New report points to 30% decline in water vole distribution

Posted on 26th February 2018

National treasure ‘Ratty’ needs urgent help to survive


A new analysis of data collected over ten years by a network of experts led by The Wildlife Trusts has revealed that water vole distribution has declined dramatically. There has been a 30% decline in the places where these river mammals once lived across England and Wales during the survey period 2006 – 2015.* While the new analysis reveals a slight increase in distribution in recent years – thanks to some successful conservation efforts by The Wildlife Trusts and others – the full data covering the whole ten years paints a bleak picture.

Great conservation efforts have been made to ensure a future for this mammal: The Wildlife Trusts and many other individuals and groups carry out river restoration and reintroductions of water voles across the UK.  At a local level, these projects appear to have been successful; however, these successes are not enough to reverse the national distribution trends.

Habitat loss, water pollution and built development have led to massive declines in the number of water voles since the 1960s – this has been exacerbated by predation by North American mink which were introduced to Britain for fur farming in the twentieth century.  The water vole is the UK’s most rapidly declining mammal and has been lost from 94% of places where they were once prevalent.* The latest data revealing a ten year decline of 30% shows an ever-worsening situation: their range is continuing to contract.

Ellie Brodie, Senior Policy Manager for The Wildlife Trusts, says:

“Water voles are an essential part of our wild and watery places and it’s terribly sad that we’re continuing to witness huge declines of this much-loved mammal. The Wildlife Trusts and others are working hard to help bring them back again and care for the places that they need to survive – but much more is needed if we’re going to stop this charismatic creature disappearing altogether.”

Tees Valley Wildlife Trust are looking to repeat their 2014 survey in the near future when Friends groups, volunteers and staff took part in the surveys in the local authority areas of the Tees Valley.  All sites that were previously designated as positive water vole sites were surveyed, with varying results. The becks in Middlesbrough (Middle Beck, Marton West Beck, Ormesby Beck, Spencer Beck and Bluebell Beck) were the best sites in the area. Although this accolade remains today, Bluebell beck found no conclusive signs but water voles were recorded in the new realignment section of Ormesby Beck. Over in Stockton there was mixed results, Hartburn Beck had maintained its strong population of water voles even though the beck suffers from dramatic level rises during heavy rainfall. Lustrum beck however has had no signs or sightings this year. More research needs to be carried out in order to assess the reasons for this decline. Otter spraint was found during the Lustrum and Bluebell Beck survey; although more research is needed, possible predation from the otter is a possibility. Greens Beck also recorded positive with a sighting during the survey, and other field signs were also found. There were very disappointing results for the Hartlepool surveys, with the exception of Saltholme, all of the surveys came up negative. In Darlington there were again mixed results, with Baydale Beck proving the only positive site. Previous positive sites in Redcar and Cleveland have now disappeared, meaning there are no more positive sites in the Redcar and Cleveland area.

The Wildlife Trusts are calling for:

  • Government and Local Authorities to enable the creation of a Nature Recovery Network, as set out in the Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment. A Nature Recovery Network should be underpinned by a new Environment Act to protect, link and create areas of habitat which help wildlife move and spread out, benefitting water voles and a range of other wildlife. Funding should be increased to expand water vole conservation efforts including for landscape-scale restoration schemes.
  • Landowners to manage river bank habitat sympathetically to help water voles, e.g. provide generous buffer strips to provide shelter and feeding areas; create soft edges to river banks for water voles to create burrows in, and avoid using heavy machinery close to the edge of watercourses.
  • People to find out about opportunities to help survey water voles or manage riverside habitat with local Wildlife Trusts and other groups involved in water vole conservation.

Water voles used to be regularly seen and heard along ditches, streams and rivers across the UK. A creature which burrows in banks and feeds on reeds and grass, the water vole was a lead character, known as Ratty, in Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic Wind in the Willows. Water voles are ecosystem engineers – their burrowing and feeding behaviour along the edges of watercourses creates the conditions for other animals and plants to thrive. Kingfishers, for example, often use water vole excavations for nests.

Have you seen a water vole or an otter? If so please let us know we are always interested in sighting by members of the public. We are also organising a an Otter Survey this spring and if you would like to get involved we are running a training course on the 8th April more details can be found at or by contacting the Trust on 01287636382 or

See for details of how people can help water voles.