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Building a new 'home' for Ratty
water vole
Water voles haven't been seen in Devon for years
After decades of decline, water voles are now thought to be extinct in Devon.

But a long-term project hopes to encourage the little creatures to return to the county.
Survey shows no sign of water voles

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BBC: Water Voles

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The Latin name for water vole is Arvicola terrestris.

The lifespan for water voles is around two years.

They are herbivores.

They grow to 12-20cm long.

In the right conditions, mums are prolific breeders.

Water voles have declined to such an extent that they are now extinct in many areas of the country.

The main reason for the decline is the emergence of predatory American mink, which are small enough to get into the water voles' burrows.

Despite their plight, water voles are not legally protected in the UK.

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A major project is being launched which it is hoped will see water voles eventually return to Devon.

The creatures - immortalised by Ratty in Kenneth Grahame's children's book, Wind in the Willows - have declined by about 90% nationally in the past 100 years.

They are definitely extinct in Cornwall and thought to be extinct in Devon. The last known colony in Devon was on the Grand Western Canal in the mid-1990s.

The Grand Western Canal
The Grand Western Canal was the last known home for water voles in Devon
They've been all but wiped out by predatory American mink, which are small enough to get into the voles' burrows.

The voles have also been affected by loss of habitat.

Now though, a group of agencies is working together to create the right conditions for the furry little mammals to make a comeback.

"Thoroughfare" for water voles...

Colonies are known to live on rivers across the county borders in Dorset and Somerset, so a sort of 'thoroughfare' is to be created to encourage them to make their way into Devon.

The Environment Agency - which is among the partners in the initiative - is hoping that in this way, water voles will again make themselves at home in the River Axe by travelling across the Dorset border.

Eventually, it is hoped they will also return to the River Otter catchment area.

But the first task is to control the American mink population. The good news is that there are already signs that the invaders are on the decrease.

Mary-Rose Lane, biodiversity officer at the Environment Agency in Devon, said: "We don't know what's happening with the mink, but people are seeing fewer of them.

"It could be that after 50 years, they're just not surviving so well. Or they may have shifted their habits and moved away from rivers."

Mink can be trapped legally because they are non-native vermin, and this is also seen as a way forward to help save native species.

The River Axe
The River Axe
However, it will still be a very long time before water voles return to Devon in numbers - if at all.

"It's a long way in the distance," said Mary-Rose, who is working with agency colleagues in Dorset and Somerset.

"We are taking a long-term strategic view and for them to re-colonise naturally, it will take two to three decades.

"But the reason we are promoting a strategic approach - working with the existing population in the neighbouring counties - is that from a conservation point of view, it works better if they re-coloniise under their own steam

"They are more likely to survive."

In the end, water voles may have to be re-introduced - but that's regarded as a final resort because success is less likely than with natural re-colonisation.

Creating the right habitat

The River Axe Project isn't the only attempt to lure water voles back. On the River Tale - a tributary of the Otter - the Tale Valley Trust has been re-creating the right sort of habitat for the animals, as well as other wildlife.

The voles like reeds and dense vegetation along rivers, and they live in burrows dug deep into river banks.

Water vole swimming in the river
A water vole viewed from underwater
Tom Hills of the Tale Valley Trust said: "We're working with other people and local farmers to create good water vole habitat.

"It's a super little mammal.

"It's the size of a guinea pig with a fluffy tail. But they're rapidly disappearing. We've got a dodo on our hands - and that's a crying shame."

At Escot Estate in East Devon, there is an enclosed, specially created wetland area housing a colony of water voles.

The idea is to show people what they look like, and help them identify the tell-tale signs of water voles.

A recent survey by the Devon Wildlife Trust found no sign of water voles in the county, but the public is still being asked to look out for them and report any sightings.

You can do this by contacting the Devon Wildlife Trust on 01392 279244 or the Environment Agency on 01392 316036. The agency will visit the area to see if the creatures are water voles - or lookalikes.

* Water vole experts from across Britain are meeting at Escot House on 26th September 2004 to discuss conservation measures and mink control.

Article published: September 2004

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