Vanishing water voles win legal protection

The water vole, Britain's most rapidly declining mammal, is likely to be given full legal protection in the wild, the Government announced yesterday.

Famed as Ratty in Kenneth Grahame's novel The Wind In The Willows, the species has suffered a catastrophic decline in numbers over recent years because of habitat loss caused by riverside developments and pollution - but most of all by the spread of American mink.

The small, fierce predators, which escaped from fur farms in the 1950s and bred successfully, are good swimmers and can hunt water voles efficiently. Vole numbers fell in just seven years - from 1989 to 1996 - by more than 90 per cent from at least seven million to fewer than 900,000 individuals.

Launching a consultation paper on species protection yesterday, Ben Bradshaw, the Nature Conservation minister, said: "The water vole's habitat is currently listed but the water vole itself is not. Our proposals will protect this rare animal from persecution and help prevent further population losses."

The water vole was one of 11 species put forward by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) as a result of its fourth review of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The short-snouted and the spiny seahorses, two varieties of burnet moth, the angel shark, four species of skate and the roman snail should also be given special protection, the JNCC said.

Mr Bradshaw said: "We are recommending similar protection for other species as part of the Government's continuing commitment to conserve wildlife where its survival is at serious risk from human activity."

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