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Monday, 26 November, 2001, 14:39 GMT
Voles set for London return
Vole in reeds   London Wildlife Trust
Voles are endangered, but London is more vole-friendly than much of the countryside
Alex Kirby

Conservationists believe they can help a highly endangered UK mammal to re-establish itself in London.

The creature is the water vole, at risk from habitat loss and predators like mink. But parts of the capital already have thriving vole populations, despite the pressures of urban development.

Wildlife experts say some London districts offer voles better homes than they could find deep in the countryside.

The London Wildlife Trust (LWT) has begun a project to reverse the decline in the number of voles in the capital and has appointed the city's first water vole officer, Chris Strachan.

The vole is familiar to generations of Britons as the model for the Water Rat in Kenneth Grahame's Edwardian idyll, The Wind in the Willows.

Numbers plummet

Voles are often still mistaken for rats, though they are physically distinct and are not a pest species.

Vole head and shoulders   London Wildlife Trust
On the lookout: Mink are a threat
Over the last century their numbers fell by about 95% across the UK, and in London their recent decline is steeper still: one survey showed an 80% decline in the last eight years.

The marshes of the inner Thames estuary in east London have very healthy vole colonies, which make the most of the reedbeds and soft steep banks of the dykes which cross the meadows.

But although there are sizeable numbers in parts of north-east London, the voles there are thought to be at risk from marauding mink, which elsewhere in Britain have purged entire rivers of their voles in a few years.

Human help

LWT aims to improve habitats where possible, and to build up a comprehensive picture of London vole populations. It says they are an important part of a healthy river system.

It says urban parks, with their soft banks and dense vegetation, are often ideal habitats.

Voles can benefit from human contact, because people walking by urban streams and rivers often scare off predators such as mink, herons and foxes.

LWT even believes it can protect the voles from the encroaching mink. Chris Strachan told BBC News Online: "What we need to do is to develop a strategy to trap the mink, not just to increase the voles.

"Trapping can be quite successful, although you do have to keep up the effort. And you can't relocate the mink afterwards. They have to be humanely destroyed."

Swimming vole   London Wildlife Trust
Voles belong in healthy rivers

Images courtesy of LWT and the London Wetland Centre

See also:

25 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Ratty returns to UK reedbeds
15 Nov 99 | Sci/Tech
Rescue plan for Ratty
10 Sep 99 | Sci/Tech
Vanishing water voles need help
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