Oda Dijksterhuis and Paul Wilkinson from our environment team have been looking at how one of our rarest mammals, the water vole, may have been affected by the recent flooding.
The water vole is an important part of our natural heritage of the UK, whose ancestor was present at least 500,000 years before ‘Wind in the Willows’ was written. Once a common sight and ‘plop’ sound, the water vole has now declined by up to 95% from its former habitats.
Water vole numbers naturally fluctuate depending on predation, our weather and disturbance to their habitats. The rapid decline in recent years has been attributed to the North American mink, the development of waterway banks and the over grazing or mowing of reed fringes and grassy banks.
Recently there have been some positive signs of local water vole numbers being maintained at a few canal locations, such as the Ashby Canal, Kennet & Avon Canal and the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal.
This winter has been particularly wet and tough for both people and wildlife. Although water voles are of course very adapt in their watery environment and use to periodic flooding, the sheer force and scale of this winter’s floods will undoubtedly have affected even the hardiest of waterway species. The recent high water levels will have washed away water vole burrows and reed fringe, and the sheer force of water would have displaced many a vole, leaving them vulnerable to predation or environmental stress leading to their premature deaths.
The amazing engineering of our canals often means that water levels fluctuate far less than some of our other waterways and rivers, creating a relatively stable environment during winter floods and providing a stable space for water voles to carry on their business along vegetated banks.
Despite the fact that we are heading towards the wettest and warmest winter on record, water voles on the canals that escaped the flooding may have done relatively well this winter, it is only when they become more visibly active during the end of spring that we shall know.
The protection of our reedy canal banks has never been more important in order to make sure these wonderful waterside mammals remain a feature of our precious canal network.
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