For the first time in six years water voles have been recorded at the Rivermead site in Swindon, less than one year since the completion of a project to turn a stretch of the River Ray from an unappealing, straightened channel into a healthy and natural water course.
Over five years the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s Water for Wildlife Project reconstructed bends, reprofiled banks and riffles and replanted its floodplain with wild flowers to help wildlife return to this overgrown and neglected habitat. Now a small but significant population of water voles seems to have become established, leading to hopes that the site can sustain a growing, breeding population over the coming years.
“The last time water voles were recorded at Rivermead was in 2003, but annual surveying since then has failed to find any. This year we know of at least six fresh burrows and a large latrine (a pile of droppings used by water voles to mark out territory). They seem to be reaping the benefits of all the hard work put into the project,” says the Trust’s Water for Wildlife Officer Tom Hayek.
One of the features of the project was to reprofile the river banks to make them more suitable for water vole burrowing.
Although this shy animal is rarely seen by the casual passer by, this kind of habitat restoration is essential to help safeguard the survival of a species that has suffered a more than 90 per cent fall in numbers on the national scale in less than 20 years, making it Britain’s fastest declining mammal.
A combination of predation by the American mink and the large-scale loss and fragmentation of sensitive waterside habitats due to riverbank modification, drainage and flood defence works have all taken their toll.
Last year the water vole, misleadingly nicknamed Ratty in Kenneth Grahame’s classic book Wind in the Willows, was given extra protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, making it an offence to kill or disturb them.
“The national picture seems to be that the huge drop off in numbers has slowed, and maybe even stopped, which is great news,” says Tom.
“However, to get a clear picture of the water vole in Wiltshire we urgently need volunteers to help us survey the waterways over the summer."
For more information please contact Eva Thomas at the Trust on (01380) 725670, email: email@example.com.