The water vole - made famous through the ‘Ratty’ character in the Wind in the Willows children’s story - was once a familiar site in the Kielder area until predatory mink invaded its stronghold and wiped out the population. The last local sightings of water vole go back to the 1970s.
Mink numbers at Kielder are now thought to be very low with few being spotted by rangers in recent years, but water voles do not travel long distances so it is difficult for them to re-colonise mink-free areas.
Now, Northumberland Wildlife Trust,Tyne Rivers Trust and the Forestry Commission have received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to reintroduce water voles into Kielder as part of a project called Restoring Ratty.
Between 2016 and 2021, this project will reintroduce and establish a source population of water voles which could then expand into the wider mink monitoring area. To achieve this, water voles will be collected from donor sites in the North Pennines, Yorkshire and Trossachs where suitable water vole populations currently exist. Through captive breeding, numbers will increase to ensure sufficient voles are available for reintroduction. Donor animals will be collected in the autumn of 2016, breeding will take place from spring 2017 with an aim for the first release to take place in summer/autumn 2017 and then further annual releases through the life of the project.
Alongside the reintroduction the project will run an educational programme for schools local to the donor populations and the reintroduction sites as well provide interpretation in Kielder and run events about water voles.
We are producing videos to document the process of capturing, breeding and release of voles into Kielder. Here is the first of the videos on the capture process. The rest will follow during spring/summer 2017.
Restoring Ratty has been supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Thanks to National Lottery players, we have been able to start work on the process to reintroduce Water Voles into Kielder.
Water Vole Fact File
• Water voles are legally protected in Britain and recent evidence indicates they have undergone a long term decline in Britain. They have disappeared from 94% of their former sites. On average, water voles only live about five months in the wild. They eat grasses and waterside vegetation.
• The water vole is Europe’s largest native vole and has a rich, silky, yellowish-brown to dark brown coat, a blunt nose, a rounded body and a long hairy tail. It is often confused with the brown rat, which is slightly larger and has a pointed nose and a shorter, naked tail.
• Water voles excavate extensive burrow systems in the banks of waterways and will have up to five litters per year, ranging from three to seven young.
• Water voles were a common sight in UK watercourses until the 1970’s and 80’s, when a combination of escaped American mink (Mink are predators of water voles) and habitat loss started to reduce populations dramatically; the water vole is now absent from the majority of Northumberland’s rivers.
• Between 1989-90 and 1996-1998 national surveys by the Vincent Wildlife Trust across the UK showed that water voles were lost from 67.5% of occupied sites (Ed. Jeffries 2003). Subsequently, the water vole is considered to be one of the most threatened mammal species in the UK.
• The Forestry Commission has reversed the loss of grassy streamside vegetation in Kielder by replanting forests back from the stream edge after felling. This has led to a very significant increase in good water vole habitat. Mink numbers are greatly reduced in Kielder from a high in the 1980s, although there are still occasional records in the area.
Download and enjoy our Water Vole Activity Book.
Kielder Water Vole Heritage Project
Since 2014 the partnership of Tyne Rivers Trust, Northumberland Wildlife Trust and the Forestry Commission, have been working to ensure there is a suitable environment for water vole by establishing whether any mink remain, as this was the reason for their previous decline.
A key task in the project is to survey a search for mink across Kielder through sightings, droppings and using floating rafts which mink climb aboard to investigate, leaving behind tell-tale footprints. The rafts are checked every two weeks by volunteers. Over 1000 records were collected and only one possible mink footprint was found indicating that the area is suitable for a water vole reintroduction.
Photo: Volunteers checking a mink raft for prints
The project also worked with the local community, collecting recollections and photographs of the wildlife and changes to the North Tyne Valley over the last 70 years or so will be compiled.
The landscape has changed significantly with the establishment of Kielder Forest and creation of the Kielder Water, northern Europe’s largest man-made lake, a major influence on both people and wildlife.
Transcriptions of the videos can be downloaded below: