Aah, the adorable water vole. Although this furry gifted swimmer is one of the UK’s fastest declining mammals, it seems to be making itself at home in our canals in the south west, including the Gloucester & Sharpness.
Back in 2008, Viv Philips, ecologist for the G&S Canal at the time, was alerted about the presence of water voles in the canal at Patch Bridge in the village of Slimbridge, adjacent to the wetland centre. At first, Viv dismissed these claims, thinking the canal wasn’t suitable for water voles because of the steel sheet piles that formed its construction.
However, after boaters sent her photos of the water voles splashing about happily in the canal, Viv found the little creatures had colonised a good 200m on both sides of the bridge. This was on the towpath side of the canal, where there is a soft bank above water level for the water voles to dig their burrows into, and nibble on the lush green vegetation.
The Trust determined that this surprising new water vole population was most likely overspill from a breeding programme led by the WWT next door and plans were put in place by the Trust to ensure their new habitat was protected. The area was fenced off to prevent mooring and discourage dog walkers from disturbing the bank, and the Trust left the vegetation to grow to provide good and cover for the water voles.
Since then, the water vole population on this stretch of the G&S has risen, with plenty of evidence of their activity in the soft banks. Laura Mulholland, the Trust’s new ecologist for the G&S, wants to investigate how more improvements to the voles’ habitat can be made; to perhaps make alterations on the other side of canal so that area is accessible to them, too. Hopefully, their numbers on the G&S will continue to boom.
In focus: the water vole
Water voles are small, brown-haired mammals with webbed toes and long claws – ideal for swimming and burrow digging. They’re known to produce a characteristic “plop” sound as they dive into the water, and to evade predators they kick up water and silt with their hind legs to create a smokescreen. Keep your eyes peeled for their distinctive droppings along the canal – greeny-brown and and the shape of tic-tacs!