A new M4 would jeopardise conservation work to save the UK’s fastest declining mammal.

Monday 26th February 2018

A water vole on the Gwent Levels. Photo: Neil Aldridge.

Gwent Wildlife Trust's work successfully helping endangered water voles will be jeopardised, if plans for the new M4 motorway go ahead.

As figures from a new report by The Wildlife Trusts (TWT) reveal the UK has seen a 30 per cent decline in water voles. Here in Wales, the work of Gwent Wildlife Trust (GWT) has seen these marvellous mammals brought back from local extinction.

However, GWT says Welsh Government plans for a new M4 across the precious Gwent Levels will undo their conservation work to help the UK’s fastest declining mammal, as the new motorway will destroy the rare wetland habitat where water voles live.

Plans for a motorway have been condemned by GWT who say in ecological terms it is like destroying ‘Wales’ own version of the Amazon rainforest’. The new motorway would result in the demise of thousands of rare and endangered bugs, birds and other wildlife including our now well established water vole population, fragmenting the habitat and contaminating the ditches.

GWT’s Deputy Chief Executive Gemma Bodé said: “Sadly, the proposed new M4 motorway ploughing across the Gwent Levels, will potentially halt and reverse the water vole recovery on the Levels and could lead to its sad extinction here, once again.”

Water voles were once a common sight on waterways, especially on the ancient reens and ditches of the historic Gwent Levels between Chepstow and Cardiff. They were made famous by the character ‘Ratty’ in Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic The Wind in the Willows. They are a keystone species, which means their presence in an ecosystem supports a whole range of other species such as barn owls and otters and their nibbling behaviour creates niche habitats for rare insects.

Water voles are a native species and until the 1950s, they flourished in Wales. Sadly, their numbers have been dramatically declining, as they have been impacted by habitat loss, and preyed on by a non-native species, the American mink. This combination has meant up to 90 per cent of the UK's water vole population have been lost during the past few decades.

In the early 2000s, it was thought that water voles were extinct on the Gwent Levels.

So, in 2012, thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, GWT embarked on an ambitious reintroduction programme to return water voles to their native landscape. They released just over 200 at their Magor Marsh nature reserve and now through careful monitoring and habitat management, they have spread in all directions and become well established once again on the Gwent Levels. 

GWT’s Water Vole Project officer Lowri Watkins said: “Water voles on the Gwent Levels are bucking the UK trend and appear to be doing really well, breeding and spreading out from our reintroduction site into the wider area – with sightings up to 10km away. This is great news and shows how the centuries old waterways of the Gwent Levels are vital for their future survival.
“Whilst our water vole reintroduction has helped to re-establish water voles on the Gwent Levels, their recovery here is ongoing. It will require continued hard work from GWT staff, volunteers and local landowners, as well as partner organisations, to monitor, manage and restore their habitat and help them to fully re-occupy their former range.”

GWT and Wildlife Trusts Wales (WTW), object to the proposed new six lane M4 motorway over six Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and a Special Area of Conservation. The charity’s Magor Marsh nature reserve would be directly affected by the new motorway with GWT having received a Compulsory Purchase Order for parts of the Barecroft Common section of the reserve.
GWT says the proposed M4 motorway would be in direct breach of current environmental and planning policies – namely the Welsh Government’s Well-being of Future Generations Act and The Environment (Wales) Act.

GWT’s Deputy Chief Executive Gemma Bodé added: “The proposed M4 motorway is not only bad news for wildlife like water voles but also for the people who live nearby, visit and enjoy this unique and wonderful jigsaw of landscapes.”

GWT and WTW gave evidence at the Welsh Government M4 Public Inquiry, in Newport last year. GWT and WTW submitted further evidence to the Inquiry in March this year.

The TWT National Water Vole Database and Monitoring Project full report can be found here:http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/news/2018/02/26/new-report-points-30-decline-water-vole-distribution