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Surrey’s water voles feared “extinct”

Wednesday 3rd February 2016

© Elliott Neep

Surrey Wildlife Trust has found no evidence of water voles in Surrey’s waterways.

Water voles were once an important part of fresh water habitats in Surrey

Once the commonest British mammal, with eight million water voles in the UK a century ago, they are now the fastest declining mammal and feared to be functionally extinct in Surrey, following a county-wide survey undertaken by the Trust in 2015.

Water voles were once an important part of fresh water habitats in Surrey and could often be seen paddling across still pools, nibbling lush bankside vegetation or disappearing down holes in banks. Not to be confused with rats, they are a similar size and brown in colour, however the water vole has a blunt nose, its tail is furry and it has small ears.

Many Surrey residents have fond memories of seeing water voles along our rivers and streams in the past, but sadly children today are very unlikely to see such creatures in the county in the wild. Water voles were last recorded in Surrey in 2008 and recent evidence suggests they have suffered a catastrophic decline across Britain, disappearing from 94% of their former sites.

This devastating decline in water vole numbers in Surrey is due to a number of reasons, mainly predation and habitat loss. The invasive American Mink, the water vole’s main predator, was first imported into the UK in the 1920’s for the fur trade, but a steady stream of escapes and later releases mean that mink are present on many of our rivers. They are agile, adept swimmers and can squeeze down a water vole’s burrow making them extremely effective predators.

Many of the riverside habitats in Surrey have been modified by humans in some way, leading to the gradual loss of the natural, meandering river habitat with wide swathes of leafy vegetation needed by water voles. Aside from the obvious impact on animals where habitat is destroyed, the remaining populations also become isolated which leaves them vulnerable to other threats from predators, disease, pollution and extreme fluctuations in water levels.

During 2015, Surrey Wildlife Trust established the Water Vole Recovery Project to record sightings, revitalize riverbank habitat, advise on river and ditch management, and where necessary, coordinate mink control. The aim of the project is to re-establish a water vole population or re-introduce them if necessary.

To date, a total of 64 water vole surveys have been carried out by Surrey Wildlife staff and 37 trained volunteers. Forty-four surveys took place on sites with past records of water voles and the remaining 20 were on areas either with suitable water vole habitat or anecdotal records of the species.

Alex Learmont, Water Vole Project Officer, said
“We are very concerned that the water vole could be functionally extinct in Surrey. SWT has already been working hard with dedicated volunteers through catchment partnerships by restoring our degraded rivers, managing bankside vegetation and monitoring pollution levels”.

She added:
“We are extremely grateful to all those who have helped us so far in our surveys, but would welcome even more residents to get involved either by taking part in surveys or submitting sightings which will help with our aim to restore these delightful mammals to their rightful place on our waterways”

Surveys will continue during the water vole breeding season (April-Sept) in 2016. It is hoped that this will continue to shed light on the status of the water vole in Surrey. However, the continuing lack of records despite concerted survey efforts indicates the species is seriously threatened and may already be functionally extinct in the county.

If you would like to get involved with the surveying effort this year, report a water vole sighting or find out more about the project, please visit contact

You could also help by becoming a member of the Trust to help fund this vital conservation work at

Tagged with: Species