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I have produced a new book highlighting the plight of one of Britain’s best-loved native animals. The water vole, which was popularised as ‘Ratty’ in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, was once a common sight on Britain’s waterways but now holds the unenviable position as one of the country’s fastest declining wild mammals.
Over recent decades water voles have struggled in the face of increasing pressures – habitat loss, intensive farming, extreme weather events and non-native species all pose serious threats to populations that are hanging on by a thread. With water vole numbers in Britain having fallen by 80% during the 1990s, following much longer-term decline, the future for the species looks precarious. While the outlook is still uncertain, the new book from Christine Gregory offers a glimmer of hope by revealing the remarkable efforts being made to re-establish water vole populations across the country.
The book has drawn on decades of painstaking research into water vole decline as well as carrying out her own fieldwork and photographic documentation of their lives along many of the water courses of Derbyshire. Her remarkable images are the result of several years of patient observation and research, during which she has met with conservationists, fishing clubs, volunteers and land managers, all of whom are contributing by their efforts to save remaining water vole colonies.
The book captures the life of the water vole, with an historical account of their presence in Derbyshire alongside an exploration of the county’s present-day waterways and the water vole’s changing fortunes. The book also traces the water vole’s evolution as one of Britain’s earliest native mammals to its dominance as Britain’s most common mammal before the Roman occupation, then its later demise as agricultural intensification, habitat destruction and finally the devastating impact of the expansion of American mink have taken it to the brink of extinction.
In the book’s introduction Christine writes, ‘Today there is much talk of the “new normal” where we have become used to scarcity and absence and any wildlife sighting is a cause for celebration and reassurance that all is well. In the spring and summer of 2014 I knew of several places where I was likely to see water voles; in 2015 I have struggled to find any at all.’
Chris Packham, who has contributed the book’s foreword, adds, ‘They [water voles] have become the fastest declining mammal in the UK. Only the hedgehog is giving them a run for their money in the extinction race. And who would have thought it? They were once so common … it’s not all doom though as we understand the problems and have solutions in the form of habitat creation and reintroductions and in some places water voles are making a comeback.’
‘In the twenty-first century we face the challenges of extreme weather caused by climate change … increasingly, there is a greater understanding that a disrupted environment damages us all and that there is an artificial choice between the needs of the natural world and the perceived needs of humans. Building on the floodplain has caused flooding and damaged homes and businesses as well as disrupting the natural environment … Sensitive management of moorlands, woods and grasslands does not just benefit wildlife, because these landscapes function as carbon sinks, and they are also our best flood defences. Uplands, moors and grasslands are nature’s sponges, collecting and storing rainfall and helping to regulate the flow of our rivers. Careful management of landscapes and watercourses is key to how we adapt to the challenges of the future.’
‘We can all contribute in some way to securing a future for the water vole so that future generations can watch this enchanting animal, that somehow epitomises the gentle, intimate and quiet life lived by wild creatures along our rivers, streams, canals and lakes.’
The Water Vole is published by Vertebrate Publishing, an independent publisher based on the edge of the Peak District – an area that is one of the few remaining water vole strongholds.