CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Dorset Magazine today CLICK HERE

Hester Lacey discovers Dorset's population of water voles are holding their own

PUBLISHED: 15:25 02 October 2012 | UPDATED: 21:59 20 February 2013

Water vole emerging from its burrow
Photo: Stewart Canham

Water vole emerging from its burrow Photo: Stewart Canham

Ratty's return! Water vole numbers are in an alarming decline but as Hester Lacey discovers Dorset's population are holding their own and in some cases making a come back

Hester Lacey discovers Dorsets population of water voles are holding their own


Ratty's return! Water vole numbers are in an alarming decline but as Hester Lacey discovers Dorsets population are holding their own and in some cases making a come back

T he most famous water vole ever is probably Ratty in the book Wind in the Willows. Brave, loyal and a steadfast friend to the bumbling Moley, he is one of the books most endearing characters. When Kenneth Grahame wrote this childrens classic in 1908, the water vole was a common sight in Britain, but sadly this is no longer the case. The Mammal Society has described the water vole as Britains fastest-declining mammal and it has disappeared from 94% of the sites where it was once found.
The reason for the dramatic fall in numbers is a combination of habitat loss and predation by American mink, a non-native species which has spread across much of Britain. Mink are strong swimmers and can chase the water voles into their burrows, normally a sanctuary from enemies. Its a double whammy problem, says Dr Rachel Janes, Dorset Wildlife Trusts Rivers and Wetlands Conservation Officer. But, while mink have now become completely naturalised in every river catchment across Dorset, weve actually got quite good water vole populations.
The reason for Dorsets water voles holding their own is, says Rachel, mainly down to the preservation of the landscapes that support them. Were bucking the national trend because our habitat is actually pretty good. Water voles can be driven out when river banks are overgrazed; when bank structures are trampled, there is nowhere for the voles to burrow and the vegetation isnt as diverse. Draining the ditches where they like to live also makes them homeless. In Dorset we have good river and ditch systems and we have also used quite traditional river keeping techniques over the years, says Rachel. Supportive landowners and careful management are key to the survival of the water vole and the vast majority of river bank owners welcome the Trusts efforts to monitor and support water vole populations.


Water voles are around the same size as brown rats but far more attractive, with blunter faces, neater ears and furry tails

While water voles are also known as water rats (hence the name Ratty) they are very different from the brown rat. The biggest of the British voles, larger than their field vole and bank vole cousins, water voles are around the same size as brown rats but far more attractive, with blunter faces, neater ears and furry tails. They live near ditches or slow-flowing rivers and streams, ideally with earth banks to burrow into and not too much shade, which restricts the growth of the vegetation they live on. They are active in the daytime, and, says Rachel, they are not particularly shy. They can often be seen swimming or sitting and crunching on a juicy reed stem on the bank. You might even hear them diving into the water. They make a characteristic plop as they go in.
In Dorset there are water voles around Gillingham and the lower Frome at Wool and Wareham. Burrows can be seen at Dorset Wildlife Trusts Tadnoll and Winfrith reserves, the RSPB reserves at Radipole Lake and Lodmoor also have strong populations. The Bride and Brit valleys along with Brownsea and Abbotsbury are other good places to go vole-spotting.
Signs of water vole activity include dropped sections of stem that measure around 10 centimetres and have a sharp 45-degree angle. The other give away are water vole droppings. They scent-mark their territory with lozenge-shaped green droppings about a centimetre long, says Rachel. They also make extensive burrows in banks, some with underwater entrances, side entrances, escape hatches and chambers for breeding and eating. The holes are the size of a small fist. And they leave very starry footprints with a right angle between the first and second toes.
In the past, water vole surveying in Dorset has received national funding, but this year resources are limited so Dorset Wildlife Trust are looking for volunteers. Were aiming to survey about 100 sites, says Rachel. It would be fantastic if any readers could report their sightings.
Water voles are a key indicator species, as Rachel explains. They are purely vegetarian and feed on over 220 plants, including flag iris, brook lime and water mint, so their presence indicates that the plants in any water where they live are really healthy and thus so are the invertebrates that also depend on the plants and the fish that eat the vertebrates. Water voles reflect the overall health of the waterway. Conservationists, she adds, are always glad to see signs of water voles. That little olive-green dropping suggests that the extremely complex web of living creatures is OK. If you know theyre there you can breathe a sigh of relief.


Report your water vole sightings to Rachel Janes on rjanes@dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk

0 comments

More from Out & About

From your first step, you will see superb views from hilltops and farmland footpaths on this walk

Read more
Sunday, November 11, 2018

Martin Clunes and his family have called West Dorset home for over two decades. Here he shares some of their favourite local places

Read more
Monday, November 5, 2018

To mark the centenary of the end of World War One we visit some of the memorials erected across Dorset to remember the fallen in the ‘war to end all wars’

Read more
Friday, October 26, 2018

This lovely walk takes us from watercress beds to a church famous for its life-size carvings of apostles

Read more
Thursday, October 25, 2018

Autumn is a great time to brush up on your gardening knowledge with the help of some experts, as well as see some well known gardens in a different light

Read more
Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The guide to Dorset’s best firework displays and bonfire events happening in 2018

Read more
Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Prepare to experience the paranormal this Hallowe’en as Visit Dorset reveals some of the county’s most haunted pubs, stately homes, historic buildings and tanks

Read more
Monday, October 15, 2018

From festive light switch-ons and Santa’s Grottos, to German Christmas markets and late-night shopping, we’ve covered what’s on in Dorset this season

Read more
Monday, October 15, 2018

Dorset villages are some of the most beautiful in England – think winding lanes, thatched cottages and a cosy pub or welcoming tea room. We suggest ten of the prettiest villages to visit in the county

Read more
Friday, September 14, 2018

Follow in the footsteps of the Romans on this lovely walk that takes in rare habitat, ancient woodland and glorious views

Read more
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

This challenging coastal walk rewards your efforts with spectacular views along the Jurassic Coast

Read more
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Marine photographer Steve Belasco shares some very special wildlife moments

Read more
Wednesday, September 5, 2018

TravelSupermarket has uncovered the top 25 most popular UK beaches on Instagram after analysing hashtags used for over 1,100 beaches and Bournemouth comes out on top

Read more
Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Ride + Stride, Dorset Historic Churches Trust’s annual fundraising event, is a great way to explore and support some of the county’s more unusual places of worship

Read more
 
A+ South & South West

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Subscribe or buy a mag today


subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search