Returning Ratty to the riverbank

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IT was one of those moving wildlife encounters that, unless you’re David Attenborough, doesn’t come along every day.

The sight of a water vole swimming for all it was worth from one side of a 20 ft pond to the other is an experience that no bystander was likely to forget.

Indeed, the assembled press corps and conservationists might have done well to have had a flutter on the little mammal’s first bid for freedom.

Would he stop for breath at the island en route to the far bank, as it looked as though he might, or take on what was probably the rodent equivalent of a Channel crossing?

Ratty certainly would have defied all odds as he propelled himself unwaveringly to the furthest shore to hide from the cameras amongst the reeds.

This particular chap had been chosen as the ‘media representative’ of around 320 water voles that were released throughout last week around the tributaries of the Kielder Burn – the vanguard of what will be the largest reintroduction of the species ever undertaken in the UK.

A further 380 will join them in August.

It certainly felt like history was being made as it’s three whole decades since a water vole sighting was reported in this wild and beautiful landscape.

Humans were ultimately to blame for their demise – through the introduction of American mink, which escaped from fur farms to predate the voles, and planting commercial timber too close to waterways – and here we were, restoring Ratty to his rightful home.

The Forestry Commission has done much to improve the water vole habitat across Kielder Forest, leaving open areas next to water courses after felling, thus allowing banksides to have more light, allowing a greater range of plants to grow – perfect for water voles.

Indeed, it’s been a particular triumph for the three conservation agencies involved – the Forestry Commission, the Tyne Rivers Trust and the Northumberland Wildlife Trust – which have worked so well collaboratively to bring back this much-loved species.

And for Wildlife Trust volunteers like Mel Rockett, of Broomley, it was a satisfying culmination of a four-year commitment to the Restoring Ratty project.

“It’s wonderful,” said Mel. “It’s such a rewarding thing seeing and handling water voles, and putting them out has been great.

“It’s been an ideal week to do this because it’s not too hot, which the water voles don’t like, and it’s not been raining much, so the volunteers haven’t been subjected to Kielder midgies!”

The Courant last met up with Mel last autumn when he was out with Kelly Hollings, one of the NWT’s Restoring Ratty project officers, and professional ‘vole catchers’ from Derek Gow’s Devon- based breeding facility.

They were collecting Northumbrian water voles from a North Pennines AONB site on the River Allen, near Ropehaugh, to send down to Derek, the UK’s only licensed vole breeder.

Earlier in the project, Mel had also been involved in mink monitoring around Kielder Water and Forest Park that helped establish that mink were no longer a clear and present danger.

His next job will be to monitor the progress of the reintroduced water voles.

The new arrivals are ‘McRattys’ – bred from a batch taken from the Trossachs, whilst the next pioneers coming up in August from Devon are the offspring of the North Pennines water voles collected last year.

Derek says that it’s important to have as wide a gene pool as possible, and after leaving Kielder last week, he was going to North Yorkshire to discuss the possibility of adding some ‘tykes’ to the Kielder pioneers further down the line.

“The water voles should do really well here. The habitat is simply splendid. In environments that are similar to this, such as the Duchray Valley, we’ve had a lot of success. When you put them in, they rapidly find the old burrows their predecessors used to use and they do astonishingly well.

“What is critical is that we have as broad a gene base for this population as we can, as we now know they won’t breed with animals they are related to.”

The success of the Kielder reintroduction will be judged on how far the population spreads, rather than on strict scientific numbers. “The Aberfoyle population which was put in in 2007 has spread out to occupy about 22 square miles of habitat,” said Derek.

“The Forestry Commission has been absolutely brilliant in creating these open, sunny corridors. The water courses used to be overshaded, but over the last few years, they have completely changed policy and that has had a huge effect as far as biodiversity is concerned.”

The aim is to restore populations of this endangered mammal to the Kielder catchment of the North Tyne with a view to their eventual spread throughout western reaches of Northumberland.

Although the animal we watched swim across the pond was dropped from a holding pen directly into the water – in what is known as a ‘hard release’, the majority were in ‘soft release’ pens and could take their time becoming accustomed to their new environment.

As Kelly explained: “They have heaps of straw and they are either in sibling groups of five or six or in pairs, and the plan is that if they are in pairs, when we release them, the female goes out pregnant.

“The soft release pens are in situ for five days and they’re fed on carrot and sweet apple during that time. On the sixth day, a baffle (a piece of wood with holes in) is placed in one end of their pens so they can come and go as they please and this will help them get used to their new home.”

Of course, once out in the open, they are under threat from predators.

“They’re right at the bottom of the food chain,” Kelly said. “We have positioned them next to really thick vegetation but they are going to be under threat from everything – tawny owls, foxes, stoats, herons to name just a few.”

Luckily water voles are excellent breeders and have five litters per year, with three to seven young in each litter.

Chief executive of Northumberland Wildlife Trust Mike Pratt said after this initial release: “We have had a historic moment.

“We have reintroduced water voles back into this part of Northumberland, which is fantastic after 30 years’ absence and perhaps even more in some areas.

“It’s fantastic for conservation and our whole area. We have been trying to make this happen for a very long time and today was incredibly satisfying for all concerned.

“Isn’t it great for once to be able to reflect on a positive wildlife story? It’s really something to celebrate.”

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