What have water voles got to do with climate change?

Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

I have become a detective; an investigator seeking clues; peering into burrows and carefully searching through grass and mud for one of the UK’s most elusive creatures, the water vole.

My new role materialised during a day on Winmarleigh and Cockerham Moss, near Garstang, whilst helping out on a water vole survey.

Happily, the sun shone down on us, as we spent the day scrabbling around on our hands and knees trying to find traces of these shy little creatures. Clues include the small holes that act as entrances to their burrows, which are often surrounded by nibbled lawns, neat little piles of grasses and reeds piled in ‘larders’, and even their latrines, where these neat little creatures leave piles of tic tac-shaped droppings.

A water vole burrow on Winmarleigh & Cockerham Moss near Garstang

A water vole burrow on Winmarleigh & Cockerham Moss. Image by Jenny Bennion.

As the new Communications Officer working on our peatlands project, I have been trying to get out and about and visit as many of our wonderful remaining peatlands as possible – and so jumped at the chance to accompany Conservation Officer, Martyn Walker, and Lancashire Peatland’s Initiative Manager, Sarah Johnson, to visit this wonderful site.

Winmarleigh Moss is going to be subject to some exciting further restoration work in the coming weeks; including ground preparation, bund building and ditch blocking. Funded by the Lancashire Environmental Fund, this work will centre along the northern edge of the site to raise the water table and further rewet the site.

Cross-leaved heath in flower with delicate pink flower heads

Cross-leaved heath by Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

This will allow a carpet of wonderful peat-forming sphagnum mosses to flourish, along with native bog plants such as cotton grass and cross-leaved heath, and the specialised wildlife that follows it. For example, on the way to site we followed a gorgeous brown hare as it lolloped through a field, and then saw another two speeding through the hummocks of moss and reed. As my first sighting of hares in the wild, I was completely blown away by their grace – and how big they were!

Following this first phase of rewetting works, a pioneering EU-funded project, supported by Interreg NW Europe, will be able to get underway: building a pioneering carbon farm, believed to be the UK’s first.

The Winmarleigh carbon farm will be created on a field adjoining the current peatland. Previously drained and used for grazing, the new ditch blocking and bund building works will help to rewet the site. Following this, areas of the field will be given over to a pilot scheme growing sphagnum moss - specifically with the aim of capturing carbon from the atmosphere to help in the fight against climate change.

The site of the Winmarleigh Carbon Farm before any work had been carried out

The site of the Winmarleigh Carbon Farm before any work had been carried out - Jenny Bennion

A healthy peatland acts like a huge sponge for carbon, absorbing it from the atmosphere and locking it away for millennia in its soils. In fact, peatlands currently cover only three to five per cent of the northern hemisphere, yet contain 33 per cent of global soil carbon - meaning that peatlands have the ability to store twice as much carbon as forests.

But what has all of this got to do with water voles?

A water vole standing on the water's edge, reflected in the water

Water vole by Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

These cute little critters, best known as ‘Ratty’ from The Wind in the Willows, are under serious threat due to habitat loss and predation from the non-native American mink, however, there is a colony living at Winmarleigh Moss.

Water voles live along riverbanks, streams, lakes and ponds, and at Winmarleigh they can be found inhabiting the edges of some of the remaining ditches that were historically dug to drain the site for shooting and agricultural use.

However, their homes are currently at odds with the work that we need to do infilling these ditches to restore the site to its full bogginess. So off we went to survey exactly where they were living, to make sure that none of the areas where they had burrows were going to be filled in.

An entrance hole to a water vole burrow in the grass at Winmarleigh Moss nature reserve

An entrance hole to a water vole burrow. Image by Jenny Bennion

As it turns out, water vole surveying is less of a stroll along the riverbank looking for little carved wooden front doors nestling next to some teeny tiny milk bottles, and more of a scramble along the ditch edge, rootling around for holes and trying not to fall in!

But joking aside, it was a wonderful experience and I was delighted to find both a burrow in the ditch bank and an entrance hole to another burrow hiding amongst the dead grass of the peatland top.

Knowing that the water vole population will be safe whilst the rewetting works are completed is a great feeling, and it is hoped that some of the new ditches that will be dug as part of the carbon farm will provide even more habitats for these endangered little fellows.

Preserving our precious peatlands

Wildlife refuges, carbon-stores, flood barriers, a wild reminder of a time before man-made pressures took hold - our peatlands are amazing.

Find out more about how we're protecting and restoring the precious two per cent of lowland peatlands we have left in our region.

Find out more

Round-leaved sundew: Mark Hamblin/2020VISION