Ratty, alias vole No.69CB, starts fightback

First results of captive breeding programme to save Britain's threatened water voles are released into the wild
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The Independent Online

Think of it as Ratty's Return. Water voles, Britain's most threatened animals, were put back into the wild yesterday at the outset of an ambitious attempt to reverse the 20-year decline that has taken them to the brink of extinction.

Think of it as Ratty's Return. Water voles, Britain's most threatened animals, were put back into the wild yesterday at the outset of an ambitious attempt to reverse the 20-year decline that has taken them to the brink of extinction.

The animal immortalised as Ratty in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows has disappeared from 90 per cent or more of its range, mainly because of predation by American mink, which have become established in Britain over the past 50 years after escapes from fur farms.

But yesterday, the Environment Agency began the process of renewing Britain's water vole population by releasing the first of 30 captive-bred animals into the wild at a secret wetland site in Oxfordshire.

Captive-breeding is a technique associated more with the conservation of spectacular beasts such as the Arabian oryx, the magnificent long-horned antelope that was hunted to near-extinction in the Seventies but is now flourishing in the Saudi desert once again thanks to an international breeding programme involving several zoos, including London. Yet it might also be a last lifeline for Ratty.

When the water voles' plight was realised a few years ago, a breeding programme was quietly set up involving several zoos including Bristol, Marwell and Blackpool, and this has now produced more than 200 animals.

The Environment Agency will be making a number ofreleases of them this year, in collaboration with British Waterways (the canals authority) and the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University. The animals will all be radio-tagged, tracked and monitored for two years in the hope that they can establish selfsustaining wild colonies.

Yesterday, on the bank of his new Oxfordshire home, Ratty - actually vole number 0005FC/69CB, the first one to be released - looked bemused, in his bright-eyed way, as he was fitted with a radio collar by Rob Strachan, an Oxford zoologist who was joint author of the two surveys that in 1990 and 1998 uncovered the remarkable extent of the animal's disappearance from its former haunts.

The vole was then placed in a loose pen on the water's edge, which he will very soon dig his way out of, to wander freely up and down the network of ditches and drains where his fellows are also being let out.

Captive breeding and release was "a last-ditch effort", Mr Strachan said, because the population decline was so rapid. Two years ago it was estimated at 88 per cent and by now was probably greater than 90.

But Alastair Driver from the Environment Agency, the man co-ordinating the recovery project nationally, said he was confident that with the release programme the fall in population could be halted. "It is a massive decline, 90 per cent over 15 years, it's staggering, worse than tigers or rhinos," he said. "But I think it can definitely be reversed."

Release of captive-bred animals was a necessary component of the project because the voles had disappeared from such huge stretches of countryside, and were sedentary creatures anyway. "It would be tens of years, perhaps 100 years, before they re-colonised these areas by themselves," he said. "It would take for ever. It just wouldn't happen quickly enough. With the otter, we have concentrated on habitat enhancement because otters have very big ranges, over many miles, and will naturally go into new areas. But voles tend to stay where they are."

Wild water voles are not being translocated to areas that have lost them because there are simply not enough of them.

The captive-breeding programme is being co-ordinated by Mike Jordan, a lecturer in wildlife management at Sparsholt College, Winchester, on behalf of the Zoo Federation.

"A lot of people don't realise we also run captive-breeding programmes for smaller, less glamorous species," he said, adding that after five years the breeding programme for water voles was now well established.

Voles could produce up to five litters a year with five or six babies, so one animal could father 30 offspring in a season, but the high productivity was necessary, Mr Jordan said, because mortality was also very high. "About seven out of ten animals will die every winter, and they don't survive beyond their third year," he said.

Feral mink remain the vole's greatest threat, Mr Driver said, and a successful recovery programme would have to involve mink control. "We are not looking to eradicate mink nationally, everywhere in the British Isles, but we think targeted control is necessary," he said. "We are encouraging landowners who have water voles on their land to control the mink."

* The Environment Agency's work with the water vole and with 38 other threatened species will be highlighted in its report, Focus on Bio-Diversity, to be published on Thursday.