Wilder Future: a vole's view

Ratty. Sensible, dependable, loyal, comfortable in his own skin, writes Harry Barton, Devon Wildlife Trust's CEO. He is the character who gives the river in Wind in the Willows its sense of permanence, and his love and reverence for it is the antithesis to toad’s flirtation with the dangerous ways of the modern, wider world. Of all the characters in his book, Ratty perhaps most represents the countryside that Kenneth Graham knew and loved, and the one he feared losing.

But what of the real Ratty? Misconceptions abound.  To start with, he isn’t a rat at all, but a water vole. You can tell this because his tail, ears and paws are furry, unlike a rat’s, and he much prefers a diet of reeds, sedges and other waterside plants to human refuse.  Like Kenneth Graham’s loveable character, he is happiest in a burrow next to the river bank and seldom ventures far from the waterside, although he is also known to build football-sized nests suspended in reedbeds or tall vegetation.  But he’s no staid country gentleman in tweeds.  He eats 80% of his body weight every day just to stay alive, breeds up to eight times a year, and shows his disdain to predators by kicking mud in their faces.  

Water voles are Britain’s fastest declining mammal.  From 8 million in the 1960s – and probably many times that number when Wind in the Willows was published in 1908 – there were just over 200,000 fifteen years ago.  That’s a 97.5% decline.  Between the 1970s and the turn of the millennium, they vanished from rivers and in some cases whole counties, including Devon, where they were confirmed as extinct in 2000.  And much of this decline is shockingly recent – numbers are thought to have dropped by a fifth between 2011 and 2014.

Ratty's tale is a salutary warning that even the most familiar species can quite suddenly become rare and face extinction.
water vole

Water Vole (Arvicola amphibius), Kent, UK - Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Why did this happen?  The popular culprit in this particular environmental tragedy is the American mink.  These voracious predators escaped or were released from mink fur farms in several parts of the country, including Devon.  In the late 1990s there were an estimated 200,000 in the wild – about as many as there were water voles in fact. They spread quickly and made an easy living along our river corridors, munching any small mammal or bird that came into their path.  Most or our native wildlife hadn’t evolved mechanisms to defend themselves against such an efficient killer, and Ratty had no chance.  Mink fur farming was banned in the UK in 2003, but the damage was done.

It isn’t just mink though.  Rivers have been straightened and bankside vegetation removed.  Fields have ploughed right up to the edges of our waterways, and large areas of wetlands, reedbeds and other water vole-friendly habitat has been destroyed.  Much of our countryside just isn’t welcoming to Ratty any more. Throw extreme weather events into the mix – 70% of water voles can die in a cold winter – and the chances of this poor creature surviving across much of the UK became near impossible.

But Ratty is tougher than we think, and with care and knowledge, we’ve helped him make a bit of a comeback.  Sensitive removal of the American mink, and improvements to waterside habitats, have made at least some of our rivers more welcoming again.  Water voles were released into the river Axe in East Devon in 2009, and the neighbouring Seaton Wetlands in 2018, and are doing well there.  In 2013 they returned to Cornwall, the last remaining county from which the animals had disappeared.  And it’s not just the rural shires which have enjoyed this renaissance. London, Birmingham and Glasgow all have thriving populations, thanks to sensitive management of canals and waterways. Like so much of our wildlife, water voles are as happy in our cities as anywhere else, just as long as we make space for them.

Much of our countryside just isn’t welcoming to Ratty any more.

And Ratty has some unexpected friends.  Otters – which have been a great conservation success story – have returned to many of our rivers.  They rarely bother water voles, but they have little time for mink.  And they’re a lot larger, so it’s the mink that tends to come off worse in this particular confrontation. And they have another larger furry friend – the beaver.  These industrious animals help to re-naturalise waterways with their dam building, canal excavation and coppicing.  And it’s not just the water voles that benefit. Wildflowers, insects and the many birds that feed off them, and our increasingly rare native amphibians, and of course Ratty’s most boisterous friend, Toad himself.

Water Voles have been legally protected since 2008.  But their troubles are far from over.  Numbers remain critically low, and without direct intervention by conservationists, and carefully planned reintroductions, they would probably have disappeared across the entire UK.  Here in Devon they remain restricted to small parts of the east of the county.  Much still needs to be done if this most engaging of creatures is to battle its way off the endangered list.

So what can we learn from the trials and tribulations of Ratty? First, a salutary warning that even the most commonplace and familiar species can quite suddenly become rare and face extinction. Complacency has no place in the fight to save the natural world.

Secondly, we have done a tremendous job of creating landscapes that are tidy, productive and convenient for us, but we’ve made them barren and hostile to most wildlife.  We can and should build in space for nature, and it’s perfectly possible to do this in farmland, cities, our homes, schools and workplaces, and without any sacrifice to profit, safety or efficiency.  In fact there’s ample evidence that it benefits us as well as our wild neighbours.  For Ratty to thrive, we need more than just occasional patches of greenery in the manicured landscape.  We need much wider river corridors with a mix of natural bankside vegetation, and we need the small wild fragments that survive to be reconnected right across river systems. Only then will these charming animals be able to venture up and down our waterways unimpeded and their populations spread to rivers right across Devon. 

Lastly, Ratty’s story shows that we can bring wildlife back even in the most desperate circumstances. It’s difficult, it requires a great deal of planning and consensus building, it can be time consuming and expensive.  But surely it’s more than worthwhile.

Join us in our campaign for a Wilder Future for Ratty and us all.