Endangered water voles beginning to spread after more than a decade of decline

The once perilously endangered water vole is making a tentative comeback to the rivers of the UK, according to new research from the Environment Agency.

The once perilously endangered water vole is making a tentative comeback to the rivers of the UK, according to new research from the Environment Agency.

Water voles, which won a place in the nation's hearts after being immortalised as Ratty in Wind in the Willows, were once a common sight on waterways across the UK. In the 1990s, however, water vole populations began to decline dramatically - and, by 2005, 90 per cent had disappeared, making them the fastest declining mammal in the UK.

Habitat loss and predation by American mink - a non native species - are thought to have been the most serious threats posed to the water vole, but trapping and persecution are also thought to have played a role in their decline.

In order to help the species recover, the Environment Agency has undertaken numerous large scale habitat restoration and mink control projects. And good news from the survey shows that, as a result, water voles are starting to spread in many of these areas, with the Sussex coastal plain, the Somerset Levels and Snowdonia seeing particular success. However, the new research shows that they are still extremely scarce in the South West and virtually extinct in Cornwall - and the Environment Agency is turning its attention to this region to try and bring them back.

Around 100 water voles were released at different sites in East Devon's Lower Axe Valley by East Devon District Council and the Environment Agency yesterday. It is hoped that they will set up small colonies on this river, eventually spreading to its tributaries.

The water voles, which have been bred from local Somerset voles especially for this project, are all fitted with a microchip in the scruff of the neck, allowing the project team to track their movements long after release.

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Alastair Driver, the Environment Agency's national conservation manager and chair of the UK water vole steering group, said:

"This is just one of many projects across the country that the Environment Agency is funding to ensure the recovery of the water vole, which until recently was facing extinction and is still very precarious. We were encouraged to find in our recent survey that water vole populations may be turning the corner after their dramatic decline in the 1990s. We need to keep funding projects like these, along with mink control and habitat improvements, to make sure these enigmatic little creatures are not lost from the UK forever.

"These re-introduction projects are designed to give the environment a helping hand in the hope that water vole populations will sustain themselves in the future.

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