Wednesday, 1 April 2015

What Price Conservation?

I'm back out water vole surveying. I've done three trips over the last three weeks and on the first one, I found nothing at all. No signs. On the second (at a different stretch of the river Test) there was evidence of recent WV activity all along both river banks, and on the third (yesterday, back at the first site) at long last fresh latrines were in evidence, including a new one much further up the river that wasn't there last summer :o)


  
You don't often see water voles when you're surveying for them, and in fact these pictures were taken last year when I had a bumper day and saw FIVE voles, one after another. I haven't seen any yet this year. More often you hear the tell-tale 'plop' as they drop into the water at your approach. What you look for and record are signs of their presence, and that means latrines (piles of poo, often on prominent bits of wood or stone in the river), runs (tunnels made through the vegetation), larders (small piles of chopped up bits of vegetation, cut at the classic vole 45 degree angle) and burrows. Below is a pic of a typical water vole latrine. Breeding females use these piles of droppings on prominent wood or stone as markers of their territory.

 
Surveys such as the ones I do form the basis for informing maintenance proceedures- working out where and when and what type of maintenance work can be carried out on the river banks. This is because water voles are a heavily protected species, and that is because they suffered 95% population losses over the last 100 years. They are predated by Mink who can get down into their burrows whereas Otters, their natural native predators with whom they have evolved, can not. They have also suffered enormously from habitat loss- the hard engineering of previous decades stripped river banks bare of shelter and food sources and replaced soft burrow-able earth with impenetrable concrete.

Thankfully, all of that has started to change. River bank management is now done with these species in mind, (as well as fish who need the cover of bank side vegetation under the surface of the water in order to mature safely) while allowing the economic function (often fishing) of the river to be maintained. Mink are routinely trapped and removed when found along British waterways. Otters are making a comeback and there is evidence to suggest that they also play a role in keeping Mink away- the two species don't seem to co-exist routinely, presumably because they compete for the same niche.

 
Recent dredging work carried out on the Somerset Levels following last year's terrible floods has involved the area's resident water vole population of 55 animals being moved. According to the BBC, this has cost an estimated £2400 per vole, which adds up to around .£130,000. These costs were incurred for surveys along the 5 mile stretches of two rivers (£86,000), relocating to Hampshire and Cornwall (£24,000) and overwintering costs.

The Environment Agency has footed the bill. It has obligations to protect the species under the 1981 Wildlife Act which makes it illegal to take (capture), kill, harm (injure) or disturb them, or to block access to their place of shelter or protection or to sell, control or transport live or dead voles.



I am interested in your thoughts on this. Is it too much money to spend on one population of voles? 

There will be plenty of people who think so. I am a conservationist, so to me, protecting wildlife from harm is key, but I am also a realist and I do question the enormous expenditure on this one project. For one thing, it doesn't do the image of conservation any good. If our wildlife is to survive we need to engage people and get them on board to help, and I suspect spending £130k on 55 voles is going to baffle most people.


If trained volunteers had been used to do the surveys the £86k survey costs would have been dramatically reduced. You don't need a licence to survey for water voles so anyone trained and experienced in doing them can carry them out. Perhaps the EA could have asked the Wildlife Trusts to mobilise their armies of helpers for the task? I understand that Ecological Consultancies exist to do this kind of work and charge accordingly, but some headlines stick and cause damage and this is one that surely should have been expected and considered beforehand, especially given the economic state the country is in.

I also wonder why the voles have been relocated instead of returned? You do need a licence from Natural England to do that, and it is usually applied only if the existing habitat is made unsuitable for their return. I did hear this morning that these Somerset voles may be part of a reintroduction programme elsewhere, but taking a population from one area and placing it in another is no guarantee of its survival: even if the habitat matches they may not re-establish themselves in the new place.

Not doing the dredging work was not an option either- too many homes and business flooded, and the cost financially and to people was too high to do nothing.




Some folk will doubtless question the value of water voles full stop. Why do they matter? Why should we spend money on their protection? The simple answer is that they are as much an integral part of the functioning of an ecosystem as we are, and as such their role in its proper working should not be underestimated. They're a link in the chain and without them elements of it would fall apart.

