Water vole conservation in the Lake District 2023

In the UK, the water vole population has declined over the past hundred years from about 8 million to only 132,000. This small mammal has disappeared from 94% of the areas where it once lived. And now, in a strong conservation programme, 365 captive-bred water voles have been reintroduced this week in an area of the Lake District from where they had been eradicated many years ago.

Water voles are being reintroduced into the Lake District in a conservation programme.
Water voles are being reintroduced into the Lake District in a conservation programme. The picture is by Michael Broad.

The main reason for the dramatic decline in this small native species was the introduction of the non-native American mink into the UK after their escape from fur farms in the 1950s, becoming established across the countryside.

The American mink is a voracious predator. Conservationists of the water voles are working with landowners to control the population of American mink to give the introduced water voles a chance of survival.

This conservation effort has been coordinated by Eden Rivers Trust, the Environment Agency and Cumbria Connect. It follows the successful reintroduction of beavers in 2020. Beavers were hunted to extinction in Cumbria 400 years ago according to The Times report of Thursday, August 17, 2023.

And there’s a fortunate relationship between beavers and water voles. They cohabit well because the dams created by beavers causes the water table to rise which gives voles greater access to wider feeding areas.

Voles are also good for the environment as they help the growth of a variety of wetland plant species. They achieve this through burrowing which creates soil structure diversity.

The released water voles have a genetic makeup which is similar (as close as possible) to those that were widespread in Cumbria before they were lost in that region.

The conservation manager at Cumbria Connect, Bill Kenmir, said “This reintroduction of water voles marks a significant step forward in nature restoration of our landscape. Recognised as a keystone species due to their pivotal role, these charming creatures wield significant influence in delicately balanced ecosystems by engineering new habitats and increasing plant diversity along waterways.”

He added that “By adopting a landscape-scale approach and with further releases planned across the area, we hope to create a network of interconnected populations across restored floodplains. This will allow the water voles to disperse across more dynamic habitats, including alongside Beaver at Lowther, allowing them to thrive.”

The water vole is sometimes referred to as the “water rat”. The affable Ratty featured in The Wind in the Willows.

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Post Category: Conservation