A released water vole on the Neet riverbank. Phase two release of Westland Countryside Stewards water vole reintroduction project in Cornwall

Cornwall Water Vole Reintroduction

Phase 2: Supporting Water Vole Release. Sep 2013

water vole swimming away from the camera
A released water vole in the Bude river catchment

The second phase of the staged release of water voles into the Neet river catchment took place on 18th September 2013. After a delay due to bad weather, the 177 water voles (96 males and 81 females) scheduled for release finally left Derek Gow’s breeding facility near Lifton in North Devon on the journey to our land at Lower Cann Orchard between Marhamchurch and Stratton here in North Cornwall.

The departure of the voles was delayed slightly whilst they, together with Rebecca – Derek Gow’s invaluable facility manager – starred in an ITV Countrywise programme presented by Liz Bonnin. The original plan had been to film the voles being released at Cann Orchard but TV being TV there was no time to do the real thing so a release was simulated and filmed on land belonging to Derek Gow prior to their departure.

We are lucky to own about a mile of river bank along the river Neet at Lower Cann Orchard and this, together with an additional stretch made available by our neighbour Mr John Turner, was sufficient to release all the voles during the course of the afternoon. We had monitored for any presence of American mink prior to the release but thankfully none were found. The drastic decrease in the water vole population in England owes much to predation by mink that have either escaped or been released from mink farms before these facilities were banned in the UK back at the end of the 1980s.

water voles in a release cage, Bude, Cornwall water vole release
Water voles in a release cage

The voles were placed in family or mixed sex groups in wooden release cages that were positioned at 50 metre intervals along the river bank. The release process took five days. For the first three days the voles stayed penned in their cages and were fed a daily diet of apples and carrots. On the fourth day the release cages had “escape’ holes fitted to the cages that allowed the voles to come and go as they pleased – they were still fed apples and carrots for the remaining two days. At the end of the fifth day the cages were removed. In most cases the cages were empty as the voles had already left to find new homes along the river bank.

water vole feeding on riverside vegetation
A water vole feeding on riverside vegetation

The whole release process went very smoothly. The presence of a very large wasp nest at one of the release locations caused the team to take some special care but otherwise all went to plan. We shall continue to monitor the health of the voles though the winter and keep a very careful eye out for any mink that may appear in the Spring.  Listen out for the ‘plop’ as the water vole dives into the water, warning others and escaping into a bolt hole away from a potential predator.

A close up of a water vole latrine. Water vole poo is  a brown to green in colour and the same shape and size as a TicTac mint.
A water vole latrine

Further releases will happen next year as the water voles will now be going into their less active period over the winter of 2013/14.  However, signs can still be seen of their presence.  Droppings are 8-12mm long and blunt ended (like tic-tacs).   Colour can range from dark brown to olive depending on what they’ve been eating.

From Left to Right - Rebecca Northey (Derek Gow Consultancy), Chloe Wonnacott (Derek Gow Consultancy), Dennis Vanstone (Westland Countryside Stewards) and Shaun Thomas (Westland Countryside Stewards). They are standing around a water vole release cage and Rebecca is holding a water vole.
From Left to Right – Rebecca Northey (Derek Gow Consultancy), Chloe Wonnacott (Derek Gow Consultancy), Dennis Vanstone (Westland Countryside Stewards) and Shaun Thomas (Westland Countryside Stewards)

The Westland Countryside Stewards team assisting the release consisted of John Duncan, Dennis Vanstone and Shaun Thomas, whilst Rebecca Northey and Chloe Wonnacott supervised the release on behalf of Derek Gow Consultants.