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Water vole appeal in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire

PUBLISHED: 16:21 04 September 2014 | UPDATED: 16:21 04 September 2014

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We head down to the rivers and streams with Wendy Tobitt in search of busy little water voles as an appeal is launched

Water voles seem to have a sense of urgency and purpose, as if all their tasks are of the utmost importance!

If you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a water vole the chances are that it will be dropping into the water with a distinctive ‘plop’, swimming doggy-paddle style to a clump of succulent reeds and grasses, or darting headlong into a burrow.

Some lucky folk have got water voles in streams near where they live, so they have the chance to sit quietly and wait for the animals to appear. When they’re eating, water voles nibble away on leaves and flowers, holding and folding their food with their tiny toes, eyes darting around and small ears listening for danger.

As these photographs show, the water vole is one of the cutest-looking creatures, with its rounded body covered in reddish-brown fur, beady black eyes, quivering whiskers and little feet.

The water vole is a much-loved animal that many people remember from EH Shephard’s illustrations of the character Ratty in Wind in the Willows. When Kenneth Grahame was writing his children’s novel about creatures of the river bank and wild wood, water voles were plentiful in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.

But since the 1950s, changes in agriculture and the arrival of American mink have wreaked havoc among the nation’s water vole populations. By the mid-1990s a survey of known water vole sites along the River Thames showed a dramatic decline from 72% in 1990 to 23% in 1995.

It was this shocking information that galvanised wildlife groups to call for protection of water voles and their habitats, and in 1996 water voles were named on the list of 12 priority mammal species in the UK’s first Biodiversity Action Plan.

In 1998 water voles’ burrows and bankside habitats were included in an amendment to the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981, to give them some protection. Later that year the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust set up the UK’s first Water Vole Recovery Project.

Working with funding and support from the Environment Agency, the Canal & River Trust and Thames Water, the Wildlife Trust has achieved notable successes on the River Chess and River Misbourne in Buckinghamshire, and along the River Lambourn and the Kennet & Avon canal in Berkshire.

Local landowners have done their bit too, by allowing bankside vegetation to develop with grasses and reeds for water voles to feed on, and, most importantly, by monitoring and controlling American mink.

While water voles have many natural predators, their defence mechanism of diving into the water and disappearing into one of their underwater burrows is completely ineffective against American mink.

These non-native animals, which were farmed for their fur until the early 1990s, are now the voracious predators of water voles. A female mink is small enough to get into the burrows where the water vole and its young are sitting targets. Several water vole colonies can be annihilated within a few weeks.

Surveying water voles

Julia Lofthouse, BBOWT’s Water Vole Recovery Project officer, leads a team of 50 dedicated and trained volunteers who survey the water courses in the three counties looking for signs of water voles and logging information onto a central database.

Data gathered from the surveys during the last few years shows how small colonies of water voles have, over time, merged to create larger populations – this could only be achieved with the help of local landowners restoring waterside habitats.

Nationally the water vole population is still declining, but in the Thames Valley we’re fortunate to be bucking the trend – for now. Funding from the Water Vole Recovery Project’s partners is starting to dry up, and once again the future of the water voles in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire is in jeopardy.

Julia Lofthouse is leading the Wildlife Trust’s current fundraising appeal to help protect water voles and their habitats for the future: “Although we’ve seen an increase in water vole populations they can disappear as readily as they arrive. My worry is that if we turn our backs, even momentarily, all our good work could be undone, and signal the end for some of our local water vole colonies,” says Julia.

Without financial support, monitoring of water voles would stop, habitat may be lost and mink control would stop. All of the project’s good work could be quickly undone and our local water voles may well suffer a similar fate to their relations elsewhere in the UK.

Go to bbowt.org.uk/vole to see wonderful images and video footage on the Water Vole Gallery and get the latest news on the Water Vole Appeal.

Field signs of water voles

Water vole feeding lawns and latrines on banks beside streams are much easier to see than the animals themselves.

The feeding lawn is a small pile of grass and plants, each with a neat 45 degree cut at the end where the water vole has nibbled off the juiciest pieces to eat, leaving behind the tough bits!

Female water voles prefer protein-rich flowers such as pussy willow catkins, dandelions and water crowfoot, and may also eat freshwater molluscs and crayfish as a source of protein.

Adult water voles are known to climb several feet up small shrubs and trees to strip bark and young leaves from willow, elder and hawthorn. In the autumn they enjoy berries and other hedgerow fruits.

Water vole latrines are little piles of dark brown coloured droppings, each about the size of a tic-tac sweet.

Where to see water voles in Berks and Bucks

In West Berkshire the Lambourn and Kennet rivers and their tributaries are known hot-spots, and also the upper area of the River Pang.

Surveys show that water voles are populating the River Chess and the River Misbourne in south Bucks, even in the relatively built-up areas of Chesham and through the Chalfonts.

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