In a quiet corner of rural Carmarthenshire, lying low in the beautiful Gwendraeth valley, WTSWW’s Ffrwd Farm Mire nature reserve can be found. Part of the Gwernydd Penbre SSSI, Ffrwd comprises around 19 hectares of wetland habitats that would once have been abundant in this part of the county- from reedbeds to wet woodland and marshy grassland, all criss-crossed with a network of deep, vegetated ditches. The nature reserve is important for a number of scarce species associated with these habitats, from Cetti’s Warbler to Marsh Pea, Marsh Honey Fungus, Tubular Water Dropwort and Frogbit.
However for many years, one iconic species that one would expect to call such a place home has been notable by its absence- the Water Vole. It’s hard to imagine a more textbook habitat for them in lowland Wales. Partnership work with Natural Resources Wales (NRW) in recent years has improved the habitat condition even further by opening up ditches and pools. Yet despite various surveys, no Water Voles have been found on the site for many years, and records in Carmarthenshire as a whole are now largely restricted to remnant populations in the Llanelli and Pendine areas, with a tiny number of upland records in the north east of the county. Sadly, the Water Vole remains the fastest declining mammal in history.
However, this August, all that changed. Thanks to a project led by NRW, we have witnessed the Water Vole’s return to Ffrwd.
Last autumn, with financial support from Carmarthenshire County Council, seventeen under-weight water voles (animals not likely to survive the winter otherwise) were captured in the Llanelli area and taken into captivity by mammal expert Derek Gow. These animals then bred well in the security of Derek’s facility, resulting in a good sized population ready for re-introduction this year. These animals all originate from local genetic stock, so we know they are suited to local conditions.
Ffrwd Farm Mire was chosen as the release site. When reintroducing any species, it is important to be certain that you have addressed the factors that originally caused its localised extinction; for Water Voles, these threats are well documented in the literature- habitat loss and fragmentation, and predation by American Mink, as well as other predators such as domestic cats.
At Ffrwd Farm Mire it is recognised that there is extensive suitable habitat capable of supporting a population of hundreds of Water Voles, with additional good quality habitat in the local area. In addition NRW, with local support in recent months from WTSWW, have also been working hard to improve the quality of the whole landscape in this area for Water Vole with work such as fencing ditches to reduce trampling damage by grazing livestock, and to allow luxuriant growth of bank vegetation. This means that the extent and connectivity of suitable habitat has improved markedly in recent years. In addition, since the beginning of 2014, WTSWW has been working with NRW on an extensive American Mink survey at a landscape scale. Fortunately relatively few Mink signs have been recorded, but where they have, animals have been trapped and dispatched in line with WTSWW conservation policy, for the benefit of the Water Vole reintroduction.
This huge amount of background work meant that this August, 200 Water Voles were able to be released on the reserve. Brought carefully from their home of the last few months in south west England by Derek Gow, the voles, mostly young animals, were placed in ‘soft-release’ cages at the ditch side. This means that the animals were kept in the cages but in situ for a few days, getting used to the environment, and being given supplementary food, whilst gradually being introduced to the vegetation that occurs naturally on the site. Then after a few days the cages were opened, allowing the animals to explore whilst still giving them the choice of returning to the cage for familiarity and top-up food.
It was a really exciting moment to watch the voles finding their feet back on the reserve. Within only a few hours, there were dozens of little Water Vole prints on our clay survey pads and droppings and latrines on the survey rafts and bank sides.
We’d like to offer a huge thank you to NRW who have led this work, also to Carmarthenshire County Council, Derek Gow, and all the volunteers who have been involved and made this possible. It’s an important first step in expanding the remnant Water Vole population in Llanelli and making it more resilient for the future. We hope very much that with sustained effort many more sites in this part of Carmarthenshire will soon hear the patter of little Vole feet.
If you are interested in seeing more, you can watch a video of the release here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iCwt53LVq8
We will need to continue to monitor for Mink in this area and to monitor the success of the Voles- if anyone is interested in getting involved, please contact Becca on firstname.lastname@example.org or Lizzie on email@example.com