Working for wildlife at Winchelsea

A water vole perches on a wooden post

Over a decade of conservation work has been rewarded with the first-ever sighting of water voles at Winchelsea. Once common, they have disappeared from almost 90% of rivers and streams. National Trust Area Ranger Andrew Dyer explains how his team captured Britain’s rarest rodent on camera.

For many years we have surveyed the ditches around Winchelsea and spotted potential signs of water voles.

Famous as the inspiration for Ratty - hero of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows – the charismatic water dwellers are Britain’s fastest-declining mammal.

We wanted to capture these camera-shy creatures on film, to show how careful conservation can allow them to thrive once more.

Water vole wonderland

The landscape at Winchelsea is highly suited to water voles. The slow moving water is monitored for cleanliness and rarely disturbed by people.

Pulling Himalayan balsam in the reedbeds
Pulling Himalayan balsam in the reedbed

We also manage vegetation, in particular waterside plants, to provide a healthy supply of food.

Natural features such as steep banks are ideal for burrows whilst mink, a major predator, are low in numbers.

Reversing the trend

We’ve been actively managing the landscape for wildlife at Winchelsea for more than a decade. The vast array of habitats here make it the perfect place to help reverse the decline in nature and see it thrive.

Woodland, reedbeds and ditches lie alongside clifftop grassland and pasture. Meadows, hedgerows, scrub and arable farmland add more variety still.

Our team of two rangers and volunteers is always busy with conservation work. Recently, we've restored a 3 hectare reedbed and established a 1.4 hectare wild flower meadow.

Additionally we perform wildlife surveys, install bird and bat boxes and plant hedgerows.

Creatures of habit

First step to capturing our film footage was to find the water voles. Luckily, they are creatures of habit, spending most of their time within two metres of the burrow.

Ranger Stan Smith surveys the reedbed ditches for signs of water voles. The kayak was kindly funded by the Rye and District Association.
Surveying the reedbed ditches at Winchelsea

They often return to the same areas to carry out their business. Clues might be piles of nibbled grass and stems, or ‘latrines’ of rounded droppings.

If you’re lucky, you might spot an obvious entrance to their multi-layered, bankside burrows.

Spy in the reedbed

Next, we planted trail cameras in likely spots. The special spy cams are triggered by movement and heat.

Stan goes on to lay a trail camera to try to film the water voles. The special spy cams were kindly funded by the East Kent National Trust Association.
Ranger Stan Smith lays a trail camera at Winchelsea, East Sussex

It took several months, but our patience has now been rewarded with the first-ever footage of water voles here in the Winchelsea countryside.

Working together for wildlife

The National Trust cares for over 445 hectares of land at Winchelsea. Conservation for the future is a joined-up effort.

We have a team of dedicated volunteers and work closely with our farmers to minimise  fertiliser use and overgrazing.

We also collaborate with Natural England and other non-government organisations.

Through our vital work we can protect not only the water voles but a vast array of other wildlife.

By thinking wildlife first, we hope to see many more water voles messing about on the river at Winchelsea in the years to come.

Supporting our work

With special thanks to: