Water voles make welcome return to their former Exmoor home

Press release
A water vole
Published : 10 Sep 2018

Endangered water voles are returning to a stretch of river where they have been extinct for more than 30 years - thanks to a National Trust river and waterways project.

Once regularly spotted on Britain’s riverbanks, they are now the nation’s fastest declining land mammal, disappearing from 94 per cent of their former sites, largely due to increased urbanisation, predators and a decline in natural habitat. 

But over the next few days, 150 will be released at six carefully chosen locations on the charity’s Holnicote Estate on Exmoor, Somerset – where they were last seen in the 1980s.  

The National Trust’s £10million Riverlands project – an ambitious waterways restoration scheme – means these much-loved creatures will be provided with a healthy environment where they can breed and flourish.

This is the Trust’s first reintroduction of water voles in the South West and the second by the conservation charity in England in the past two years.  

Water voles are an important and integral part of the ecology of Holnicote, contributing to the health and richness of wildlife.

It is hoped their reintroduction will provide future generations the chance to get to know the mammal – immortalised by Ratty in Kenneth Graham’s classic Wind in the Willows. 

The precious new arrivals will be closely monitored to see how they are settling in. Rangers, special ‘vole-unteers’, students and the public are joining forces to monitor their numbers.

They will use 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 as well as grass blades nibbled off at distinctive 45 degree angles.

The streams and banks can be easily seen from many of the footpaths on the estate, and as water voles are active during the day they should once again become a regular feature in the area.

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.

“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.”

These water voles, which have been specially bred from British animals by expert ecologists at Derek Gow Consultancy, will be released in sibling groups and breeding pairs. A further 150 will be released in spring.

Water voles became endangered due to the degradation, fragmentation and loss of habitat due to farming intensification and urbanisation after the Second World War.

They were also hunted by the North American mink which either escaped or had been deliberately released from the fur farms of the 1970s and 80s.

The water vole reintroduction is part of the National Trust’s ambitious 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 objective to restore 25,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitats by 2025. 

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

The Porlock Vale Catchment of the River Horner and River Aller lies in the north-east of Exmoor National Park. 

The aim is to help slow water run-off from the uplands of Exmoor using natural flood management methods in the Porlock Vale streams, and reconnect the rivers with their floodplains in other areas.

Ben Eardley, National Trust project manager for Porlock Vale Streams, said: “This project will create new and enhanced wetland and woodland, a greater abundance of wildlife such as the water voles, and a reduction in flood risk for the community and for visitors to Exmoor.

“We’ll work closely with local people and together understand the importance of these rivers to all of us, while providing long-term care for the complete catchment.”

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