River Gara Water Vole Reintroduction Project

Water Voles.mp4

Latest News 23/10/23

Some clips from a trail camera at one of the release sites. 

(Thanks to Vivienne and Victoria for these)

WhatsApp Video 2023-09-07 at 18.07.08.mp4

"Today we have wild water voles again in this corner of Devon, probably for the first time in fifty years!"

Thanks to Sarah of Blackawton for the clip above.

See the BBC news report 

WhatsApp Video 2023-09-17 at 10.47.07.mp4

Latest News 11/9/23

What a week, but by today we have wild water voles again in this corner of Devon, probably for the first time in fifty years! It’s more than two and a half years since we first went to Derek Gow’s farm to learn about water voles but today justifies all the work and time that has gone into setting up this reintroduction.

On Monday the team from Derek Gow’s arrived with a truck and a pick-up and trailer loaded with cages full of water voles, bales of straw, release cages and vole food. A final survey of the river, ditches and ponds at Washwalk gave us the release sites for the first 140 voles and by the time the Habitat Group volunteers arrived, along with some journalists and a camera crew, everything was ready to load the release cages with straw and, having checked them over, transfer the voles into them. As each cage was ready to go, two volunteers would pick it up and set off for the chosen spot. Once positioned by the water they’d cut branches to cover the cages to keep them cool.

When the final cages were in place and covered it was time for the ‘hard release’. Twenty of the largest and friskiest voles had been chosen to be let go straight into the stream and the old mill pond, and as each travelling cage was upended the voles inside would leap out and swim for the opposite bank and the cover of the vegetation.

After that it was time to drive round to the second release site, another tributory of the Gara a bit further downstream. Again the team did a careful survey to choose the exact spots where each vole group would be positioned and then the process of erecting and loading the cages began again. By late afternoon every vole was in position and it was time to call it a day.

Tuesday and Wednesday saw each cage checked and new food added and then on Thursday the door was replaced with a baffle board with two holes in, giving the voles the option to leave the cage and then come back in if they wanted to. Some brave souls leapt straight out and into the water in front of them, some chose to take their time before plunging into this big new world in front of them.

One last set of food on Friday for each cage and then today, with another group of hardworking volunteers, every cage was emptied of its straw, and very occasionally a remaining vole occupant, and flat packed ready for collection by Derek’s team. The voles had already started digging tunnels under many of the cages and so all the straw and branches went on top of their earthworks to give them the greatest protection.

And there we have it, 200 water voles out in their natural element for the first time and a missing link in our local ecology forged anew.

And in seven months time we’ll do it all again with another 200 voles and

new release sites further along the river. By then this lot should have hopefully created extensive safe burrows for themselves and each family produced two or three litters of new little volettes to spread up and down the Gara and ultimately into Slapton Ley.

and the local TV news report on BBC News Spotlight.

The Project

The article below describes the ambitions of the project at the outset of the journey towards reintroducing water voles on the River Gara, and now  we are delighted to be able to report that the project is well under way.

Farming in Protected Landscape (FiPL)

Stage 1 of the project, which is all the initial survey work, breeding the first four hundred water voles, transporting them down to the River Gara and organising their release, has been made possible by a generous grant from Farming in Protected Landscapes (FiPL). Combining that grant together with the money raised locally has enabled the first stage of the project to go ahead and meant that we once again have wild water voles in this corner of Devon.

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 hello@beginbystarting.co.uk 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 suehadow@gmail.com