Brin Best

Wharfedale Naturalists’ Society

I SPENT a very pleasant evening looking for one of Britain’s most threatened mammals last month in the company of a group of ecologists from across Yorkshire.

The event took place in the magical surroundings of Malham Tarn, England’s highest freshwater lake and a haven for all sorts of rare and special wildlife. Our guide was Roisin Black, one of the National Trust rangers at the site, who in recent years has become something of an expert in a cuddly creature that has suffered a catastrophic decline in its UK population over recent decades.

This particular creature makes burrows, likes to swim, nibbles all sorts of greenery and has even been featured in the much-loved children’s book The Wind in the Willows. We are, of course, talking about the water vole, which is now thriving at this site high up in the Dales thanks to the efforts of the National Trust and a range of partners.

If we turn the clock back a few years, however, Malham Tarn Fen – the marshy area in the north-western corner of the lake – was devoid of water voles. In common with much of the country, the species had been exterminated here by the American mink, which was introduced to fur farms in the UK in the 1920s, before escaping to cause mayhem in our countryside. Water voles clung on at Malham Tarn only until the 1960s.

With calling curlews providing an evocative backdrop, we gathered on a specially constructed boardwalk over the fen to hear the story of how these endearing creatures have been brought back to this peaceful part of North Yorkshire.

Beginning in 2016 around 300 water voles were reintroduced to the site in three phases, with animals provided by a captive breeding facility elsewhere in England which is helping to repopulate the country. Although some of these individuals did not survive in their new home, others found the site to their liking.

Thankfully, a self-sustaining population of around 40 water voles now lives at Malham Tarn – and they’re often seen by visitors. It was perhaps fitting that one chose to show itself to the group only after we’d heard the full story of the species’ reintroduction here. As the midges swirled about our heads, one ran along a muddy stream bank close-by and then swam briskly across the channel. Success - and what an adorable little animal it was!

The future of the water vole in Britain is still in the balance, but if we are to see a major return to its former haunts then we’ll need to learn from places like Malham Tarn – and from water vole champions like Roisin. This iconic mammal really does belong in our countryside.

Photo Paul Dunn/National Trust