People, ultimately, rely on the proper workings of ecosystems for their own survival. Ecosystems make the soil we grow our food in; they manage and absorb decaying matter so that disease doesn't become rife and kill us all; they create the water we drink and the air we breath; they filter pollutants and keep life in a healthy balance (as long as we don't mess about with them too much). They also provide us with beautiful spaces to breath in that calm, soothe and restore us; they gentle our minds and lift our hearts, all those things you can't quantify or put a price on. If ecosystems fail, we disappear, it really is that simple.
All of that happens through the millions of intricate connections that exist between all living and non-living things. Whether we minutely understand those connections or not, it makes absolute sense to protect them and allow them to flourish.




There is also the moral argument: water voles would not be in this predicament with very low population levels making them vulnerable to extinction if we hadn't destroyed their habitat and introduced Mink from America for their fur in the first place.

Whether we like it or not, we are ultimately responsibility for the fix that water voles are now in - if we hadn't caused their sharp decline in the first place we wouldn't now be footing this enormous bill to look after them.

Food For Thought?

 
CT.

 


38 comments:

  1. Very much so! I had the privilege of seeing one in Kingsmill hospital reservoir last spring. Used to see a lot of them even in urban drains and streams. No longer.

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    1. Once seen never forgotten; they are very special creatures to me. Their decline is very worrying and I'm not sure whether recent studies indicate any kind of improvement in numbers. The widespread presence of Mink across our waterways is still a cause for concern. Thanks for the comment.

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  2. I think they are worth every single penny. The most important aspects of our world- I believe- are the environment and all species within except probably mink and Jeremy Clarkson. Education and Health and Welfare provision. These cannot be maintained successfully if the focus is solely on cost. The degradation of these systems will cost so much more long-term. However, I do agree with you that perhaps a more creative cost effective approach could have been used. Now, must get back to some historical economic problems, thanks for the v interesting diversion! S.x

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    1. You make such a good point that cost should not be the sole focus, but it is, sadly, a reality. This is why I feel so strongly that conservation needs to engage more everyday folks who are full of goodwill towards wildlife to help out where it can and make the money that's available go further. Good luck with the historical economic problems! xx

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  3. Would require more than just a comment maybe a proper discussion over a cup of tea would be best?!!

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  4. Food for thought indeed CT. I think partly the cost has to be put into some form of perspective. £130K when first mentioned may indeed appear to be a high cost for saving something that many people may not of even heard of but hold on a moment, how much is £130K as a percentage when compared to the national debt, the price of developing nuclear weapons, the money handed over to illegal immigrants, the cost of the international space programme, or the cost of food wasted to mention but a few things, in fact as a percentage this amount of money is bugger all.
    There is also the ecological cost that you referred to m'dear. For far too long this species called mankind has been a parasite upon this living planet taking whatever it wanted and causing the extinction of countless species of flora and fauna to the detriment of the world we live in. Only now small numbers are realising that we are killing the very world and all its interconnected species that we depend upon for our very existence. With so much greed and lack of understanding, partly through being uneducated, re-addressing the balance is a difficult task and one that may not happen as perhaps we wont change fast enough?
    Bloody hell lass talk about getting me to stand upon a soap box! But this issue is one that makes my emotions run hot, I do what little I can and I'm slowly changing my lifestyle to be more 'environmentally friendly' but what price to save some furry little rodents? Our lives if we don't start now.
    John

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    1. I read your response with great interest, John. You make some really important points, not least of which that £130k is a drop in the ocean against the money routinely spent on other things. I suspect most of the lovely folks who read my blog are already wildlife people and I know how much you do to help your local wild things in Wales, so in a sense we are all already converted and don't begrudge the voles their protection, but I do wonder how this kind of money being spent on them will affect folks who don't have that connection or knowledge? And we need their support in the hearts and minds battle. It is all about education, as you say, something that is increasingly close to my own heart because I think that it is probably the only way we are going to turn things around for our wild friends.
      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, John, it is very much appreciated and not soap-boxy at all. Passion and hot emotions are sometimes needed!

