Saving the water vole in Hertfordshire

The most threatened mammal in the UK, the water vole is nevertheless making a comeback in parts of the county thanks to Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust

KENNETH Grahame’s ‘Ratty’ character in Wind in the Willows was probably a common sight when his classic book about an idyllic life by the riverside was published in 1908. Fast forward 100 years and the picture is notnearly so cheerful.The water vole population has been decimated, mainly by the intrusion of the non-native mink into its habitat. Mink have been in the UK since the 1950s but the wild population has steadily increased through escapes (or releases) from fur farms.Intensive farming methods haven’t helped poor Ratty either – the water vole’s favourite habitat of steep river banks with plenty of reeds, nettles and grasses to shelter in has been progressively eroded over the years. In fact, the water vole is the UK’s fastest declining mammal; over 90% of the population has been lost in the last century. Luckily, The Wildlife Trusts have been doing something about it. Together with local people and with the backing of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust has worked hard over the last few years to bring the species back from the brink of extinction in Hertfordshire.

Hope for recovery

Just recently the water vole has been recorded at Beane Marsh in Hertford for the first time in 13 years, which is a great sign that populations are starting to recover. The return of water voles to the River Beane indicates that the animals may have moved up the river from important sites in Hertford, such as the Trust’s Kings Meads Nature Reserve, where habitat works funded by the Environment Agency and mink control have protected an important core population.In addition, mink control carried out on the River Beane over the past three years by local people has meant that the river is now a safe refuge for water voles.Wetlands for Water Voles Project Manager Alison O’Dea, who made the discovery at Beane Marsh near Hertford during a monitoring programme carried out by the Trust, says, ‘We were thrilled to find that the water vole has returned to this area after being absent for so long. It is a testament to the work that the Trust has been doing to protect water voles in the county and to the efforts of the local community.’Conservation work over the last six years in particular has ensured that there are now stable water vole populations on the Rivers Mimram, Lea, Chess and Purwell. But there is a lot more work to do to ensure these populations continue to be protected.

Making your garden great for water voles

If your house backs onto water or you have a pond in your garden there are things you can do to encourage the water voles to set up home right on your doorstep! Water voles eat over 200 different species of plant; growing the right plants will not only provide food but will be a haven for the voles.

1. Encourage tall rushes, sedges and grasses along the water’s edge to provide food and cover. This vegetation dies back in the autumn, so crab-apple, dog-rose and gooseberry bushes are useful as they provide food over the winter. Try to avoid planting non-native wetland plants. Many of these are invasive and can encroach on native species. Take a look at to find more plants that are good for wildlife.2. Create a varied bank profile in your pond or ditch. Slopes of 45� provide the best support for burrowing water voles.3. Water voles like to make their burrows in undisturbed earth banks so try to avoid having a hard edge to the waterside. Leaving grass unmown on the top of a river bank will provide food and cover (around two metres high is ideal).4. Put a bell on your cat’s collar to warn water voles that it is out and about!5. If you leave a gap in your garden’s boundary it will give water voles and other small animals room to move around more freely.