Essex naturalist leads conservation call for ‘Ratty’

A water vole snacks on some riverside vegetation. The species has vansished from many parts of its f

A water vole snacks on some riverside vegetation. The species has vansished from many parts of its former UK range, a new study shows. Picture: MATT FIDLER - Credit: Archant

Wildlife trusts on frontline of action of save UK’s water voles.

Essex Wildlife Trust officer and nationally acclaimed mammal expert Darren Tansley studies riverside

Essex Wildlife Trust officer and nationally acclaimed mammal expert Darren Tansley studies riverside habitat in Essex. Mr Tansley chairs the UK water vole steering group. Picture: TIM MITCHELL - Credit: Archant

An East Anglian naturalist at the forefront of national efforts to save one of Britain’s most endearing wildlife species fears conservationists are “struggling to win the battle”.

A new study has found that the number of areas where water voles are found across England and Wales has fallen by almost a third in 10 years. The mammals, immortalised as “Ratty” in Wind In The Willows, were once common in ditches, streams and rivers across the UK. But habitat loss, development, water pollution and predation by invasive non-native American mink has led to massive declines.

Previous research showed water voles vanishing from 94% of places they were once found - and the latest data reveals the species’ range continues to contract. The new analysis of records led by the Wildlife Trusts - the umbrella organisation that unites all county wildlife trusts, including those in Essex and Suffolk - reveals a decline of 30% in the areas where water voles live from 2006 to 2015.

There has been a slight increase in their distribution in recent years, thanks to conservation efforts by wildlife groups, the study shows. But Darren Tansley, Water for Wildlife officer for Essex Wildlife Trust and chairman of the UK water vole steering group, said the 10-year data showed that, despite conservationists’ best efforts, “we are struggling to win that battle”.


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Essex is one of the places enjoying local success in boosting the mammal’s range, enhancing habitat on its nature reserves and working with about 200 landowners and other partners in conservation schemes.

But Mr Tansley added: “Our reserves are not enough to tackle these landscape-scale problems, we have to rely on other individuals working with us to do that. For landowners that have low-lying areas of land that are not much good for anything, if they have ditches in there that can help create that habitat, they can make a big impact across a landscape.

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“From a national perspective, we need to have more of these opportunities to work at a landscape scale, we need the support of Government to do this.

“They’ve got to incentivise landowners to do this work with us. Landowners want to do what they can with wildlife, but the bottom line is they’ve got to pay the mortgage and feed their kids.”

The Wildlife Trusts’ report calls on Government and local authorities to enable a nature recovery network to be created, backed by a new Environment Act and expanded conservation funding. It urges landowners to manage river banks sympathetically to help water voles and for people to find out how they can volunteer to help the mammals.

A Defra spokeswoman said: “The Government is concerned about the decline of the iconic water vole. Through our 25-year environment plan we will provide opportunities for species recovery as we develop our Nature Recovery Network, creating or restoring 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat to provide benefits for species such as the water vole.”

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