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A welcome return for the water vole; THE ANIMALS HAVE BEEN RELEASED IN KIELDER FOREST.

Byline: TONY HENDERSON Environment Editor tony.henderson@ncjmedia.com @hendrover

HUNDREDS of water voles were set free yesterday to begin the biggest reintroduction of the endangered species in one location in the UK.

The Kielder Water Vole Partnership released 325 captive bred water voles - Ratty in The Wind of the Willows - at eight waterway locations in Kielder Forest.

The Restoring Ratty project has set out to return the animals to the area after a 30-year absence, with a further 350 water voles due to be released in August.

The aim is to restore populations to the Kielder catchment of the North Tyne with a view to their eventual spread throughout western reaches of Northumberland. Restoring Ratty is a five-year partnership project between Northumberland Wildlife Trust, Forestry Commission England and Tyne Rivers Trust, backed by a grant of PS421,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Water voles have suffered a 94% drop in numbers since the 1960s, when they were a familiar sight in ditches, rivers and streams.

Field records indicate that water voles were widespread in Northumberland and County Durham. In 1906, records show them as being "common in all suitable habitats throughout the counties".

But they have been hit by a fatal mix of loss of habitat, pollution of waterways, industrialisation of agriculture, housing development and predation by American mink which bred after escaping from fur farms.

The Forestry Commission has improved the water vole habitat across Kielder, 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 favours water voles.

Surveys were also carried out by volunteers to ensure that the release areas were free of mink.

Kelly Hollings, Restoring Ratty project officer, said: "Water voles are an essential element of our wild and watery places. It's terribly sad to have witnessed such huge declines of this 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.

"It is a dream come true to be bringing back to Kielder something that has been lost for years. Water voles are 'waterway gardeners' - little engineers creating a habitat structure for other wildlife."

Mike Pratt, trust 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.

"We're improving habitats on our own nature reserves and working alongside a number of organisations and land owners to bring back water voles right across the county."

The first release was of water voles bred from individuals taken from stable populations in Scotland.

The second phase will be of young from voles taken from established North Pennines colonies along the River Allen, mainly between Allendale and Allenheads, late last summer.

Tom Dearnley, ecologist with the Forestry Commission, 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 and Forest Park.

"Thanks to the project officers, rangers, foresters and volunteers we will soon see water voles thriving in Kielder again."

Water voles excavate extensive burrow systems into the banks of waterways. They produce up to five litters per year, ranging from three to seven young.

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First release of water voles in Kielder

Coral Edgcumbe, Ecologist with Mike Pratt

Releasing the water voles. Photo by John Millard
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 16, 2017
Words:587
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