Wildlife experts at the Environment Agency have confirmed that water voles have returned to every county in England, following the final release of 60 captive bred voles within the Bude river catchment in Cornwall.
The release, by the Environment Agency and Westland Countryside Stewards, means that there is now an established breeding vole colony in Cornwall, the first time since 1989. There are now breeding colonies in every county in England.
The introduction programme began in 2013 as water voles were highly unlikely to naturally colonise in Cornwall due to the distance to the next nearest population in East Devon.
Water vole populations have been in decline since the 1970s due to long-term habitat loss, predation by American mink and extreme weather. Statistics released by the Environment Agency and wildlife trusts last year showed that the populations could have fallen by as much as a fifth since 2011. Populations in the south west, Lake District and parts of the Midlands are especially vulnerable.
However, reintroduction schemes combined with mink control programmes and habitat management are providing a lifeline for this iconic species. Creating and maintaining large-scale good quality habitat is also key to ensuring the species’ survival.
Alastair Driver, the Environment Agency’s National Conservation Manager and Chair of the UK Water Vole Steering Group, said: Habitat creation and restoration projects are hugely valuable for most wildlife, there are some species for which introduction programmes are necessary simply because populations have become so fragmented and the species is not very mobile.
The Environment Agency has created nearly 5,000 hectares of wetland and river habitats in the last 10 years, and worked hard to tackle unsustainable abstraction from our rivers, to the extent that some 55 billion litres of water each year is now returned to the environment. However we are keen to support carefully located water vole release projects as well, but only as long as there is rigorous control of American mink in the catchment. This is essential if the populations of water voles are to benefit from these healthier rivers and new habitats.
Water voles were successfully released into the River Axe in Devon in 2009 and are known to have thrived there ever since, thanks to careful management of the habitat and control of American mink.
John Duncan, Chief Executive of the charity Westland Countryside Stewards, said: It has been a privilege to play a part in the release of water voles back into a Cornish habitat where they were once a common sight. The success of the project is a great demonstration of the way a small local charity such as ours can work with larger organisations like the Environment Agency to achieve a common goal.