Water Voles: The Return of Ratty
Water voles are facing a fight against extinction in Devon...but there are signs things could be looking up for the little creatures.
In 2000, water voles were declared extinct in Devon, after surveys of the county's waterways could find no sign of them.
The once common little water creatures had become the victims of predators - especially American mink - and the loss of habitat.
Water voles were immortalised as "Ratty" in Kenneth Grahame's classic children's book Wind in the Willows.
At the time the book was published almost a century ago in 1908, water voles could be seen along many of the country's rivers.
But since then, their numbers have declined by 90% nationally...with Devon as badly hit as anywhere.
However, there are signs Ratty could - fingers crossed - be making a return.
A stretch of the River Teign
In 2005, officers from the Environment Agency spotted a single water vole at a secret location on the River Teign, sparking hopes there could be others in the area too.
Conservationists remain cautious, saying there is a long way to go before water voles win their fight for survival in Devon.
Stephen Hussey of the Devon Wildlife Trust said "Ratty" is battling against a number of threats.
"The introduction of American mink 50 years ago was a major factor in the decline of water voles because they are a predator.
"The recovery of the otter population has helped, because they've driven the mink numbers down.
"Another major factor in the decline of water voles is habitat loss. They like river banks with grassy vegetation, but they've been cut back.
"And they like water to be at constant levels, but we've not had that. In spate, the water voles get flooded, and in drought, they are wide open to predators.
Water voles have lost their habitat
"Unfortunately, these are the weather conditions we've been having. The water vole is a good illustration of one of the first species to be suffering at the hands of human enforced climate change.
"This is the tip of the iceberg of what will happen in Devon in 40 to 50 years time.
"So it's good news that a water vole has been spotted again in Devon, but we need to be cautious. It doesn't mean Devon is about to be re-colonised by Rattys.
"If we get the management right and if mink are on the decrease, then that helps. But in the long term, the water vole is still in real trouble."
Meanwhile, a project is under way to try and encourage water voles into Devon by using the waterways from across the county border in Dorset, where the creatures can be found.
The Devon Wildlife Trust has appealed for the public to keep an eye out for water voles and other species, and people can send details via a 'send in your sightings' form on the trust's website, which is linked from this page.
last updated: 21/01/2009 at 15:31