Let me paint the scene: I’m crouched on my haunches in long rushes, on the bank of an expansive pond fringed with magnificent blooms of flag iris, loosestrife and ragged robin. 

The sweet smell of water mint fills my nostrils, crushed below my boots as I lower the last of 35 wooden pens into place on the bankside. The pens, filled with soft straw, quartered apples and sliced carrot, rustle with excitement as the newest residents of this paradise scamper and dart as their senses are bombarded through the mesh of the pen. Each soft-release cage contains between two and five water voles, captive bred and ready for their first taste of freedom in Devon’s verdant hills.

Last autumn, working in partnership with East Devon District Council and the Axe Vale & District Conservation Society, we were successful in bringing 213 new water voles to the lower stretches of the River Axe. Whilst numbers were hit hard by the winter, a natural phenomenon which can account for up to 70% of a population of water voles each year, they are now exploding in the nature reserve and signs of their presence can be found on every stretch of river, brook or ditch. 

This year, therefore, we have shifted our focus upstream and have teamed up with Trill Farm to establish a breeding colony here to help spread the loveliness that is water voles downstream into the Axe.

The reason that this initiative is needed in the first place is due to the localised extinction of water voles in Devon in the mid-nineties. Loss of suitable riverside habitat and water quality issues were cited as partial reasons for their loss, but the most substantial reason for their disappearance was the unchecked proliferation of invasive American mink. 

The voles here at Trill Farm will be protected from mink, partly by myself and a team of volunteers, but mainly by the presence of otters on the brook. I found a black, oily spraint on one of the spillways as we were placing the release pens, and an otter is a far more effective mink controller than any human could hope to be. They are kings of the stream. 

The spraint is an otter’s calling card, a small fecal deposit, full of fish bones, and covered in the animal’s musky secretions. To humans they smell wonderfully of jasmine tea and olive oil, but to a mink it is the smell of death and they either move on or face the fatal consequences.

Otters will eat water voles if they happen upon them but, unlike the smaller thinner mink, otters can’t fit into a vole burrow and so the voles have an escape route. Water voles have no escape from mink; the mink can follow them into the water, onto the land and into their burrow.

The one hundred water voles, expertly bred by Derek Gow, were soft released over a period of a week in early June. This allowed the animals to become acclimatised to their new surroundings, to impart their own smell on the location and to begin to sample the food on offer. Water voles are not particularly fussy and will eat pretty much any bankside vegetation, but the soft-release approach allows them to get a taste for what is here, whilst being supplemented with a quarter of an apple and a slice of carrot per animal, per day. At the end of the process we open the cages, allow them a day or two to burrow or disperse, and then pop around and remove all the kit.

Trill Farm hosts many school visits and so I am hopeful that the voles will install themselves as firm favourites for visiting children learning about farming and the countryside, giving them the chance of spotting a mammal which the last generation have missed out on seeing on our rivers. Keep an eye out if you are visiting for a course or a farm lunch too!

James Chubb is the Countryside Team Leader responsible for delivering practical habitat management and species monitoring on all of East Devon District Council’s nature reserves. He has a particular focus on delivering the Seaton Wetlands nature reserve project just a few miles from Trill Farm, and has a passion for looking after East Devon’s countryside and wild spaces for people to enjoy.