New report points to 30% decline in water vole distribution

Margaret Holland

A new analysis of data collected over ten years by a network of experts led by The Wildlife Trusts has revealed that water vole distribution has declined dramatically. There has been a 30% decline in the places where these river mammals once lived across England and Wales during the survey period 2006 - 2015.* While the new analysis reveals a slight increase in distribution in recent years – thanks to some successful conservation efforts by The Wildlife Trusts and others – the full data covering the whole ten years paints a bleak picture.

Great conservation efforts have been made to ensure a future for this mammal: The Wildlife Trusts and many other individuals and groups carry out river restoration and re-introductions of water voles across the UK. At a local level, these projects appear to have been successful; however, these successes are not enough to reverse the national distribution trends.

Habitat loss, water pollution and built development have led to massive declines in the number of water voles since the 1960s – this has been exacerbated by predation by North American mink which were introduced to Britain for fur farming in the twentieth century. The water vole is the UK’s most rapidly declining mammal and has been lost from 94% of places where they were once prevalent.* The latest data revealing a ten year decline of 30% shows an ever-worsening situation: their range is continuing to contract.

Read the full report and the Wildlife Trust's recommendations here

Recent surveys by Warwickshire Wildlife Trust found a small number of water voles have come back to North Warwickshire. This area is now a really important part of a network of canals, rivers and brooks where vital work for water voles is underway.

Warwickshire Wildlife Trust Work is improving habitat for water voles, enhancing the river and canal bank habitat to help water voles move freely, with more nesting and feeding opportunities. Where canal edges are concreted or lined with metal the Trust is creating platforms and ladders to help water voles get out to feed. This includes trialling new ‘water vole motels!’ These are chestnut posts lined with stock-proof fencing and coir matting, planted up with tasty plants for water voles. They resemble semi-aquatic hanging baskets!

Training has also been provided for local people to help preserve these valuable waterways and water vole populations. However further funding is now urgently needed to continue this vital work and allow us to:

  • Survey how good the habitat is and check for water voles
  • Enhance habitat and improve links between waterways to encourage water voles to spread into other waterways.
  • Give water voles more cover to escape predators
  • Monitor American mink to make sure numbers are as low as possible to prevent them wiping out water vole colonies
  • Provide training opportunities and run volunteer groups in local communities

Local people can donate quickly and easily by texting WKWT08 and the amount to 70070.

  • £5 buys native plug plants for summer water vole food
  • £10 buys native fruit trees for autumn water vole food
  • £25 builds 3m of water vole motels
  • £50 buys fencing to protect bankside plants

Ellie Brodie, Senior Policy Manager for The Wildlife Trusts, says:

“Water voles are an essential part of our wild and watery places and it’s terribly sad that we’re continuing to witness huge declines of this much-loved mammal. The Wildlife Trusts and others are working hard to help bring them back again and care for the places that they need to survive – but much more is needed if we’re going to stop this charismatic creature disappearing altogether.”

Nida Alfulaij Grants Manager, PTES, says:

“Water voles continue to face severe threats across their range. This report on the species’ national status, produced by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, is the comprehensive review required to help us target our efforts where they are needed most. PTES is proud to have supported this vital work.”

The Wildlife Trusts are calling for:

  • Government and Local Authorities to enable the creation of a Nature Recovery Network, as set out in the Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment. A Nature Recovery Network should be underpinned by a new Environment Act to protect, link and create areas of habitat which help wildlife move and spread out, benefitting water voles and a range of other wildlife. Funding should be increased to expand water vole conservation efforts including for landscape-scale restoration schemes.
  • Landowners to manage river bank habitat sympathetically to help water voles, e.g. provide generous buffer strips to provide shelter and feeding areas; create soft edges to river banks for water voles to create burrows in, and avoid using heavy machinery close to the edge of watercourses.
  • People to help survey water voles and manage riverside habitat with Warwickshire Wildlife Trust and other groups involved in water vole conservation.

Water voles used to be regularly seen and heard along ditches, streams and rivers across the UK. A creature which burrows in banks and feeds on reeds and grass, the water vole was a lead character, known as Ratty, in Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic Wind in the Willows. Water voles are ecosystem engineers – their burrowing and feeding behaviour along the edges of watercourses creates the conditions for other animals and plants to thrive. Kingfishers, for example, often use water vole excavations for nests.

The Wildlife Trusts are at the forefront of reintroducing water voles and caring for the wild places that they need to survive. In 2017, for example, Northumberland Wildlife Trust released 570 water voles across Kielder Water and Forest Park – the first step in the largest reintroduction ever undertaken.

*Ten year period: January 1st 2006 to 31st December 2015

*94% figure is from The Water Vole in Britain 1996-1998, R Strachan, The Vincent Wildlife Trust, London, 1998.

Read the full report and the Wildlife Trust's recommendations here.