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  5. What dear little creatures. Ratty, in "Wind in the Willows" comes to mind

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  6. You're absolutely right- Ratty from Wind in the Willows is a Water Vole :o)

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  7. I totally agree with John. The West spends millions nay billions on nuclear weapons every year. Weapons which can never be used. Why not spend money on the voles? Voles, anglers and other river and lake creatures are the watchdogs for future generations.

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    1. It's a question of perspective, isn't it? People need to start seeing wildlife as at least as important as, if not more so than, more traditional focuses for high expenditure. And that will only happen once folks realise that if the wild things die out, people won't be far behind. Many thanks for the comment, Dave- it's great to get everyone's views on this subject.

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  8. Big subject, big question. Can I pop round and spend the evening discussing with you! I think it is too big for me to answer, I don't know enough. But it seems ... so many conservation expenses seem to be on 'sticking plaster' activities, rather than tackling the fundamental source of the problem/issue. We have got to do something about our destruction of planet and start looking after and respecting our environment. Countries, counties, cities, towns, villages - each of us. Politics, greed, progress get in the way. Sometimes the plight of a small furry, that captures the imagination, is just what is needed to get action. To get a lot of people interested. Your sea-slug probably wouldn't get as much sympathy. YOU are brilliant because you are asking this question.

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    1. I wish we lived nearer, but then if we did I suspect not much work would get done. On the other hand, much putting the world to rights would occur!
      I agree about the sticking plaster analogy, but I also think you have to go through the processes of trying things out until you find what works best. Not convinced Government's have that in mind in their attitude, but I feel conservation organisations do.
      Getting the public on board is (I feel) the only way we're going to sort this mess out- getting people to change behaviour patterns in large numbers takes education and time. The plight of the water voles could well help with that, as long as folks really understand the ins and outs of the situation they face. You're so right about 'cute and fluffy' appeal. It shouldn't be that way, but it is and so we have to work with it. Thanks for your input- it really is great to get everyone's responses- it's helping me formulate thoughts about education and what matters for the future.

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  9. Not totally understanding all the in's and out's, but from my corner looking in I would say... We made the mess in the first place so we have to pay now to put it right, schools need to get the children out side the class room and educate them and the "agency" which ever part they play looking after the land right down to the insects, just ask for help from JO public, there are more people that want to help than they think some times....
    Amanda xx

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    1. I totally agree with your thoughts on engaging school children. Have spent quite a lot of time over the past year working with groups of primary aged kids engaging them on wildlife. The curriculum has almost entirely lost any wildlife content. Govt should be ashamed of that. I also agree- there is huge goodwill among the public to help, and with money tight and costs soaring we have to get better at tapping in to that help. Thanks for the comment- much appreciated. I am really touched that everyone has felt strongly enough to leave their thoughts on this subject xx

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  10. I speak very much as a lay person on this, and admit that I know little of the issues involved. However, I think that this is a very high cost, especially when there are people - such as yourself - who would actually like to be involved in this sort of work and would do it for free, or little charge. Then the costs would be the care and rehoming costs. The other thing that concerns me more than the money is the fact that these voles were moved elsewhere, they have not been returned to their original home. So now that area is without water voles. So although the voles have been saved, the ecology of the area is not the same as the voles are no longer on that river and will presumably take a very long time to return. Surely better to return them to their original home after the work has taken place? As I say, very much an outsiders view, but I feel that both the voles and volunteers could benefit by things being done differently. xx

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    1. Your voice is important precisely because of the lay person aspect. I am very interested in what people think who aren't involved in conservation, because, let's face it, they make up the majority. It's a valuable insight to me Amy, so thank you for taking the time to comment.
      I'm also very struck by what you say about the ecology of the area changing to the point it may no longer support water voles. It's an important point and one I come across all too often - habitats being changed on the basis that other places nearby can become a substitute home for a moved population. Instinctively, my attitude would always be pro-wildlife, but in this case when people's homes and livelihoods are concerned it isn't that straightforward, and I struggle with how you find a balance between those competing needs. xx

