The History of Water Vole Conservation

Prof Alastair Driver: Former Chair of the UK Water Vole Steering Group

Between 1970 and 2000, the water vole underwent one of the most catastrophic declines of any species in the UK. It is highly likely that the reasons for this decline commenced many decades ago, but it was only in the late 1980’s that a significant reduction in the population was described, following valuable survey work carried out by the Vincent Wildlife Trust. By the mid-1990’s, this led to the establishment of various studies investigating the prime suspects, namely habitat loss through the intensification of farming during the Second World War and feral non-native American mink which had been escaping from fur farms for many decades. These studies confirmed the bleak predictions that a 94% loss of water voles from their former sites by the year 2000 was indeed probable.

Despite these frightening signs, very little ‘on the ground’ water vole conservation work had taken place to stem their decline at that stage and a much needed catalyst began. The Water Vole was one of at least 30 species which the newly established Environment Agency agreed to be either a Contact Point and/or Lead Partner for in 1996 under the UKBiodiversity Action Plan arrangements. I set up the UK Water Vole Steering Group in 1997, after volunteering to be the named as the “Contact Point” for the species, having commissioned WildCRU to carry out much of the early research on Water Voles and Mink. My first step was to enrol my good friend, the late, and sorely missed Rob Strachan from WildCRU as the Technical Advisor and, in parallel, to invite selected organisations from England, Scotland and Wales to form the Steering Group and thus to become joint Lead Partners responsible for the refinement and implementation of the Species Action Plan for the Water Vole. The group met once or twice a year and were kindly hosted by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species at their offices in Battersea. I had the pleasure of chairing the group for 20 years until my early retirement from the Environment Agency in 2016, when I passed the reins into the expert hands of Darren Tansley of the Essex Wildlife Trust. 

In its first 20 years, the UK Water Vole Steering Group stimulated, secured funding for and oversaw the implementation of all the priority actions in the Species Action Plan, which were carried out by dozens of organisations across the country. Many of those actions are of course ongoing, but I am particularly proud of the fact that we:

  • Secured appropriate protection for Water Voles and their habitat under the Wildlife & Countryside Act.
  • Established a national network of key sites by identifying large breeding populations of water voles and retaining these with appropriate management and monitoring.
  • Ensured information on water vole conservation requirements and appropriate habitat management was available to all riparian owners, managers and advisers, through various technical guidance notes and The Water Vole Conservation Handbook.

As well as the above, I was privileged to be in a position to set up and help find funding for numerous water vole conservation and research projects and key publications throughout Britain over a 25 year period. Since my retirement from the Environment Agency, I have been taking on new challenges as Specialist Advisor for Rewilding Britain and various other organisations and in so doing I intend to continue contributing to the conservation of water voles. There is still much to do to save this much-loved species from extinction in the UK due to the ongoing threat of mink predation and habitat loss, but I am certain that the huge concentrated effort of the UK Water Vole Steering Group organisations and many others besides has so far prevented its complete disappearance from lowland Britain at least, and that we can still turn things around.

Prof Alastair Driver FCIEEM
Specialist Advisor, Rewilding Britain
Honorary Professor in Applied Environmental Management, Univ of Exeter
Specialist Advisor, Arup
Council Member and Trustee, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust
Council Member, Scientific Exploration Society
Ambassador, International Riverfoundation

Twitter: @AliDriverUK