The bid to save Cheshire’s water voles

Surrounded by food, this water vole will need to eat around 80% of its own bodyweight each day PHOT

Surrounded by food, this water vole will need to eat around 80% of its own bodyweight each day PHOTOS BY RICHARD STEEL & TOM MARSHALL - Credit: Richard Steel & Tom Marshall

Our waterways are as healthy as they’ve been in decades, but one famous riverside dweller is still struggling. Could help be at hand on Cheshire’s canals? Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Tom Marshall finds out more

Soft fruits like blackberries are a welcome autumn treat to the water vole diet PHOTO BY RICHARD ST

Soft fruits like blackberries are a welcome autumn treat to the water vole diet PHOTO BY RICHARD STEEL - Credit: Richard Steel & Tom Marshall

There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’ That was Ratty’s feelings on life along the riverbank in Kenneth Grahame’s much loved tales of Wind in the Willows back in 1908.

Ratty - in fact a water vole - might well have been messing about in boats back then, but one thing we can be sure about more than 100 years on from these stories is that the sight of a real life Ratty, at the helm of a boat or otherwise, is now few and far between.

Indeed, a recent report by the Environment Agency and The Wildlife Trusts put the latest drop in the numbers of this charismatic mammal in the UK at around one fifth, compared to surveys last undertaken less than a decade ago.

The water vole had already been labelled as the fastest declining mammal in Britain, and whilst his neighbours including the otter have seen a remarkable resurgence in recent years, the fate of Ratty still seems to be hanging in the balance.

As otters and other species have done well out of Britain’s improving waterways and wetlands of the last few years, the challenges facing our water voles remain many and complex.

The decline of the water vole has been a long process, probably kick-started by the agricultural revolution and a gradually intensifying rural system. In fact, farmers of generations past often recall seeing water voles scrambling along their JCB buckets as they worked on field side ditches. On the continent where interconnected wetland systems have remained intact, water voles in some areas are even considered a pest.

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Add to this change in the rural picture fragmentation and deterioration of habitats, plus the release of the non-native and predatory American mink by animal rights activists during the 1980s and water voles found themselves under attack from many sides.

It’s perhaps no surprise then that today our water vole strongholds are largely restricted to upland areas of the Pennines, Peak District, Snowdonia and Scotland’s Highlands, where man’s ultimate impact has been held back by nature.

Despite so many obstacles, necessity has found water voles becoming adaptable and resilient – like much of our wildlife – by colonising former bustling canal routes where stable water levels and crumbling stone banks provide the networks of tunnels they need.

This is no more in evidence than the canals of Derbyshire’s Peak District and the Shropshire Union Canal in south Cheshire, where a stroll just minutes from Nantwich town centre could bring a close encounter of the Ratty kind.

Canals also offer that crucial benefit of a calm and consistent flow of water, whilst their river-based counterparts have had to battle water level rises being measured in feet over the last few years, as our weather swings within weeks, or even days, from drought to record-breaking floods.

So how do you go about monitoring one of the rarest and often most elusive of British mammals? Cheshire Wildlife Trust have been finding out the hard way since 2008, through their dedicated water vole monitoring projects, with some surprising results here in the North West.

Initially begun as part of the North West Lowland’s Water Vole Project, the Trust has continued to assess where voles might be on waterways across the region, from Warrington to Crewe.

This work, supported by the Environment Agency, Canal & River Trust, Chester Zoo and the Heritage Lottery has seen in excess of 50 km of waterways surveyed each year, looking for key signs like droppings or ‘latrines’, burrows and the small lawn-like cropped areas of grass that all provide tell-tale signs of water vole presence.

The project though has not only focused on where water voles might already be, but equally on analysing habitats that could offer future potential – critical to ensure our waterways are managed to help encourage water voles to return.

As water vole project officer Dr Vicky Nall has discovered, it’s also important to keep an open mind. “The Shropshire Union Canal with its reinforced banking and thin strips of vegetation wouldn’t seem the first choice for water voles, but after closely monitoring the area over the last two years, it now appears stretches of the waterway are a local stronghold.”

This dedication paid off in 2012 with the team tracking down the holy grail of water vole surveyors, a ‘nest’ above the water line tucked away in a handful of reeds at the canal edge. ‘There are people who have been watching water voles for years and never seen a nest’ says Dr Nall. ‘It also shows how important it is to safeguard these small reedy strips – a key feature of Cheshire canals – as they’re obviously at the heart of the voles’ lifecycle.’

Despite the adaptability of some water vole populations, the focus remains on maintaining the right balance of suitable habitats. To this end Cheshire Wildlife Trust has been piloting schemes like willow ‘spiling’, a natural method of reinforcing riverbanks that lets the voles penetrate and build their tunnels, along with supporting other ‘soft engineering’ schemes like coir rolls.

This hard work however, can still be undone by the water vole’s nemesis, the American mink. Regular monitoring, trapping and humane dispatch of these voracious invaders is all part of the battle, but with a single female mink able to decimate a local population of voles in just a single breeding season, conservationists have their work cut out.

‘Taking mink out of the equation would be huge victory’ adds Vicky. ‘But realistically, it’s more likely that we can achieve a turnaround in fortunes for our water voles by making sure there’s as much suitable habitat as possible, linked by clean and healthy waterways.’

‘Delivering this means a commitment not only from ourselves at the Wildlife Trust, but waterways managers like the Environment Agency and the Canal & River Trust, local landowners and financial support from the Government.

‘The return of the otter to every English county shows that we can bring these species back when we look after our countryside, so perhaps now it’s time for Ratty to return too.’

So a century on from Kenneth Grahame’s wildlife utopia the picture looks a little different, but with a bit of hard work it seems there’s no reason that we can’t witness ‘tales on the riverbank’ once again – the tails of the water vole.