Water voles - cute but elusive
Creating a home for Ratty
By Jo Cole
Volunteers in East Devon have been busy 'building' ideal homes for elusive water voles.
There's a popular myth springing up - if you volunteer to help restore the habitat for water voles in East Devon, you'll also get to clap eyes on one of the little creatures.
Rest assured you won't.
Even if the sounds of chainsaws and enthusiastic humans tearing up overgrown foliage didn't put them off, there are only a handful left in the county anyway.
Water voles were made famous as the character Ratty in The Wind in the Willows but numbers have been decimated over the past half century.
They have fallen foul of the American Mink and loss of habitat, so much so that sightings are now extremely rare.
In 2005, officers from the Environment Agency spotted a single water vole at a secret location on the River Teign.
And another place thought to be home to them in Devon is a tributary of the River Otter in the east of the county.
Clearing the way for water vole homes
To try to turn their fortunes around, East Devon District Council has its own water vole project officer, Mervyn Newman.
Mervyn has been looking for ponds around the area which are in need of a little tlc.
Once they have had willow and other undergrowth cut back - and in some cases they've been dredged - they have potential as new water vole homes.
"We're trying to clear back - not everything - just enough to allow light back on the edge of the pond and also on the centre of the pond, so the weed that would normally grow there would spread out into the centre," said Mervyn.
"All of the weed is helping to add oxygen to the water and obviously that helps other things in the pond as well. So at the same time as favouring the water vole, we are helping a bunch of other wildlife."
On the day I was with them, in mid-January, the team was working at a site near Payhembury. It involves a muddy walk through a field of horses.
The pond at Payhembury
Some work has taken place already - there are neatly stacked piles of wood to be cleared away at a later date.
Mervyn gets on with chainsawing some of the bigger branches, while a safe distance away the volunteers get to work snipping the smaller pieces and carrying out other work.
"Today is burning off the brash which is the top bits of trees and the bushes we cut just before Christmas," said volunteer Martin Sutch.
"We've got three huge piles further on down the stream, which drains off the pond here."
So why does he give up his free time to help out?
"You do get a buzz from it because you feel as though you are doing something. "
Even once the work is finished it will still be several months before they will know whether the water voles are happy with their new home.
It is a lot of hard physical work, but it should give the few remaining Rattys a brighter future.
last updated: 21/01/2009 at 15:53