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?