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  11. Hey CT,
    I agree with Amy. There are an army of wonderful people out there that would willingly give up their time, and therefore offset some of the cost of this particular project. I think it's fair that 'we' foot some of the bill, but it would also be good PR to demonstrate how economical it all could be. We live in lean times, and there are many that would scoff at the cost. I have to admit that it seems rather steep to me.
    Why haven't the voles been returned? That makes no sense at all.
    Another thought provoking post CT

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    1. It would be great if we could get to a point when volunteers were better used to reduce conservation costs. They are already, in less high profile projects. Many organisations rely on volunteers to get their everyday work done, but this particular case has hit the headlines because of the cost involved and I'm not sure how you prevent that kind of bad press happening in the future. Housing pressure makes building work more likely than ever, and the conflict with our wild things seems set to increase. It could all get quite depressing if you let it, BUT I have faith in the British public- we are a nation of animal lovers and with a little education I think we can turn all this around.
      I don't know why the voles haven't been returned for certain - will do some digging and see what I can discover and keep you posted. Much appreciate the comment and your thoughts xx

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  12. Hi I have read what you have written and read all the comments and really cannot add much more. The public need to be better informed so they can help not only this area but many others areas of conservation. This need more debate over coffee and cake!

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    1. Coffee and cake all round would definitely help diffuse potential tension between talks regarding finances and wildlife! I think we probably all have the same feeling on this Margaret- the voles deserved our help, but perhaps the money aspect should have been thought about more carefully before hand as the EA is perceived to be accountable to the public purse

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  13. In the Western Morning News I recently read that over 2,400 badgers have been massacred, it has cost us the tax payer over £15 million and none of the badgers were tested to see it they had TB. Now the fact that we are killing one wild native animal but saving another shows what a crazy situation we have. Lets face it, the only reason they have coughed up the money is because they had to, otherwise these beautiful and important animals would have been killed for convenience.

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    1. The fact that the badger cull is still going ahead astonishes me. The science is flawed, the costs have sky rocketed and the humane aspect doesn't bare thinking about. Add to that, badgers have their own law protecting them (1991) but that doesn't seem to matter when they clash with the needs of the food production industry. I understand that farming is crucial to this country, but there has to be a better way than this. Grrrr :o(

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  14. Complicated isn't it. I do wonder whether dredging is really the answer to the flooding. It might have a made a small difference, but I honestly think the damage we are causing to the environment is far more to blame. The media just jumped on the dredging story and made it seem like the perfect solution. I do think the voles should be saved, although it does seem like a lot of money. Again, the media will of course have a field day with it.

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    1. I wonder about dredging too- much of the flooding problem has come about because we've altered the countryside so fundamentally the water has no where to go. Folks live so disconnected to nature now that I think many people just don't understand how it all works, which brings us back to education. But I also have friends whose house was flooded last Feb and that was terrible for them, so I do understand the desire to take action to prevent it happening again. The headlines generated by the money spent on the voles are the real problem here I feel- they're not interested in explaining, they just want to focus on sensationalising. The sad part of that is that it's our innocent wildlife that will ultimately suffer. Thanks for the comment CJ- hugely appreciated xx

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  15. Great post and photos CT :) You did really well to see the water voles - when I used to do surveys, I saw field signs occasionally but never a vole. In fact, I haven't seen a water vole for donkey's years the last sighting was in the Cotswolds (in one of the Slaughter villages) many moons ago.

    I certainly don't think the money was wasted on the voles - directly or indirectly our species has caused the decline of this iconic mammal and expenditure by Govt on saving species and on conservation in general is woefully inadequate :( SeagullSuzie has mentioned the dreaded badger massacres. It cost over £5,000 per badger killed and, as we all know, independent scientists have said the slaughters are wrong and won't work. Its a pity those millions spent inhumanely and unscientifically killing badger wasn't put towards conserving some of our declining species.

