The race to save water voles in the North York Moors National Park

Among the banks of slow-moving rivers, ditches, lakes – you may find a small mammal.

There is ongoing work to save water voles in the North York Moors National Park

Quiet. Elusive. Its fleeting presence in the landscape is recognised by few and spends most of the day chewing on vegetation.

If you were to catch a glimpse you may notice its small dark eyes peering out between the grasses – a mindful stare into a world far larger than itself.

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You may also have time to peer at its chestnut-brown fur before it quickly disappears into the water – beyond all sight.

This creature is the water vole and is sadly now recognised as one of Britain’s fastest declining wild mammals largely impacted by loss of habitat and the introduction of American mink.

Efforts are, however, being made to save it and this includes staff at the North York Moors National Park Authority, alongside other organisations such as the Forestry Commission, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, Environment Agency, RAF Fylingdales and National Trust, together with various estates across the North York Moors.

I joined Sam Newton, natural heritage officer for the North York Moors National Park, to learn more.

We set off through the meandering landscape of Langdale End before arriving at a spring in Langdale Forest.

It was a bright day and the sun’s light had a sharp, piercing quality that exposed many acres far into the distance.

I wandered behind Sam listening intently to every word. It was quite clear that he was a determined individual committed to making a positive change to the landscape.

When I asked why he was so driven to take such actions, he simply replied: “I just want to make a difference”.

Even in his spare time he leads volunteering groups to monitor and protect wildlife populations across the National Park.

As we wandered along the bank he pointed out the key signs to notice if water voles were about or not.

This included small piles of grass stems cut at a distinctive 45-degree angle, tiny footprints and recent droppings.

He also talked about some of the efforts he and the National Park were taking to help water vole populations.

This included the felling of conifer trees along banks to allow more light through, which will encourage more suitable vegetation to grow for water voles to feed on.

The creation and expansion of more suitable habitat will also help reconnect isolated populations and reduce the negative impacts of inbreeding.

Much of the work on the North York Moors is concentrated in the south-east of the National Park on the Langdale Forest Project and on Fylingdales and Lockton High Moors.

Conifer trees have been felled, impenetrable scrub cleared to let in more light and encourage suitable vegetation and ditches have been dug within marshes to create linear pools with slow moving water and muddy bottoms.

The work to restore upland peatlands will also benefit water voles.

Woodland and moorland are not typically where you would expect to find water voles but in the North York Moors and elsewhere this is increasingly where populations of this shy rodent are being discovered due in part to the loss of their preferred lowland river and wetland habitats.

There are also a number of mammal monitoring rafts on watercourses downstream from known water vole populations.

A wooden ‘tunnel’ on these simple structures contains a tray with wet clay to capture the footprints of any inquisitive visitors.

The rafts are monitored on a regular basis by the National Park Authority’s volunteers who’ve been trained to identify footprints and droppings.

Beyond learning about water voles, I was eager to know what was behind Sam’s desire to “make a difference”.

As we tracked along the river bank I remember him saying: “I don’t have to see them, I just need to know they are there.”

This comment stood out for me and has since led me to ponder how we too can develop the same sense of empathy towards creatures we hardly, if ever, see.

For it is difficult on a daily basis to extend our thoughts beyond our own priorities or the priorities of those closest to us.

Or in other words it is difficult to think about water voles when we have bills to pay and families to care for.

However, the fostering and development of an appreciation towards the natural world can have many benefits.

Whether it’s a gentle breeze passing over our faces or the delicate sounds of birds settling before dusk – these simple pleasures can enrich our daily lives and offer a brief respite from ourselves and troubles.

And even if we never see water voles we should recognise that like them we, too, are small.

From the perspective of the skies we stare out towards a universe far greater than ourselves and like us, we are clinging to a fragile existence.

If these creatures are no more, they will never exist again and what then would we have lost?

We would have lost their small chubby faces, their innocent patter of footprints, their tiny black eyes... but we may also lose a part of ourselves.

If we wish to experience the benefits of nature and live in a world filled with diversity and compassion, where all creatures are given the opportunity to live out their lives with dignity, then we need to think like Sam and extend our concerns beyond what we can see.

For we are never more human than when we show such characteristics.

If you would like to learn more about water voles or Sam’s work and the North York Moors National Park Authority, please go to: northyorkmoors.org.uk/discover/rivers/wildlife-on-the-river/water-vole

You can also contact Sam directly at [email protected] to learn more about getting involved in monitoring water vole populations across the National Park.