Hundreds of people in Whitchurch live in houses that back onto or directly face the brook, so our survey group has been busy distributing these information leaflets round the town. The leaflets detail what to look for - how to tell a vole from a rat, the obvious field signs - but they also tell householders what to do to help water voles.
If you're lucky enough to live near voles, here's a summary of what you can do to make their lives easier:
- Got a cat? Put a blooming big bell on its collar.
- Remove any rubbish including garden waste which might stop plants growing on the banks.
- Cut back overhanging branches from trees and shrubs, for the same reason.
- Leave plants near the water's edge uncut, and never use pesticide near the water or on the banks. In late summer, carefully trim back the vegetation on the banks to a height of about 10-15cm.
- Avoid walking on the bank near the water's edge in case you damage burrows.
- You can also plant things that water voles love: crab-apple, dogrose, gooseberry, flag iris.
The leaflet reminds us that 'corridors' are vital to maintaining a healthy population of water voles; colonies need to interbreed to keep gene stock strong. So even an unpromising-looking ditch can be a vital trackway connecting two groups of voles. And not all habitat will be in use at any one time, so even if there are no signs of water voles now, that doesn't mean there won't be in the future. They do move about (studies show an average of a mile).
Finally, report all sightings of water voles and mink to your local wildlife trust so they can get them on record. Ten years ago some environmentalists were saying that water voles would be extinct by the beginning of the 21st Century, and we're not out of the woods yet. But lots of people all working together can make a tremendous difference.