River Gara Water Vole Reintroduction Project
Our aim is to re-introduce water voles to the River Gara and its tributaries.
Water voles are a keystone species that have a disproportionately positive effect on their environment relative to their numbers. They make a dynamic habitat that supports lots of other species and are vital to maintain abundant wetland ecosystems along riverbanks.
As the water voles chew down the vegetation they create flower rich banks with greatly increased plant diversity and this benefits many different species including butterflies, bees, moths and other pollinators. That then creates more food for the birds, mammals and bats that eat those insects. Many other small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians use water vole burrows for refuge and as places to breed and of course the water voles themselves are food for larger creatures like otters, stoats and herons.
Map showing reintroduction area
Why have all the water voles disappeared?
The water vole has been a feature of our countryside for over 10,000 years. In the early 1900s over 8 million were recorded in Britain, but these charismatic and ecologically important little animals have largely disappeared from our waterways. It is estimated that we now have less than 100,000 left, reflecting a 90% decline just in the last two decades. Water voles have now been classified as endangered and by 2020 were functionally extinct in Devon and Cornwall.
The rapid drop in water vole numbers was caused by many things, but the three main causes are habitat loss, predation by feral American mink and pollution. This decrease in their populations has then impacted other species that depend on them.
Water voles once lived all along the River Gara, so if we can create the right conditions then there is no reason for them not to thrive here again, and spread to other areas too.
By creating habitat where necessary, avoiding areas colonised by the escaped American mink, and reducing river pollution the water vole can make a successful comeback
Will our efforts be successful?
Water voles are quite capable of recovering quickly as long as it is ensured that there are no local mink populations. Derek Gow is the UK’s leading expert on water voles and has undertaken many successful re-introductions. His first survey confirmed that the Gara Valley was the perfect environment for a re-introduction and he pinpointed a number of release sites.
These places all have slow moving water, pools and open banks, with a mix of the vegetation preferred by water voles such as meadowsweet, flag iris, greater tussock sedge, hemlock water dropwort and bramble. For vole colonies to have longevity it is important that the young can travel up and down stream and find other colonies to breed with. Hence there needs to be a series of introductions at different sites that are all within reach of one another.
The requirements needed to achieve a successful long term re-introduction are by now tried and tested and we can draw on the experience of many other similar projects. Places as diverse as Rutland Water, the River Dore in Herefordshire, Pagham Harbour and Arundel in West Sussex, the River Colne in Essex, the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park in the Trossachs and the River Meon in Hampshire have all successfully created large vibrant water vole populations, some of which have spread over 30 square miles. We looked particularly at a reintroduction started in 2012 in the Gwent levels in Wales as the landscape is very similar to the River Gara. There they now have an ever expanding population of water voles throughout the surrounding landscape.
The River Gara is the perfect habitat for water voles
Is the project supported locally
The landowners where re-introductions are to take place are all firmly behind the project and the local community has been enthusiastic in its support. Fund raising activities have been taking place and there are already many volunteers to help with mink control and to monitor the voles as the project moves forward.
What are the difficulties?
The most important thing we have to make absolutely sure of is that there are no escaped mink populations anywhere near the Gara valley. Luckily escaped American mink numbers have been falling across the country, especially in the South West. We have sited a number of mink rafts around the re-introduction area, which are designed to show the presence of mink, but none have been spotted so far. We are encouraged by the fact that there have been no mink seen locally for many years. There will be mink traps sited around the area all through the project which will alert us automatically if any are caught.
Remote mink traps will monitor for the presence of escaped American mink
What are the next steps?
A more detailed survey by Derek Gow will take place soon and mink control measures put into place. If this survey confirms the first findings as to the suitability of the area then breeding the first group of 400 water voles will start straight away. In total we’ll need to introduce about eight hundred water voles at different sites during the next three years to create a strong vole population.
We’ll need constant monitoring of the water voles throughout the project as well as regular mink patrols to make sure that no immigrant minks move in as back up to the remote-notification mink trap system.
Lastly we need to continue our fund raising and grant applications to raise the money for the water vole breeding and all the other parts of this project that cannot be done by local volunteers.
Returning water voles to the Gara Valley seemed an enormous undertaking in the beginning but as we began to understand the benefits that it would bring to other wildlife, and encouraged by the enthusiasm we met around us, we approached Derek Gow with the proposition. He made it absolutely clear from the start that he would only consider being part of the scheme if conditions on the ground were as near perfect as possible. His assessment from studying local maps was encouraging but it wasn’t until we received his first on the ground survey report that we knew it was a viable proposition. Now we know exactly what we are going to have to do and, with the enthusiastic backing of the local community, our efforts are firmly on raising the money needed to make it happen.
A water vole ready to be introduced into its natural environment
If you are interested in donating to the water vole reintroduction projects please either email email@example.com to ask for our BACS details (with BACS payments every penny of your donation goes to the project), or visit our Just Giving page.
If you would like further information or to volunteer please email firstname.lastname@example.org