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WATER VOLES IN CUMBRIA

PLOP! When did you last hear or see a Water Vole Arvicola amphibious drop from a bank into water? "Ratty", of "Wind in the Willows" fame, is the fastest declining mammal in Britain. Once commonly seen, it has virtually disappeared from most of the country and is rapidly heading towards extinction.

By the early 1990's it was considered to be extinct in Cumbria, but there is recent good news from both the north-east and from the south of the county. Sightings around Alston and between the Leven and Kent estuaries, conform that it is just hanging on in the county.

The twin threats of bank "improvement" and predation by mink have driven numbers to these perilous levels. Intensive agriculture cleaned up ditch and river banks, destroying vital cover. Mink are widely found across the south of the county; it is the only species fast enough to catch the Water Vole in water and small enough to enter their burrows.

Habitat restoration is needed where Water Voles occur, as it is now known that a very wide strip of bankside vegetation makes it much harder for Mink to find the voles. Equally, Mink numbers must be controlled if the Water Vole is to survive.

The Water Vole is, in fact, not related to the Rat, another frequenter of ditch and river banks. On entering the water, however, a rat is more likely to swim along the surface, while the Water Vole is more likely to submerge. Also, the vole is more rounded, blunt nosed and has a shorter furry tail. The burrows are likely to be "gardened" around the entrance - a neat vole-sized (20 cm) semi-circle where the vegetation has been neatly clipped!

The species was formerly seen across South Cumbria from Walney, through the Furness and Cartmel peninsulas, to Kendal and in many other parts of the county. Breeding usually starts in March and there can be several litters through the summer.

As the situation had become so dire, the decision was taken in 2005 to collect some of the Alston population for a captive breeding programme. So as not to deplete numbers only those below a survival weight in late autumn were taken - these members of the last litters would have been very unlikely to survive the winter. Following successful breeding a large number of animals were released at an M.O.D. site at Warcop in the Eden Valley in Spring 2007.

Please look out for any signs of Water Voles in suitable habitat and report all sightings to Cumbria Wildlife Trust.