Endangered water voles to be released in Yorkshire nature scheme

More than 100 water voles are set to be released in Yorkshire to boost the survival chances of the endangered species

  • Water voles will be released in Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
  • The’re being bred in captivity before release with the aim to boost populations 
  • The species has suffered declines due to a loss of habitat and water pollution

More than 100 water voles are being released into woodland in North Yorkshire as part of a scheme to help the endangered mammals.

The new project, led by Yorkshire Water, will boost populations at Timble Ings Woods in Washburn Valley at the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. 

Water voles, immortalised as Ratty in Wind in the Willows, live along slow-flowing rivers, ditches, dykes and lakes, making extensive burrows in the banks. 

They’re known as ‘ecosystem engineers’, because their digging activity changes the make up of the soil, affecting what plants grow.

But they’ve suffered steep declines in recent years as a result of being preyed on by invasive American mink, loss and degradation of their habitat and water pollution.  

UK conservation charity The Wildlife Trusts has called the species ‘Britain’s fastest declining wild mammal’.  

The adorable European water vole is believed to be one of the fastest declining mammals in Britain 

‘As Yorkshire’s second largest landowner we’re committed to ensuring our land protects the management of water, but also benefits the environment by delivering exceptional land for the people of Yorkshire,’ said Lee Pitcher, head of partnerships at Yorkshire Water. 

‘One of the aims of our land strategy is to enable plants and wildlife to thrive on Yorkshire Water land.

‘The work we’ve undertaken at Timble Ings Woods makes it a fantastic habitat for water voles and is important for the protection of this vulnerable species.’   

A strong swimmer, the European water vole (Arvicola amphibius) is similar-looking to the brown rat, but with a blunt nose, small ears and furry tail. 

Telltale signs of the presence of water voles include burrows in the riverbank, often with a nibbled ‘lawn’ of grass around the entrance.   

Water voles create burrow networks, which dries the surrounding wet soil and promotes soil microbial activity.

This in turn regulates the availability of nitrogen, which is an important nutrient for plant growth. 

Populations of the creature throughout the continent overall are ‘stable’, according to the IUCN Red List, which states the global conservation status of myriad species.  

However, the species is believed to be one of the fastest declining mammals in Britain, losing 97 per cent of their former geographical range.  

As a result, the mammal population declined by 90 per cent between 1989 and 1998. 

‘The intensification of agriculture in the 1940s and 1950s caused the loss and degradation of habitat, but the most rapid period of decline was during the 1980s and 1990s as American mink spread,’ PTES says on its website.  

As part of the new scheme, more than 100 water voles bred in captivity will first be placed in large release pens to let them get used to their new environment, before being released into the wild.  

A water vole (Arvicola terrestris) adult  takes shelter in a nest hole in bank of a stream in south Norfolk


 Mammal species at risk of extinction in Britain are:

– Critically endangered: wildcat, greater mouse-eared bat.

– Endangered: beaver, red squirrel, water vole, grey long-eared bat.

– Vulnerable: hedgehog, hazel dormouse, Orkney vole, Serotine bat, Barbastelle bat.

– Near threatened: mountain hare, harvest mouse, lesser white-toothed shrew, Leisler’s bat, Nathusius’ pipistrelle.

– Extinct: European wolf.

Source: Red List for British Mammals

Yorkshire Water said it had carried out work at the woods, which it owns and manages, to keep watercourses free of tree coverage and allow bankside vegetation to grow, making it ideal habitat for water voles.

Visitors to Timble Ings Woods should stay on the paths and keep dogs on a lead away from ponds and watercourses to avoid disturbing water voles.    

Kelly Harmar, biodiversity officer at Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, said recent surveys in the area had revealed ‘precious few’ populations of water voles in local rivers.

‘This introduction is a positive step at a site chosen to maximise their chances of survival,’ she said. 

‘We hope the new arrivals will be very happy in their new home.’ 

A quarter of Britain’s native mammal species, including red squirrels, wildcats and beavers, are at risk of extinction, according to a recent assessment.

The first official Red List for British Mammals, which meets international criteria used to assess threats to wildlife such as elephants and tigers, revealed that 11 of our 47 native mammals are at risk of being wiped out.

Historical persecution, the use of chemicals, building developments, a loss of habitat and the introduction of non-native species are all reasons for declining species numbers.

A quarter of Britain’s native mammal species, including red squirrels (pictured), wildcats and beavers, are at risk of extinction, according to the first official Red List for British Mammals

In particular, wildcats – of which there are fewer than 20 in the wild in Scotland – and greater mouse-eared bats, with just one known individual, are at the highest risk of going extinct and are classed as critically endangered.

Beavers, which have been reintroduced in recent years after being hunted to extinction by the 1600s, are endangered in Britain, as are water voles, grey-long eared bats and the native red squirrel. 

The European wolf, which vanished from Britain in the 17th century, is classed as extinct in the assessment, which looks back as far as the year 1500.


Length: 5.5 to 8.6 inches (14-22cm)

Tail: 3.7 to 5.5 inches (9.5-14cm)

Weight: 5.2-10.5 ounces (150-300g)

Average lifespan: 0.5-1.5 years

The European water vole (Arvicola amphibius) lives along rivers, streams and ditches, around ponds and lakes, and in marshes, reedbeds and areas of wet moorland. 

Water voles like to sit and eat in the same place, so piles of nibbled grass and stems may be found by the water’s edge, showing a distinctive 45 degree, angled-cut at the ends. 

‘Latrines’ of rounded, cigar-shaped droppings may also be spotted. 

They create burrows to live in and their digging activity changes the make up of the soil by drying it out. 

This then has a knock on effect on what plants grow in the vicinity.

Water voles start to breed in spring, having three to four litters a year of up to five young. 

The water vole has chestnut-brown fur, a blunt, rounded nose, small ears, and a furry tail. 

Water voles are the largest species of vole in Britain and are sometimes mistaken for brown rats, which can be found in a similar habitat. 

Scotland’s water voles often appear darker, with many having a black coat. The similar brown rat is larger, with grey-brown fur, a pointed nose, large ears that protrude from its fur, and a long, scaly tail. 

Its distribution is widespread, but absent from the Channel Islands, Isles of Scilly, Scottish islands, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. 

 The water vole is famously known as ‘Ratty’ in Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s tale, The Wind in the Willows. 

Despite being sometimes referred to as a ‘Water Rat’, there is no such thing – there are brown rats, black rats and water voles. 

Source: The Wildlife Trusts/PTES 

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