INCC and partners are aiming to save a population of one of the UK’s rarest and fastest declining mammal species, the Water Vole (Arvicola amphibius).

“We have lost so many of our Water Voles in Wales over the past fifty years or so. If we don’t do something urgently, we may end up losing this wonderful animal for good. Projects like this, that bring together conservationists, universities and local communities give us hope that we can save the Water Vole and lots of other species and their habitats as well”.
Iolo Williams
T.V. Broadcaster and Naturalist

Water Voles are thought to have declined by over 90% in recent years due to a combination of habitat loss and predation by non-native American Mink (Neovison vison) and are now classed as ‘endangered’ in the UK. Upland habitats may provide a refuge for Water Voles where Mink are much less commonly seen.

Mink investigating the ‘tunnel cam’

Until relatively recently it was thought that upland habitats were unsuitable for Water Voles and as a result little survey effort has gone into those habitats. Since then, Water Voles have been found in upland habitats scattered across Wales but their ecology here is still little understood. It is possible that the population around Pen y Cymoedd and the Rhondda Cynon Taff/Neath Port Talbot uplands is significant on a UK scale, so a deeper understanding of their population dynamics is key to helping reverse their decline.

Upland Water Vole habitat

INCC’s upland Water Vole project, funded by the Pen Y Cymoedd Wind Farm Community Fund, will undertake vital and innovative research to further our understanding of how to help Water Voles in upland landscapes. Importantly, the project will ensure that local people and communities are at the heart of delivering conservation action and that local volunteers will have the knowledge and resources to become the water vole’s strongest champions in future.

The project has three overarching objectives.

Obj 1: Prevent the local extinction of Water Vole populations in and around the upland landscape of Pen y Cymoedd. This will be achieved by undertaking detailed habitat and species surveys, innovative research, community engagement, advocacy and guidance for land managers.

Above: a characteristic Water Vole latrine

Right: typical feeding remains left by Water Voles

Obj 2: Engage with local communities, groups, schools and individuals so that people of all ages can be inspired by Water Voles and the wildlife they share their landscape with. Informing and involving local people so that they can have direct involvement in Water Vole conservation measures now and into the future.

Looking for Water Vole field signs

Obj 3: Create a Wales-wide approach to upland Water Vole conservation in Wales, based on the scientific evidence and information gained through the project. Innovative techniques and modelling used during the project will be used to inform environmental decision makers how best to conserve Water Vole populations across Wales and what needs to be done. Organisations such as Natural Resources Wales, Wildlife Trusts, Lost Peatlands Project and Local Authorities can all benefit from the project’s findings.

Right: a ‘tunnel cam’, an innovative method for looking for Water Voles

Local people and communities will be involved in all aspects of the project, from research, mapping and surveys, to practical habitat management and restoration. The project will raise awareness of the Water Vole locally through volunteering opportunities and engagement initiatives. Importantly, the project will celebrate just how important the local landscape is for this incredibly rare mammal and the role that local people and communities have played in safeguarding the species and contributing to its long-term survival.

Peatland restoration work in the uplands

The project will support INCC officers, volunteers and students at Cardiff University to undertake genetic analysis of known and newly found Water Vole colonies in the upland landscape of the project area. This innovative research will reveal just how connected the colonies are and ascertain the level of genetic mixing. This would indicate whether Water Voles are moving across the landscape. If the results show there is poor connectivity between colonies, then that evidence will help guide future habitat management/ creation to help improve connectivity.

A Water Vole captured (under licence) for tagging

GPS tagging of juvenile Water Voles will help the project build a clearer image of how water voles are moving around in the upland areas of Wales. Once tagged, the movement and dispersal of juvenile Water Voles can be tracked through the landscape. This will give us greater detail and confidence in determining the barriers and threats to Water Vole populations at Pen y Cymoedd and therefore across upland Wales. It will also show us what habitats they move through and what habitats they avoid when dispersing.