Ratty the survivor

The water vole has had a tough time. Photo Tom Wey Photography

The water vole has had a tough time. Photo Tom Wey Photography - Credit: Tom Wey Photography

Robin Marshall-Ball from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation reflects on a tough few decades for Somerset’s water voles.

Wind in the Willows, the classic 1908 children’s book by Kenneth Grahame, immortalised the character of Ratty.

In those days the little riverside animal was called the ‘water rat’, but nowadays more accurately, we know it as a water vole.

The water vole thrived on waterways right across Britain and in my youth I could hardly walk any riverbank without hearing the characteristic ‘plop’ of a water vole leaping into the water to seek a safe hiding place.

All this changed in the post World War Two years. Improved flood defences, hard engineering of riverbanks, ‘dredge and drag’ clearance on the sides of drains, ditches, canals and rivers meant that the water vole’s habitat was destroyed. On top of this the release of American mink left Ratty facing a deadly predator from which there was no escape.

Faced with habitat loss and predation by mink, the water vole population of the UK crashed and by 2000 this species became the rarest and most vulnerable and threatened mammal in Britain. Some even predicted its imminent extinction.

The Environment Agency developed a plan for their protection wherever they existed. It developed a two-target approach – habitat management and improvement and the eradication or control of mink.

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One of the priority areas was a swathe of Somerset and Dorset from the Bristol Channel to the south coast because a few relic populations still existed within this zone.

Led by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), a programme of water vole monitoring and mink control began in 2003. Other conservation organisations readily joined and supported the project so that the volunteer team of monitors and trappers included not only BASC members, but also the RSPB, fishery owners, county wildlife trusts and national nature reserve staff and helpers. Initially, the project across the Somerset Levels was co-funded by BASC, Natural England and the Environment Agency, but since 2011 the SITA Trust stepped in with BASC to extend operations southwards into the Parrett headwaters and into West Dorset.

To date more than 600 mink have been trapped and disposed of in a zone stretching from Gordano on the Bristol Channel to Martock in the south and the result of this effort has been quite dramatic – wildfowl and waterside birds have had a respite from mink predation, and water voles have made a great comeback, re-occupying areas where they had been extinct for several decades.

But what has been the effect of the major flooding last winter on one of the UK’s rarest mammals?

A detailed water vole survey was carried out last summer on the middle and upper reaches of the River Parrett in Somerset. It discovered a healthy population of water voles within this river system. However, the extensive flooding last winter, which caused so much damage to homes and livelihoods, also displaced many colonies of water voles.

Conservation organisations and the Environment Agency expressed concern that with their bankside burrows flooded out, the animals would be much more exposed to predation and the population could have suffered a dramatic setback. So in May and June this year the BASC revisited the sites of last year’s colonies and were delighted to find that in the majority of locations, the water voles have returned.

Despite concerns that colonies would be wiped out by the floods, Somerset’s water voles have proved to be far more resilient than feared. They have returned to their original colony sites, though there have been some changes – perhaps establishing their post-flood burrows within a short distance up or downstream from last year’s locations. Like the human population of the Levels, water voles are survivors.