Farm’s invaluable role in protecting ‘Ratty’

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A farm is playing an invaluable role in protecting a native animal from the threat of extinction.

The only population of water voles in the north of Bucks is on the upper reaches of the River Great Ouse, where farmers George and Ann Eaton are playing an active part in their conservation.

Once a common sight and the inspiration for the character of Ratty in The Wind In The Willows, by 1990 a survey showed that water voles had vanished from 94 per cent of their habitats nationally.

The Eatons have farmed at 150-acre Rectory Farm, in Water Stratford, for the last 20 years.

Mr Eaton said: “Conservation is a passion.

“One of the reasons water voles have got to the stage they are now is because of the American mink. One mink for a winter will destroy a colony.

“When we came to the farm 20 years ago we’d got no water vole but lots of mink. So we started trapping mink.

“People don’t like the subject of predator control. They don’t like the thought of things being killed.

“That’s OK but we will have no water vole. It will be county extinct.

“And it’s not just the water vole, it’s the damage the mink do to other wildlife, to the greater biodiversity of the river.

“Yes, they take the water vole out but they also take out kingfishers, moorhens, young ducks and little owls.

“If you control the mink, the wildlife in general improve.”

Thanks to the Eatons’ conservation work, Oxford University’s wildlife conservation research unit, Wild Cru, chose Rectory Farm as a reintroduction site for water vole in 2005/2006.

And from there, the colony has spread both upstream and downstream.

The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) recently raised £50,000 for a project to help protect water voles and their habitats for the future.

Julia Lofthouse of BBOWT said: “The water voles don’t really stand much of a chance if you don’t have landowners managing the land sensitively and controlling the mink. It’s an ongoing battle.

“People like George are invaluable.”

The farm is also doing valuable conservation work on hares and six important farmland birds – lapwing, turtle dove, grey partridge, tree sparrow, corn bunting and yellow wagtail.

Rectory Farm hosts school visits and does 80 to 100 educational talks to interest groups a year.

Mr Eaton said: “It has really got to be a joint effort overseen by BBOWT and then organisations like the town council, AVDC, perhaps BASC (the British Association for Shooting and Conservation) and we end up with some sort of Great Ouse catchment strategy.

“It’s not rocket science. It needs a bit of organisation and it needs the education for people to understand the threat to the water vole.

“It is just one part of what is a larger farmland jigsaw.”