Ratty's stronghold under threat

THE LAST stronghold of the water vole - the creature made famous by the character Ratty in The Wind in the Willows - is under severe attack by the North American mink.

THE LAST stronghold of the water vole - the creature made famous by the character Ratty in The Wind in the Willows - is under severe attack by the North American mink.

The water vole is already extinct in some regions of Britain but its days in East Anglia may also be numbered.

Early results of a survey in the rivers Deben and Alde, disclosed yesterday, suggest that populations under pressure from mink predation for more than two decades have further declined in the past six years.

About 40 landowners along the two rivers are already co-operating in a mink trapping programme but more are needed to join in, said Penny Hemphill, Water for Wildlife adviser to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust.

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Mink populations have been growing for the past two decades after the animals either escaped from former fur farms or were released by animal rights activists.

The mink, smaller than the native otter, is a voracious and very efficient killer of fish and fowl, including pheasant chicks, as well as the water vole.

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Gamekeeper David Denny, who operates in the Deben Valley, has caught four mink within the past two weeks. He trapped ten of them during the winter.

Apart from mink predation, water vole populations are also thought to be suffering as a result of the loss and fragmentation of habitat, accidental poisoning by herbicides and poisons put down to kill the brown rat and disturbance caused by increased use of waterways for recreation.

A new survey has been launched on the Deben and Alde to see if the mink trapping programme is helping water voles to survive.

However, the first five sites visited on Wednesday and yesterday - all having healthy populations of the water vole six years ago - showed no signs of any of the creatures.

“We have drawn a complete blank and I feel very depressed about it - it is undoubtedly mink predation because the habitat is good,” said Ms Hemphill who is at the forefront of Suffolk efforts to save the water vole.

A further 28 sites along the Deben are to be surveyed over the next month and work will then concentrate on the Alde between.

The results of the survey, funded by the Environment Agency, are expected to be announced in September.

“By concentrating of two of the river catchments where mink are being trapped we will be able to re-establish baseline data on water vole populations. These sites should then be re-surveyed annually to prove or disprove the effectiveness of mink control,” Ms Hemphill said.

She has had an increasing number of reports of water voles turning up in people's garden moats and ponds and she believes they are being driven out of the main waterways by the mink.

She is anxious to hear from any landowner in Suffolk's river valleys willing to install traps which are being supplied by the Environment Agency. She also wants to hear of any sightings of the voles.

“East Anglia is the water vole's last stronghold and we need more help in keeping it here,” Ms Hemphill added.

She can be contacted via the wildlife trust headquarters, tel. 01473 890089.


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