Went to a talk last night given by Kelly Hollings from Northumberland Wildlife Trust who is heading up the ‘Restoring Ratty’ project here on our doorstop in Kielder. She told us about their award winning five year water vole re-introduction project; made possible by Heritage Lottery Fund and run in conjunction with partners on the ground, Forestry England and Tyne Rivers Trust. Some 1,200 of these endangered native species have now been successfully released in different sites in the forest around Kielder Water. Three short videos were at the heart of her powerpoint presentation; one about the creature itself, the second on its conservation, the third made by schoolchildren participating at the various sites covered in the first two videos.
The water vole was made immortal in literature as ‘Ratty’ in Kenneth Graeme’s Edwardian children’s classic ‘The Wind in the Willows’. Once a common site on our waterways, the largest member of the vole family has been in steady decline for many years. The process was drastically speeded up after WW2, with the loss or fragmentation of habitats and predation by American mink who had discovered the perfect substitute for muskrat. Mink – escapees from farms where they were once bread for fur – are small and agile enough to enter the vole burrows and exterminate whole populations. Voles are prolific breeders, with up to five litters a year, and healthy numbers in the food chain are key to the survival of all the other creatures (mink apart) that feed on them. Restoration projects to stem the recent disasterous decline are taking place all over the UK and the Kielder team has drawn its pioneer breeding stock from the strongholds established in parts of Scotland and the North Yorkshire Moors. They’ve used late litter animals otherwise unable to face winter conditions when they would die of cold and starvation. Just as importantly these creatures are genetically suited to northern habitats. These young voles overwinter in ideal captive conditions at a specialist ecological facility on a farm in Devon before being returned upcountry for ‘soft release’ into the forest park. The role of volunteers has been crucial in every practical time consuming and patient process; transporting, monitoring, initial feeding, recording etc.
Kelly in her talk pointed out that these fascinating creatures were originally not aquatic in habit but have been gradually adapting to life in water over many centuries. Hence ears that are bedded down in water repellent fur. Yet their feet are not webbed nor do their long furry tails have a rudder shape. They don’t use feet to excavate burrows but instead utilise their long curved teeth. it’s thought they gradually took to the water for safety’s sake as man and predator presence grew. We also learnt that they will eat up to 227 varieties of plant; prefer shallow narrow channels of slower moving water to fast rapid watercourses; need soft earth banks to burrow into, above high water levels, with at least six metres of unshaded bankside vegetation to provide sufficient food and cover. Highly territorial during the breeding season water voles then hunker down in family groups underground attempting to last out the winter.
If further funding can be secured Northumberland will be teaming up with Durham Wildlife Trust, public and private landowners after this project ends in 2021 with the aim of building on its success and ‘break out’ to the lower river courses and catchments of North Tyne, South Tyne, Wear and Tees, in order to restore vole populations there too. The success of the continual battle to eradicate mink is clearly crucial in securing the re-population of these much loved and highly valued species.