Did you know that the Water Vole – the once common and now endangered small mammal, best known as Ratty in Kenneth Grahame’s ‘Wind in the Willows’ (even though it is definitely NOT a rat), has one of its remaining strongholds on Teesside.
Middlesbrough’s becks in particular, despite often being full of rubbish, hold populations on this cute little beast.
Mark Slaughter, Naturally Native Project Officer for the Tees Valley Wildlife Trust, says, “Water Voles are managing to hang on at some sites in Middlesbrough and Stockton, and at the Wildlife Trust we are doing our best to improve the situation through habitat enhancements and management of Mink, an introduced predator.”
Water Voles used to be extremely common all over England, Wales and much of Scotland but they started declining several decades ago due to two causes – habitat loss (largely by the urbanisation of floodplains) and predation by the introduced American Mink. Minks were brought to this country to be farmed for fur but they started escaping almost immediately and by the 1950s they were established in the wild. Minks are voracious predators, small enough to fit into a Water Vole burrow and the poor voles had no defence against them. A single female Mink can wipe out whole colonies of Water Voles very quickly. As populations became more isolated from each other, loss of genetic diversity in small, fragmented populations may have also played a role in accelerating the decline, as may pollution of waterways.
Although some populations of Water Voles do live away from water, especially in mainland Europe, most of our UK populations require slow-moving waterways or ponds with grassy banks rich in the many different plant species on which they feed.
In Middlesbrough, some of the Becks which run through the town hold good populations of Water Voles and initiatives such as Green Shoots and the Wildlife Trust’s projects, are working to increase the amount of habitat which is managed with these animals in mind, and to raise awareness among the people who live near the becks. Many people in these areas, such as Pallister Park and Berwick Hills in east Middlesbrough have no idea that they have such a special, endangered animal living in their midst, and if they ever catch a glimpse of one (a hard thing to do as they are very shy) they are likely to dismiss it as ‘another rat’.
Water Voles are NOT rats though – they are in a completely different group of rodents and, unlike rats, are strict vegetarians. Their blunt noses, dark fur and almost invisible ears distinguish them from Brown Rats (our common rat species).
So next time you are walking along one of Boro’s Becks, keep your eyes peeled and your ears open. Even if you aren’t lucky enough to see this beautiful creature, you might hear the distinctive ‘plop’ of a Water Vole that saw you before you saw it.