A water vole snacks on some foliage.

Water voles are listed as at risk of extinction on the IUCN's Red List for British mammals. Image © Samib123/Shutterstock.com.

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Endangered water voles to be reintroduced to London

One of Britain's most threatened mammals is being given a boost as a community group works to reintroduce them to a River Thames tributary in Kingston.

Water voles were once abundant in the UK's rivers, but populations have declined by 97% since the 1970s. They are the fastest declining mammal in the country, partly because their habitat is disappearing, and partly because they are being eaten by invasive American mink.

Rewilding group Citizen Zoo is helping to turn the tide of extinction in south west London with a scheme to reintroduce waters vole to the Hogsmill River in Kingston.

This month a crowdfunder raised £18,000, giving the project the green light.

Citizen Zoo co-founder Elliot Newton is a born and bred Kingston resident, and says he is delighted the local London community has come together to fight for nature.

He says, 'This is the first time a community has attempted a project like this in an urban river. A lot of good work is happening to support wildlife in the British countryside, but we want to help the rewilding movement in an urban context.

'We're living in a time of extinction. I want Citizen Zoo to be a beacon of positivity. If we want to combat ecological collapse, we need a grassroots approach across the planet.'

Water voles in Britain

In the 1800s there are likely to have been thousands of water voles on the Hogsmill River. Even 30 years ago, the water was teaming with them. But since then their numbers have collapsed, and the last vole in Kingston was recorded in 2017.

Elliot says, 'It's been just a few years since the last water vole disappeared from the area, so they are still very much in living memory. It's a recent extinction event.'

A similar story has played out on other rivers up and down the country. American mink are largely to blame for the perilous position of water voles.

A mink peeks through tall grass.

American mink are an invasive species in Britain and can colonise new areas very quickly. They have become water voles' biggest threat. Image © Holly Kuchera/Shutterstock.com.

Mink were brought to British fur farms in the twentieth century, and by the 1960s they had escaped or been intentionally freed. Happy to eat whatever they can find, mink have posed a big problem for ground-nesting birds and smaller mammals like water voles.

Water voles support food webs, create habitat with their burrows and disperse seeds - so our rivers stand to lose much more than just a furry face if the species is lost for good.

Bringing voles back

Elliot and his team started their rewilding campaign in the summer of 2019 and already have more than 100 Kingston residents signed up to help.

Their recent crowdfunder raised the £12,000 they need to buy 200 voles from a rewilding professional.

Citizen Zoo volunteers survey habitat along the Hogsmill River in Kingston.

Citizen Zoo volunteers survey habitat along the Hogsmill River in Kingston. Image: Citizen Zoo.

Elliot says, 'We taught 60 volunteers to carry out a basic water vole habitat survey, and we've created a heatmap of good, bad and average habitat across the catchment. There are significant areas of good territory already present across the river.

'We have also been identifying the presence of American mink, though we've found no positive signs of them since February.'

Next, Thames Water and the Environment Agency have agreed to remove a weir in the river.

Water voles won't be released until 2022. After that, Citizen Zoo will monitor their progress, as well as keeping an eye on any mink that enter the area. Mink will either be ethically killed or captured and relocated to safe wildlife sanctuaries.

Elliot says, 'The most important thing about this it demonstrates that a passionate community can came together and reverse local species extinctions. I hope we can replicate this across the UK. It all comes down to local people with a vision.'