ENDANGERED water voles have been removed from Swindon for their own safety ahead of Wichelstowe development works.

Sections of the Wiltshire and Berkshire canal are due to be renovated as part of the 4,500 home strategy in the area, which would put the lives of the protected species at risk.

In response Keystone Ecology has rescued around 60 of the animals from the canal, and plans to rehome them in the River Meon in Hampshire, where the creatures are considered locally extinct.

Sarah Jackson, project manager and head of ecology at Keystone, said the displacement was vital to protect water vole numbers.

“Any time we have a decision about protected species we have to weigh up if it is OK for the viability of the animal to stay there,” she said.

“The case for Wichelstowe is there are long sections of canal which need enhancing, and leaving the animals there would risk their lives. They had to be taken away. If we were to leave them in place there would not be enough vegetation for them to survive.”

Water voles have been in danger for a number of reasons in recent years, but efforts such as the one conducted by Keystone could help boost numbers.

“The population has massively declined over the last 15 to 20 years, and they are one of the fastest declining species in the country,” added Sarah. “It is due to a combination of factors, from habitat destruction to pesticides and the introduction of the American mink into our ecosystem.

“The minks have been here for a long time, and have worked their way into almost every water course. Where there are mink we will not find water voles.”

The animals were captured during the last month with a series of traps set up along the banks of the canal.

“They have now been moved to a breeding facility in Devon to be checked over and make sure they are fit and healthy,” Sarah said. “In three months they will then be released to a site in Hampshire.

“It is not the case that there are too many water voles in Swindon, it is simply that they cannot stay there for the duration of the works. Because there is a healthy population in the wider area, when works do cease they will move back in and repopulate.

“The ones we have removed will go to help boost the national population. We can be confident they will recolonise the stretch of canal so there will be no long-term impact on Swindon, and we can improve the picture by taking them to a county that has very low numbers.”