Press release

Sniffer dog to help protect water vole colony

A sniffer dog is being used to monitor for new colonies of water voles, as part of a reintroduction project in Hertfordshire

Stig the sniffer dog
Credit: Josh Kubale/Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust

Stig, an English Springer Spaniel, is probably the world’s first water vole search dog. Trained alongside police sniffer dogs, he can cover large areas quickly and methodically, and gives his handler clear indications when water vole signs are present.

Stig will track for signs of water vole life enabling conservationists to monitor the progress of this new colony at Thorley Wash in Hertfordshire. The water voles were relocated from Fingringhoe Wick on the Essex coast by the Environment Agency, the Wildlife Trusts and project partners.

Helping water voles to thrive again in Hertfordshire

It is hoped that the release of these water voles along with a number of captive bred water voles will see them thrive again in an area where they were once relatively common. Water vole numbers have declined to worrying levels in England due to habitat loss and the introduction of American Mink - a species not native to the UK and a voracious water vole predator.

While rivers in England are the healthiest for over 20 years, creating good quality, well-connected mink-free habitat is key to the water voles’ survival in this country. By relocating these voles it is hoped that they will soon begin to regain some of their old territory.

Alastair Driver, national conservation manager at the Environment Agency and chair of the UK’s water vole steering group, said:

It is essential that we have up-to-date information on water vole distribution because they breed prolifically, but also their populations can plummet quickly in response to floods, droughts, mink predation and habitat loss. So having the likes of Stig, who can survey inaccessible sections of riverbank, is a really important breakthrough for water vole conservation.

Rory Stewart, Environment Minister, said:

Thanks to the great work of the Environment Agency, the Wildlife Trust and Stig’s keen sense of smell, the water vole, a much loved character from The Wind in the Willows, is thriving once again here on Hertfordshire’s ancient river banks and streams.

We want to see more of our precious species returned to their natural habitats. That’s why since 2010 we have helped to create 67,000 hectares of field margins, wetlands and woodlands to help birds and other species.

Paul Wilkinson, the Wildlife Trusts’ head of Living Landscape, said:

Stig’s phenomenal sense of smell is a unique addition in our work to protect water voles, allowing him to sniff out signs of our beloved ‘Ratty’. Surveyors usually look for characteristic field signs such as droppings, feeding stations and burrows in order to detect water vole presence along water courses. Stig’s specialist skills are particularly valuable along stretches of river with dense vegetation which are more challenging for people to check.

The latest report from the Environment Agency and The Wildlife Trusts’ Water Vole Database and Mapping Project shows that water voles continue to decline overall in England but information suggests they have recovered in some areas, such as parts of Essex, in response to long-term strategic conservation work. Up-to-date information about where water voles live is a critical part of this work and members of the public are therefore encouraged to report any water vole sightings to The Wildlife Trusts. Once verified, sightings will be added to the national water vole database.

These public records will complement the vital efforts of teams of volunteers who search for signs of their presence and map where they are found. Surveyors look for the occurrence of characteristic field signs such as droppings, feeding stations and burrows in order to detect their presence along water courses – helping to establish where populations remain and what needs to be done to help them expand across larger areas.

Find out more about the national water vole database and mapping project here

Published 12 October 2015