Water voles, which were once extinct in the Meon Valley in Hampshire, are now thriving again on the river and its tributaries following a five-year project to reintroduce the animal which inspired the character Ratty in Wind in the Willows.
The first water voles were released at Titchfield Haven, managed by Hampshire County Council, in 2013 as part of an ambitious project to reintroduce them to the river. Five years and 2,548 water voles later there are clear signs that the animals are thriving on early release sites and breeding on all eleven release sites as well as five additional self-colonised sites. The final water voles will be released this August at new sites at Frogmore, East Meon and Riplington, with additional animals also released at a self-populated colony at Meonstoke. Once a common sight in the Meon Valley, water voles are thought to have become locally-extinct by 2008. The plan to bring them back, all the way from the mouth of the river on the south coast to the its source, has been the largest-scale water vole release ever attempted in the country.
Elaina Whittaker-Slark, manages the water vole project as Lead Ranger for South Downs National Park Authority, said: “This project ticks every box for why the South Downs became a National Park – bringing volunteers, landowners and the local community together to care for landscapes and support wildlife. The Meon’s river system just didn’t function properly without water voles. Now it can.”
The water voles are monitored by a team of dedicated volunteers and landowners who survey floating platforms for latrines – piles of droppings that are patted down and scent marked to mark a breeding female’s territory. This is a non-invasive and cost-effective way to monitors the minimum health of the population and it is likely that other breeding females have further latrines away from the floats.
The Meon Valley water vole project is a partnership between the South Downs National Park Authority, the Environment Agency, Natural England, the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust and Hampshire County Council who are all part of the Meon Valley Partnership.