Water voles return to Exmoor

FOR the first time in 30 years, one of Britain’s rarest and most endearing mammals, the water vole, could now be spotted swimming by the river banks of its former home on the National Trust’s Holnicote Estate on Exmoor.

Early in September, 150 water voles were reintroduced at six carefully chosen sites on the estate, the Trust’s first reintroduction of these delightful animals in the South West. The water vole is Britain’s fastest declining land mammal, but now they are being given a new start in a healthy environment, where they should breed and flourish.

The Trust believes that water voles can once more become an important and integral part of the whole ecology of Holnicote, contributing to the richness of the wildlife and giving future generations the chance to get to know these much-loved little creatures, which were immortalised as Ratty in Kenneth Graham’s classic Wind in the Willows.

Rangers, helped by special ‘vole-unteers’, students and the public will record their presence and behaviour. The streams and banks can be easily seen from many of the walks on the estate, and as water voles are active during the day visitors have a chance of seeing one.

Alex Raeder, the National Trust’s South West Conservation Manager, says: “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.”

Water voles became endangered for two main reasons – the degradation, fragmentation and loss of habitat due to farming intensification and urbanisation after the Second World War, and North American mink – predators of the vole – escaping, or deliberately bring released, from fur farms (especially in the 1970s and 80s). Mink can be voracious predators of voles. In preparation for the vole reintroduction, on-going investigations on the Holnicote Estate have to date found no evidence of the American mink that might threaten their return.

On the Holnicote Estate, the 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.

Pictured: Bossington and Porlock, ©National Trust/Jeanette Heard; Alex Raeder and water vole, and water vole, ©NT/Steve Hayward