Ratty gets protection for his home on the riverbank

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The Independent Online
The water vole, the misleadingly named "Ratty" of Wind in the Willows, was yesterday given a little assistance in its struggle for survival against the predatory American mink.

Under proposals announced by John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, it will become an offence to disturb the water vole's riverbank home or places where it shelters.

The water vole, or water rat in Kenneth Grahame's classic, is among 33 animals and plants recommended for addition to the list of species afforded special protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Other additions include the basking shark, pool frog, stag beetle and the bluebell.

An inoffensive vegetarian, the water vole is not rare. Its population was recently put at 1.2 million. But its range and numbers are in rapid decline. A national survey in 1989-90 failed to find signs of voles at 67 per cent of the riverside sites where they were previously recorded.

The decline is partly due to destruction of its habitat by riverbank repairs, wash from boats and disturbance by people on waterside paths. Pollution may also be a factor.

The beleaguered vole also has to contend with the American mink, a voracious predator imported for fur farming and now spreading in the wild.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), on whose recommendations Mr Gummer proposes to act, believes protection of the water vole's habitat should give it a better chance of competing with the mink. The penalty for disturbing "Ratty's" home or places where it shelters will be a fine of up to pounds 1,000.

Conservationists will also welcome the extension of protection to basking sharks. Found off the Isle of Man and the Scottish coast, they are said to be under threat from fishing.

Action is also being taken to ensure that the springtime sight of woods carpeted in bluebells does not become a memory. Bluebells are endangered in some areas where bulbs have been dug up for sale in garden centres. In future it will be illegal to dig up bulbs except where the plant is "farmed".

The stag beetle, which now gains protection, is Britain's second largest insect. A prehistoric-looking brute, its name derives from its huge antler- like jaw extensions. However its food supply has dwindled as rotting wood has been tidied up from parks and copses.

For one species, the JNCC judge protection is no longer necessary. The vipers bugloss moth is to be removed from the endangered list.