Water voles reach South Downs in largest UK reintroduction programme

The most ambitious water vole reintroduction to be attempted in the UK will see the first 190 animals released within the South Downs National Park this June. This is the third year of a successful project to return ‘Ratty’ to the River Meon in Hampshire which has already seen the animals successfully breed on other release sites further down stream.

Once a common sight in the area, water voles were thought to have been extinct in the Meon Valley for at least five years. But thanks to a joint project led by the South Downs National Park Authority, the Environment Agency, Natural England and Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, the UK’s fastest declining mammal is now making a comeback.

The 190 water voles are being released near Soberton, and join 450 previously released at Titchfield Haven in 2013 and 600 released further upstream in 2014. Evidence, collected by a team of volunteers monitoring latrines, shows that they are breeding at every release site with some animals breeding 2km further upstream. One bold male has even been spotted 7km from the nearest release site.

Elaina Whittaker-Slark, a South Downs National Park Ranger, said:

“This is an ambitious project – the largest in the UK. We’re still in early days but it’s hopeful that in the future we’ll have water voles back and thriving, from the source in the heart of the South Downs National Park, its tributaries and along the length of the Meon Valley.

“There’s a bigger story here too, as water voles are an important part of the jigsaw that makes up a healthy river system.”

The latest release has been made possible by the Portsmouth Services Fly Fishing Association who manage the sites where the water voles will be released.

Matt Owen-Farmer, of Portsmouth Services Fly Fishing Association, said:

“It’s very exciting to have reached the stage where we can release water voles into the area. We’ve been working with the National Park Authority to bring the mink population under control and improve the habitat and we’re very happy to welcome our new residents.”

Adam Cave, a Biodiversity Technical Specialist at the Environment Agency, said: “Our rivers are the healthiest for 20 years, but we are doing even more to further improve water quality and biodiversity. A lot of hard work has gone into improving the quality of the river Meon and we’re very grateful to the local landowners, anglers and volunteers who are supporting the project. It’s great we are in a position to be able to return water vole to the Meon.”

Ali Morse, Water Policy & Projects Manager at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, said:

“Hampshire is a national stronghold for water voles and many rivers here have good populations but, despite huge efforts to control mink, water voles haven’t been able to return naturally to the Meon, so they need a little extra help. We’re very excited to be welcoming the Meon’s newest residents, and hope that they thrive in their new home.”

Charlotte Elliott, Hampshire Land Management Adviser for Natural England, said:

“Natural England is delighted to support our partners’ hard work in securing the future of the iconic water vole in good quality habitat along the Meon valley.”

Water vole populations across the country have suffered in the past because of habitat loss, pollution and predation by non-native American mink. The National Park Authority and partners have worked closely with landowners, anglers and other local residents – following extensive research and surveys to improve the quality of the habitat which will also benefit the river ecosystem as a whole.