WATER voles are making a comeback in the canals and rivers of Cheshire as national numbers decline.
A national report by the Environment Agency and the Wildlife Trusts (UK) reveals a 22 per cent in water voles recorded in survey areas last monitored between 2004-2008.
The figures reinforce the voles’ status as Britain’s ‘fastest declining’ mammal.
In the North West however, surveys by the Cheshire Wildlife Trust suggest that the species, best known as ‘Ratty’ in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows series, may be adapting to new habitats and developing previously undiscovered strongholds.
The Cheshire Wildlife Trust has been surveying waterways for signs of ‘Ratty’ since 2008 and, with the backing of the Environment Agency, the Canal and River Trust and Chester Zoo, are now analysing more than 50km of waterways each year with the support of local volunteers.
Dr Vicky Nall from the conservation charity said: “The national picture for water voles is certainly a worry, especially at a time when funding to continue monitoring their status across the UK is harder to come by.
“We’ve been lucky to have the Heritage Lottery and our other conservation partners to support our continued work in the North West to assess how Cheshire’s water voles are faring.
“We’re seeing some positive signs of recovery and new strongholds too, showing a real resilience in these charismatic creatures.”
The decline of the water vole has been linked to intensive agriculture, man-made alterations of waterways and, more recently, the release and escape of non-native American mink into the wild during the 1980s and 1990s.
These factors and further degradation of the quality of suitable habitat and its fragmentation has left many water vole populations isolated and at greater risk.
The challenge has not deterred wildlife photographer Rich Steel though.
He finds the voles captivating, despite the long hours needed to get the right image.
Rich said: “I’ve become a long-time fan of water voles. They don’t live in the easiest locations but I like a challenge.
“I’m now addicted to water vole photography which is very relaxing and requires patience.
“It’s a real pleasure to watch these very endearing animals.”
Information guides on how to spot water voles can be found at the Cheshire Wildlife Trust website at www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk or by calling 01948 820728.