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The BBC's Tom Heap
"Water voles don't like people"
 real 56k

Friday, 25 May, 2001, 05:37 GMT 06:37 UK
Ratty returns to UK reedbeds
Vole Martin Senior/WWT
The water vole's predators have reduced its numbers
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

The water vole, a well-loved but increasingly rare British mammal, is poised to make a comeback.

In a pilot scheme, 24 captive-bred voles are being released at the London Wetland Centre (LWC).

They are the first of several hundred which will be set free to live in the centre's reedbeds.

And they will be closely monitored to see if voles can be reintroduced elsewhere in the UK.

The vole was immortalised in the fictional person of Ratty, the water rat in Kenneth Grahame's book The Wind in the Willows, published a century ago.

Steep decline

In fact, rats have protruding ears, pointed noses and almost hairless tails, while water voles have small ears, blunt noses and furry tails, and are shorter and rounder than rats.

Conservationists say the number of voles in the UK has fallen by 90% in the last decade, mainly because of the destruction of their riverside habitat and the spread of one of their main predators, the mink.

Man monitoring radio collars on voles Martin Senior/WWT
Tracking the new releases
Four organisations are working together to try to restore the voles to areas where they once thrived.

The four are the Environment Agency, Mammals Trust UK, Oxford University's wildlife conservation research unit, and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, owners of the LWC.

The 24 water voles being released over the next few days were born and bred at the Wildwood Discovery Park in Kent.

It breeds other endangered species for eventual release, including red squirrels, sand lizards, dormice, wild cats, pine martens and beavers.

The park's Kathy Holder told BBC News Online: "Voles aren't difficult to breed. We really just leave them to it.

"They have up to four litters a year, with from four to six young in each litter. We have 30 breeding pairs, so we'll soon have plenty of voles."

The first batch to come to the LWC will be put in acclimatisation cages placed near the centre's reedbeds. They are expected to leave the cages within a few days and to dig themselves proper burrows.

Heron alert

They will be fitted with radio collars, and researchers will monitor their movements for several hours each day, seeing what sort of areas they choose. Their findings will help with future releases.

There is nothing to stop the voles leaving the centre's grounds, though everyone hopes they will stay put.

Martin Senior of the LWC told BBC News Online: "We don't think they will disperse. The Thames flows nearby, but its banks are not suitable for burrowing.

"This is a mink-free environment, though there are herons and foxes, both of which also prey on voles."

Vole Martin Senior/WWT
Voles cling on in south-east England
Over the next few weeks many more voles will be released at the LWC, making a total for the scheme of 250 animals or more.

After that there are hopes of reintroducing the animals to other parts of south-east England where they were once abundant.

Alastair Driver, of the Environment Agency, told BBC News Online: "Because we restore a lot of habitats, we're keen to see the species that belong there reintroduced.

Implacable mink

"I'd like to see water voles come back to urban and suburban areas where they lived before, and to the wider countryside.

"But the mink are the limiting factor, and controlling them is labour-intensive.

"I don't think it's worth trying to bring the voles back except to reserves, or to specific river catchments where the mink are under control."

Photos courtesy of Martin Senior/Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust

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See also:

08 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
Environment 'still under threat'
15 Nov 99 | Sci/Tech
Rescue plan for Ratty
10 Sep 99 | Sci/Tech
Vanishing water voles need help
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