The largest water vole reintroduction to one place ever undertaken in the UK is now under way at Kielder.
The Kielder Water Vole Partnership is releasing 700 of the creatures in Kielder Forest – a vast area of 650 square kilometres – after a 30-year absence.
The first release of 325 water voles is taking place this week with a further 350 due to be released in August.
The aim is to restore populations of this endangered mammal to the Kielder catchment of the North Tyne with a view to their eventual spread throughout western reaches of Northumberland.
This project will reintroduce a much-loved British species – Ratty in Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic Wind in the Willows – to a key area which used to have thriving water vole populations up until the 1980s.
The water vole was once a common and familiar mammal, but habitat declines, pollution of waterways, industrialisation of agriculture, housing development and predation by American mink, which escaped from fur farms, have all led to severe declines since the 1960s.
The Forestry Commission has done much to improve the water vole habitat across Kielder Forest, leaving open areas next to water courses after felling, thus allowing banksides to have more light and a greater range of plants to grow, which is perfect for water voles.
Kelly Hollings, of Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s Restoring Ratty project, said: “Water voles belong here and are an essential element of our wild and watery places.
“It’s terribly sad to have witnessed such huge declines of this lovely mammal in my lifetime.
“We’re doing everything we can to help bring them back and we’re so grateful to all those who are supporting our work.”
The first release at Kielder Water & Forest Park is of water voles bred from individuals taken from stable populations over the border in Scotland, while the second will be the young from voles captured in the North Pennines in late summer 2016. The captured water voles spent the winter at the Derek Gow Consultancy in Devon (specialists in water vole conservancy) where they have been cared for and bred to provide large numbers of young.
Mike Pratt, Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s chief executive, said: “This is a historic day for everyone involved and it’s a good moment to reflect on the fantastic efforts and great work being done by volunteers and the Restoring Ratty partners to bring back this much-loved mammal. We’re improving habitats on our own nature reserves and working alongside a number of organisations and landowners to bring back water voles right across the county.”
Restoring Ratty is a five-year partnership project between Northumberland Wildlife Trust, Forestry Commission England and Tyne Rivers Trust, which been made possible by National Lottery players through a grant of £421,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).
Tom Dearnley, an ecologist with Forestry Commission England, said: “After several years of the three partners working closely together with the local community, we have created the perfect environment for water voles to be reintroduced in Kielder Water & Forest Park. Thanks to the project officers, rangers, foresters and volunteers we will soon see water voles thriving in Kielder again.”