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.