ecology.