A SURVEY is planned to see if mink have been “monstered” out of a Northumberland forest.
If so, it will be good news for the endangered water vole, which was last sighted at Kielder in the 1970s.
Mink, an alien species which established itself in Britain after escaping from fur farms, have wreaked havoc on water vole populations. But as otter populations have recovered over the last 20 years and animals have spread to waterways across the North East, it is thought that they have driven out the mink.
Now conservationists are working on a plan which could result in water voles being returned to Kielder Water & Forest Park.
The Forestry Commission has linked up with Northumberland Wildlife Trust and Tyne Rivers Trust to devise a two-year project to survey the forest to see if mink remain and to look for traces of lingering water vole populations. Initial discussions have been held with the Heritage Lottery Fund about potentially backing the work.
Mink numbers at Kielder are now thought to be very low with few being spotted by rangers in recent years. One reason for their decline may be the expanding otter population as the two species do not co-exist.
Tom Dearnley, Forestry Commission ecologist, said: “Areas like Kielder Burn and the North Tyne are good water vole habitats so we have a two-part plan which will hopefully see them return to former haunts.
“First we need to establish whether any mink remain as this was the reason for their previous decline.
“Then we can look to a future scheme which would see wild water voles relocated to Kielder as part of a wider North East reintroduction project. Kielder offers suitable havens for a huge range of wildlife, from ospreys to wild goats.
“Water voles have suffered big declines across England, so returning them to the forest is something we are extremely keen to see happen.”
If the project gains funding, the survey will search for mink through sightings, droppings and using floating rafts which mink climb aboard to investigate, leaving behind tell-tale footprints.
Steve Lowe, Northumberland Wildlife Trust conservation manager, said: “It’s also vital we work with landowners so we can collate signs of mink in the wider area and so we can survey as far downstream as possible.
“We have set the scene by doing botanical surveys and landscape modelling and we know that the area still offers suitable habitat.
“A similar project has been undertaken in the Cairngorms in Scotland. If we do get to the release stage we know from tests on North East water voles that they share similar DNA to past populations so animals relocated to Kielder will be the same genetic strain as those driven out by mink.”