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Reintroducing Water Voles; Britain's Fastest Declining Mammal!

REINTRODUCING WATER VOLES, BRITAIN’S FASTEST DECLINING MAMMAL! The water vole is known as Britain’s fastest declining mammal. In this video, I headed down to Devon to meet with Derek Gow, the man who set up the largest water vole breeding facility / water vole monitoring programme in the whole of the UK and who has been working tirelessly to breed water voles, reintroduce them, and take action on the dream of rewilding Britain.

To watch the video, head to the following link:

Or, if you prefer reading, here is the transcript:

Today we've headed to meet Derek Gow, a specialist in water vole conservation, who built the largest breeding facility for them in the whole of the uk. Water voles were once a super common mammal to see here in England, inhabiting virtually all of the freshwater landscapes. However, due to us depleting their habitats and introducing the non-native American mink, their numbers have declined by over 90%, making them the fastest declining mammal in the whole of Britain. But with the help of Derek Gow, there is hope that we can bring them back from the brink of extinction in one of the many efforts to help rewild Britain.

Water voles are is one of the largest rodent species there is now left in Britain. Quite typically an adult male water vole can weigh maybe 340 to 320 grams. They're the same size as a brown rat, but even though they're called water rats, they're shaped like mini beavers: so they have a very very round face, small small ears, which are very hairy that lines the sides of their heads.

Behind me here are the enclosures where they keep the water voles and this is where they breed them as well and it's really important that they mix them up and create a really diverse gene pool so that the population that they release back into the wild is viable for many years to come.

Why water vole specifically? What is it that drew you to them?

So, one of my earliest wildlife memories is of fishing for minnows in an amber stream in, um probably near Cooper Angus, with my brother when we were both very little and there was a pair of water voles fighting with each other, because they're quite a belligerent species, and knocking each other down from the bank above us into the stream right in front of where our nets were. Um and we got a significant fright, I think we ran back to the caravan and cried and um and that's, yeah, it's the first thing I can remember of wildlife at all. So it must have been, I don't know, you know six or seven at the time it happened.

Did that inspire me to work with them? No, it didn't! I started to work with them some quarter a century ago when I was charged at the time with setting up a breeding centre for another project and that breeding centre was focused on a range of animals which the husbandry of which people did not understand like water voles or water shrews. At that time, in the early 1990s, we were just beginning to understand how rare the species had become and how desperate its plight was, so I became involved in a process that looked at whether we could captive breed them, and if we could captive breed them, could we reintroduce them?

What have we achieved? Well, we've released 25,000 plus water voles in the time that I've worked with them! We have not saved the species from from extinction. We certainly learned a lot about what can be done, and how robust the species is, and how quickly it can recover if you release enough animals drawn from a broad enough gene pool. But the fact of the matter is that both the habitat the species seeks, which are these open sunny bankside edges to rivers or streams, and indeed the wild living species itself has continued to degrade and decline. So, for example, in 2002 there was an estimate done which suggested that the national population, having suffered a 97 percent decline already in its range, numbers somewhere in the region of 1.2 million. The most recent national estimate is they're now about 130,000 so they're slipping, not slowly, they're hurtling rapidly from this landscape.

In terms of rewilding Britain, do you think we have hope? So, I mean you know it's about what you can do in this life, in the time when you're still standing and breathing and living, you know, to ensure that this earth is not something that's just destroyed and flogged to death and that there is a there are options for other life that remain when you have passed.

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