by Merryl Gelling
Upbeat and endlessly cheerful, one would have thought life for Ratty from Wind in the Willows was an endless whirl of wicker luncheon baskets and carol singers, with little to fear apart from those dastardly stoats and weasels taking over Toad Hall. Not so for the British water vole however. The iconic species upon which Kenneth Graham based his quintessentially British character ‘Ratty’ has fallen on hard times of late. We know the narrative verbatim by now – habitat loss and fragmentation and incessant predation by invasive American mink has catastrophically suppressed water vole numbers nationally, with most recent estimates finding water voles to have been lost in up to 90% of sites within which they were previously found. To reiterate, that is Ninety percent. Nine. Zero. For every ten sites water voles were found in thirty years ago, they are now only found in one.
But really, I mean, who cares? What does it matter? Just how things are now with the environment and stuff, right? Wrong. Have absolutely no doubt that this matters. There are a huge number of individuals and organisations working unrelentingly to ensure that this is not the end of the story, providing a feel-good factor at both a local and national level for projects that are fighting to bring back water voles and to preserve and enhance them where they continue to hang on (read last year’s blog about Seaton Wetlands here). From large-scale, multi-year reintroduction projects to catchment scale projects to link up remnant colonies down to individuals keeping tabs on their local patch, work on the ground is a labour of love for many. And really, what’s not to love? For those lucky enough to catch a glimpse of bright eyes amid glossy russet-brown fur, or to hear the distinctive plop as one makes a quick escape from a perceived threat, there is no question that this is a species to love and cherish, and to protect for many generations to come.
Any walk along a waterway is only improved by finding signs of water voles being in the vicinity – neat piles of cut vegetation feeding signs, each nibbled to a careful 45 degree angle. Piles of droppings left as a calling card to the next passer-by. Burrows and runs pock-marked with star-shaped footprints. If we can’t protect something as endearing as the water vole, knowledge of whose very existence improves the quality of life for uncountable individuals, how on earth can we convince those people not yet engaged with the myriad issues affecting our native wildlife that other, perhaps less charismatic species also have a valid place in our world. Time to turn things around is running out. Fast. But please don’t let the water vole go extinct on our watch. I don’t want to be the one explaining to our children that we didn’t do enough to save Ratty when we had the chance.
We’re currently collecting data about water vole distribution in our project Walk This Water Way. Just use the Mammal Mapper app to record any signs or sightings of these lovely creatures whilst walking at least 600m along a waterway (e.g. river, canal etc). We even have a National Mammal Week competition running right now – simply complete a Walk This Water Way survey for a chance to win a great prize bundle – full details here.
Alternatively, you could support our work by Becoming a Member of the Mammal Society or Donating to us. Our wonderful Chair, Fiona Mathews, is running the Amsterdam Marathon this Sunday to raise much needed money to fund ongoing Mammal Society activities (including monitoring, advising, and providing training), all of which help with the conservation of Britain’s mammals. If you can, please show your support by donating on our Virgin Giving page here.
Go to our National Mammal Week page to find out what’s happening each day this Mammal Week! Make sure you are following #MammalWeek and #MammalsMatter and keeping an eye on our social media feeds for all things Mammal Week related. You wouldn’t want to miss out on our prizes would you?!