The status of water voles (Arvicola terrestris), a UK Priority Species and key indicator of good riparian habitat, is not well known across the Scottish Borders. In fact, over the past 20 years, only 13 casual sightings were reported and recorded with the Scottish Borders Biological Record Centre (SBBRC). Added to this, no systematic survey to determine the status of water voles in the region has been undertaken, therefore, determining future research and monitoring is difficult.
Encouragingly, several new populations were recently (2007) found in widely scattered parts of the Scottish Borders. This indicated that there was cause for optimism, despite the well documented catastrophic decline in national numbers over the past 15 years (Strachan et al, 2000). The water vole is a UK Priority Species in the National Biodiversity Action Plans as well as a Scottish Borders LBAP species, recognised in the Rivers and Burns Habitat Action Plan. The Tweed Catchment Management Plan consultation process showed that there was a real need to address the decline and lack of knowledge surrounding water voles (Action 126.96.36.199). Until there is better information on populations and their distribution, it is difficult to convince land managers and agencies with a role in funding rural projects or activities, of the need for appropriate management of water courses.
The aim of the project was:
1. To find out whether there are populations of water voles in a limited number of specific suitable areas;
2. To use the survey results as a training base to enthuse and educate local people in small mammal ecology; particularly by making use of existing enthusiastic community wildlife groups and wildlife officers/rangers;
3. To use the survey results to inform future habitat work within the Tweed catchment.
The project was supervised by Tweed Forum on behalf of the Scottish Borders LBAP Partnership, specifically the Wetlands Habitat Action Plan Group. The management, compilation and reporting of the data was carried out by the local biological records centre with further input from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS). Each of these organisations were represented on the project steering group.
Surveying and training was contracted to specialists. It was hoped that such an approach would provide the first phase of measures to protect and enhance the water vole population in the Scottish Borders as well as provide a core of enthusiastic trained local people skilled in small mammal biological recording. It was also hoped that the results from the surveying aspect of the project would contribute towards building up a more comprehensive picture of water vole status and distribution throughout Scotland; and help confirm the findings of other surveys such as the work carried out in the Grampian Region, which suggested that populations of water voles in upland regions appeared to be healthier due to reduced predation and minimal habitat disturbance (Raynor, 2002).
By training and educating local people in small mammal ecology, not only was expertise and training acquired locally, but the foundation for future monitoring and research was ensured for the longer term. This in turn should help to address actions as identified within the UK water vole Species Action Plan. Some of these actions include:-
1. Identifying viable breeding populations of water voles and retaining these populations with appropriate management and monitoring;
2. Ensuring that the relative status and distribution of water vole is monitored through repeats of the national baseline survey together with general catchment-based surveys in each region to determine the extent of the water vole population and level of fragmentation of suitable habitat;
3. Continue existing and establish new national research initiatives on the ecology and conservation requirements of water voles;
4. Encourage the submission of data collated on a local level to LRC or BRC for incorporation into a national database, and to facilitate easier access to information.
Summary of Project Outcomes (Spring 2009)
• Surveys in 2006 and 2007 identified possible or actual water vole presence at only three sites in the surveyed areas of East Lammermuirs, Gordon/Greenlaw, Peebles, Ettrick, Newcastleton and Morebattle.
• A social survey of Borders communities, to try and establish both present-day and historical locations of water voles elicited only a small number of returns.
• Awareness of water voles and the issues facing this endangered native mammal was raised through the Scottish Borders region.
• The steering group felt that it was not appropriate to pursue a water vole reintroduction policy at this time.
If anyone has any information relating to signs or sightings, either current or historical, they should contact the Scottish Borders Biological Records Centre.