Water voles are to be protected from being killed or taken from the wild under plans announced by the Government.
The small rodent, whose population has declined by 90 per cent in 20 years, will join other species including otters, angel sharks, roman snails and certain types of seahorses in being protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.
Joan Ruddock, the biodiversity minister, made the announcement yesterday and said that, although she had seen many a water vole in her youth, it had been years since she last saw the creature. It tends to live by streams and rivers.
In 1990 it was estimated there were seven million water voles in Britain. But by 1998 this figure had fallen to one million and it has continued to fall since, the Wildlife Trust said.
From 6 April it will be illegal to possess or sell water voles, the seahorses and edible snails. The last have been in decline as more are caught for consumption. Habitat loss and a feral American mink population that preys on the vole have aided a reduction in their population.
Funding will be given to projects which reintroduce the water vole and control mink populations. This, combined with the new protection proposals, which will seek to curb development in areas preferred by the creatures, will serve to stem its population decline, Ms Ruddock said.
Speaking on a visit to the London Wetlands Centre in Barnes, south-west London, the minister said: "In recent decades we've had a huge amount of development along water banks and, because the water vole was so prolific, people didn't take any notice or think they were progressively destroying the habitat of the water vole."
Alastair Driver, the national conservation manager for the Environment Agency, praised the moves as a "milestone" in the conservation of the water vole. "We had examples of persecutions such as kids shooting them with air rifles and people controlling them on river banks, as well as accidental poisoning by pest controllers," he said.
Water voles will be given the same protection afforded to animals such as the otter and grass snake following advice given to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.
There are around 460 water voles at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust's wetlands centre in Barnes. They have been bred for release under a conservation programme run by the Wildwood Trust, based in Canterbury, Kent.
Stephanie Hilborne, of The Wildlife Trust, welcomed the news. "This excellent news will undoubtedly help our efforts to bring the water vole back from the brink," she said.
"Full legal protection should ensure that remaining water vole populations are not compromised during development works and that incidents of trapping and persecution do not go unpunished."
The character "Ratty" in Kenneth Grahame's much-loved 1908 book The Wind in the Willows, was a water vole.Reuse content