Return of the water vole

An ambitious reintroduction programme has saved the water vole from the edge of extinction in Scotland.

The tiny mammals were almost wiped out by escaped populations of American mink and by loss of habitat. However, a joint initiative between Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, The Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park Authority, the River Forth Fisheries Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has turned the tide.

More than 1,000 water voles have been released into Loch Ard forest in Stirlingshire from a captive breeding programme. Today, they’re thriving and even colonising new areas.

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Improving habitat for water voles

Before reintroducing water voles, we had to make sure the conditions were right. That meant improving an extremely important habitat known as the ‘riparian zone’– the narrow strip of vegetation beside lochs, ponds, rivers and streams.

Native trees, shrubs and plants in the riparian zone provide shade and leaf litter, and help stabilise river banks. They can also trap sediment and absorb nutrients, and reduce the amount of pollutants getting into the water. It also provides a great home for many different insects, birds and mammals – not just water voles.

In Scotland, this wasn’t always the case. In some forests, conifers were planted too close to the water’s edge – causing deep shade and, in some cases, acidification of the water.

Today, we are opening up these areas and holding the treeline well back from the water’s edge to allow the more natural vegetation to recover. As a result, many species have benefited – from tiny invertebrates, salmon and trout to otters and birds of prey.

The future for water voles

Apart from improving habitat, we’ve also trapped and destroyed almost all of the predatory mink. That’s been good for water birds such as little grebe and moorhen too.

Life is still dangerous for the water vole – they’re eaten by lots of mammals, birds and fish – but thanks to our efforts their future is looking much brighter.

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5 things you might not know about water voles

  • Despite his name, ‘Ratty’ in Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows was actually a water vole.
  • The UK population of water voles has declined by more than 90% since the 1950s.
  • Water voles feed on more than 200 different types of reeds, grasses, rushes, herbs, shrubs and trees.
  • The average lifespan of a water vole is just five months – they’re eaten by mink, stoats, weasels, foxes, badgers, buzzards, kestrels, owls, large fish...
  • Water voles make their homes in the river bank – often with secret underwater entrances.

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