Conservationists are working on a plan which could result in water voles being returned to 62,000 hectare (155,000 acre) Kielder Water & Forest Park.
The endangered species - made famous through the Ratty character in the Wind in the Willows children's story - was once a familiar sight in the Northumberland forest until predatory mink invaded its stronghold and wiped out the population. The last local sightings of water vole go back to the 1970s.
Now the Forestry Commission has linked up with the Northumberland Wildlife Trust and Tyne Rivers Trust to devise a two year project to survey the forest to see if mink remain and to look for traces of lingering water vole populations. Initial discussions have been held with the Heritage Fund about potentially funding the work.
Mink numbers at Kielder are now thought to be very low with few being spotted by rangers in recent years. One reason for their decline may be the expanding otter population as the two species do not co-exist, although no one knows the mechanics of the frosty relationship.
Tom Dearnley, Forestry Commission Ecologist, explained:
"Areas like Kielder Burn and the North Tyne are good water vole habitats so we have a two part plan which will hopefully see them return to former haunts. First we need to establish whether any mink remain as this was the reason for their previous decline. That is what this initial project is all about. Then we can look to a future scheme which would see wild water voles relocated to Kielder as part of a wider North East reintroduction project. Kielder offers suitable havens for a huge range of wildlife, from ospreys to wild goats. Water voles have suffered big declines across England, so returning them to the forest is something we are extremely keen to see happen."
If the projects gains funding the survey will search for mink through sightings, droppings and using floating rafts which mink climb aboard to investigate, leaving behind tell-tale footprints.
Steve Lowe, from the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, added:
"It's also vital we work with landowners so we can collate signs of mink in the wider area and so we can survey as far downstream as possible. We have set the scene by doing botanical surveys and landscape modelling and we know that the area still offers suitable habitat with good water quality and grassy riverside edges where voles can feed. A similar project has been undertaken in the Cairngorms, which like Kielder saw its water voles decimated by mink. Here the creature has made an impressive come-back so that is very encouraging. If we do get to the release stage we know from tests on North East water voles that they share similar DNA to past populations so animals relocated to Kielder will be the same genetic strain has those driven out by mink."
Note to Editor
1. Water Vole Fact File
• Water voles are legally protected in Britain and recent evidence indicates they have undergone a long term decline in Britain. They have disappeared from 94% of their former sites. On average, water voles only live about five months in the wild. They eat grasses and waterside vegetation.
• The water vole is Europe’s largest native vole and has a rich, silky, yellowish-brown to dark brown coat, a blunt nose, a rounded body and a long hairy tail. It is often confused with the brown rat, which is slightly larger and has a pointed nose and a shorter, naked tail.
• Water voles excavate extensive burrow systems in the banks of waterways and will have up to five litters per year, ranging from three to seven young.
2. The Forestry Commission is the government department responsible in England for protecting, expanding and promoting the sustainable management of woods and forests and increasing their value to society and the environment. Forestry makes a real contribution to sustainable development, providing social and environmental benefits arising from planting and managing attractive, as well as productive, woodlands. For more visit www.forestry.gov.uk/NorthEastEngland
3. Media calls to Richard Darn on 0775 367 0038.
Kielder Water & Forest Park is the ultimate outdoor playground that everyone can enjoy.