Water Vole Recovery Project Wales
The Mammal Society have been asked by Natural Resources Wales to carry out research which will enable us to draft a species conservation plan for the country’s water voles.
At the turn of the 20th century, when Kenneth Grahame was busy writing The Wind in the Willows, the water voles which inspired the character “Ratty” would have been a common sight on many waterways. Now, however, their numbers have dwindled significantly. So much so, that they are one of the species that is classified as Endangered on the Red List of Britain’s Terrestrial Mammals.
In Wales, there are currently estimated to be approximately 4,500 water voles remaining. This is a decline of 89% since the last review of Britain’s Mammals in 1995. Many of the surviving populations are isolated in the landscape, which makes them even more vulnerable to extinction in the future.
Several factors have contributed to the decline of water voles throughout Britain. The species needs banks into which to dig burrows, and dense vegetation to provide cover and food. The poaching of banks by cattle; the re-engineering of waterways as part of flood-management strategies; and housing and infrastructure developments have all contributed to a loss of suitable habitat. In addition, predation from the non-native American Mink plays a very significant role. While intensive mink control in some regions has been effective, across Wales as a whole, predation remains an important threat. It is interesting to note that in the 1960s, before mink became widespread, rats were considered to be an important threat to water voles, and little is known about their current contribution to water vole declines.
Natural Resources Wales have asked us to carry out a study which will give more insight into why and where numbers are declining and assess where conservation actions might be most effectively deployed. Working with NRW, we will develop an Action Plan for the species’ recovery in Wales.
The project objectives are to determine:
- where the priorities are for the future of water vole conservation in Wales;
- where the key sites are that are most defendable;
- where the key issues are with regards habitat suitability and quality;
- where mink control is to be focussed.
Over the next 6 months we will be building models and also consulting with a wide range of experts. Our goal is not just to identify a way to halt the decline but to enable water voles to thrive. To do this we need to gather as much data as we can. This is where you come in.
How you can help
We are calling on walkers, riders, cyclists and even commuters in Wales to tell us where they have spotted not just water voles but also mink and rats. We are interested in both field signs (such as footprints and droppings) as well as records of the animals themselves.
The easiest way to get involved is to download the Mammal Mapper app which will allow you to record one off sightings of mammals (dead or alive) but also to record a route that you have taken and what you have seen along the way.
If you don’t have access to a smart phone you can also use our online form which can be found here.
The Mammal Mapper app contains a handy guide to identifying mammal signs and sightings but you can also refer to our Mammal Hub and field guides for water voles and mink for more detailed information. We’ve included some images below which might be of some help.
Where to look
The best place to look for evidence of water vole and mink presence is along well vegetated banks of slow flowing rivers, ditches, dykes and lakes.
What to look for
Water voles have brown fur and are similar in size to a rat.
Water vole droppings are very distinctive (see photo below) and in occupied areas you may find nibbled stalks of grass in piles along tunnels of tall grass. Water vole bite grass at a 45 degree angle.
For more information on water voles and to download a printable field signs guide click here.
American mink are plain chocolate brown/black fur (black when wet) with a white chin – see photo below. Variable white patches on throat, chest and groin. Fluffy tail about half the length of the body. Similar size to polecat but much smaller than Eurasian otter.
American mink droppings often contain fur and bones. They are twisted, tapered at the ends and are long (6-8cm) – see photo below.
For more information about American mink and to download a printable field signs guide click here.
Brown rats have greyish-brown fur, a prominent pointed muzzle and a long almost naked tail, which is about as long as the head and body – see photo below. Rats are much larger than any mouse but comparable with the much darker, shorter-tailed water vole in general size, though less ‘chubby’ in appearance.
Brown rat droppings are putty-like, usually with a blunt end and a pointed end. They are variable in size, up to 1.7cm in length and 0.6cm wide – see photo below. Blackish-brown in colour and foul, rancid smelling.
For more information about brown rats and to download a printable field signs guide click here.