    Better shut up for now as I am starting to get on my hobby horse yet again. Woe betide any Tory or Libdem candidate who comes knocking on my door!!!

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    1. I saw several last summer- am just hoping that wasn't my lot all in one go for the rest of my days! Such wonderful creatures, I could watch them for hours.

      I think the comparison with the badger cull is an important one that needs raising. A fortune spent and BTb still present. Grrrr :o(

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  16. Fascinating stuff - and all the comments really get you thinking. As a species we seem hell-bent on destroying our beautiful world, and I applaud the conservation efforts made for the voles, newts, butterflies... They are integral to the whole system. My MP has not one environmental commitment on her agenda - she won't be getting my vote. xxL

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    1. It's a good point about MPs. I wasn't sure about ours and didn't vote for her, but, having written her several conservation-related emails over the last couple of years and always received a personal reply back I have to admit she's done a good job. Perhaps a mixture of on the ball MPs and normal people's goodwill will win the day when it comes to looking after our wild things? At any rate, I am becoming more and more convinced that I should be working in education (conservation-related) when I have completed this degree. Thanks for the input Lil, much appreciated xx

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  17. Very, very, cool story! I especially appreciate your active engagement in solutions as a citizen scientist. Great story and pics. Thanks for this. :) Still winter over here :(

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    1. I think Citizen Science is one of the best things to come out of the digital age. Spring is taking its time to appear here too....

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  18. I'm a vegan, tree hugging ,retired wildlife rehabilitator..the vole gets my vote!
    Jane x

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    1. Mine too, but it's always interesting to read other perspectives. Hope the snow has eased with you now xx

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  19. I'm wondering - I don't know the answer - whether the professionals who did the job were employed by the EA and so would have been earning their salary whether they were moving water voles or doing some other work?

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    1. That's another good point. And £50-60 per hour for consultancy is cheap compared to some professions. We need to put wildlife on the same footing in terms of the value it is held in, and then these missing-the-point screaming headlines wouldn't happen.
      I was very struck by your piece about Jeremy Vine- how can you hope to chair a discussion when you have no working knowledge of the subject? And that point about the cat killing hundreds of voles was just absurd- presumably, no one on the programme realised there are three UK native vole species, all occupying different habitats and with different population demographics.

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  20. i just had to consult the Oracle of Google to compare your water voles with our muskrats -- they look very similar, but i see that our muskrats are quite a bit larger. [we always have a family living in our pond].

    anyway -- i'm in the you-broke-it-you-fix-it camp....the money is indeed a pittance compared to what's squandered in pursuit of other things. i also agree that it probably didn't need to be spent -- it seems wasteful government/bureaucracy spending is a universal thing! -- as you say, plenty of volunteers would have gladly stepped in to help.

    what i find frustrating in situations like this is that these really are stop-gap measures....the root of ecological damage is never really addressed -- well, it isn't here in Canada, anyway...

    oh dear...very soap-boxy issue for me, too...i'd best stop before i get more wound up...:O

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    1. Hi Mel,

      I've just had to google for Muskrats! They are related to water voles- both are in the subfamily Arvicolinae (containing voles, lemmings and muskrats). So I have learnt something new today- thank you :o) I'm envious you have a family in your pond :o)

      It is a small amount to spend when set against other expenditure and Kate (see her comment above yours) wrote a piece on her blog about the 55 voles actually ending up being far more than that when you take into account breeding (4 litters a year, 5 pups per litter) and all the interactions with other local voles that come from that, so perhaps the figure is misleading in more than one way. It was the reporting of it that nettled me- focusing on a screaming headline without bothering to research the facts. Typical newspapers :o(

      Over here in the UK we are trying to get to the root problem and efforts are afoot to change farming methods, move towards landscape scale ecology, restore connectivity between isolate habitats to strengthen movement between them etc. Hopefully, ecologists can share info and experience between countries and we can all help each other.

      It is a tough issue and an emotive one- I'm just so glad so many people care enough about it to get cross and on their soap-boxes!

      Many thanks for the comment :o)

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Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x