Arundel Wetland Centre, West Sussex

Julia Bradbury goes on the trail of the elusive water vole that’s found paradise in a corner of Sussex

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I was sitting in a bird hide recently, chatting to Dafila Scott about the swans that were feeding in their hundreds in front of us. Dafila’s father was the late Sir Peter Scott, who founded the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust in 1946 to protect birds and habitats.

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Described as one of the greatest conservationists of the 20th century, he was a gifted man – a painter, Olympic yachtsman and prize-winning glider – as well as a champion
of the natural world.

Sir Peter’s approach with the WWT worked because he was one of the first to recognise that people had to care about the natural world in order to be motivated to take action and get involved. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust is now one of the largest and most respected wetland conservation organisations in the world, preserving wetlands not just
for wildlife but people, too.

He bought land between the Gloucester-Sharpness canal and the estuary of the River Severn, where he dug ponds to build his collection of water birds from around the world.

This was to become his family home, and in time the core of his global charity. Sir Peter thought that numbers were key to people’s interest; a greater number of animals draws in more people and that experience heightens their concern. For example, at Welney WWT reserve in Norfolk, up to 9,000 swans and ducks arrive for their winter holidays every autumn.

Excellent ecosystem

But of course this type of habitat is not all about birds – there are now nine reserves run by the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust in the UK, and a myriad of animal and plant species that thrive in their surroundings.

While on assignment for Countryfile recently, I was in search of an elusive creature that calls the WWT reserve at Arundel its home. We were there looking for a creature scarcely seen on our riverbanks today – the water vole, immortalised as Ratty in Wind in the Willows.

Arundel is a 65-acre haven for wildlife in a picture-book setting in West Sussex. At its back are steep woodlands, topped by the ancient and dramatic Arundel Castle; at its borders are the pretty River Arun and a historic mill stream; all around are the scenic South Downs.

The proximity of the Downs means that the centre benefits from a water supply that is filtered naturally to crystal clarity by layers of chalk, which are an integral part of the landscape. 

Water voles are only just hanging on in this country; numbers have dropped by a massive 95% and in parts of Britain they have disappeared altogether. The overall picture for Ratty’s survival may not be looking good, but the folks at the  Arundel Wetlands Centre have been working hard to create the most hospitable environment possible for them.

Not so natural predators

The little fellas have made a comeback thanks to a habitat refurbishment and some electric fencing to keep out unwanted visitors. Mink were brought into Britain during the 1960s as part of the fur trade, and after being released into the wild they acquired a taste for water voles. They’re one of the biggest factors in the water vole’s decline. 

In 2006, around 200 water voles were brought to Arundel from around the country and they have thrived, though keeping track of their exact numbers is tricky. As they’re so elusive, a headcount is not easy. But there are other things you can look for in the reed beds.

Paul Stevens from the WWT showed me feeding sites, little rafts of vegetation just inside the water’s edge and pointed out the burrows with tiny food piles at the entrance. We saw droppings (like tic tacs) and tiny tunnels furrowed through the rushes.

Evidence in abundance, but as we put-putted through the water in our silent boat I was desperately hoping to catch my first glimpse of the real Ratty.

This small creature is actually ill-suited to this environment – they’re not waterproof, their claws are not good for burrowing and the long rat-like tail is no good for swimming – which

only adds to the curiosity. But then: plop!

We all twisted our heads towards the bank and right on cue a glistening streak of fur bobbed across the water. A brief glimpse but a positive ID for sure – my first ever water vole. Sir Peter would be proud.

Useful Information

HOW TO GET THERE

The A27 goes through the town of Arundel. To get to the reserve, follow brown duck signs down Mill Road, beside Arundel Castle. By train, the reserve is a one mile walk
from Arundel station.

FIND OUT MORE

WWT Arundel Wetland Centre

Mill Road, Arundel,

West Sussex BN18 9PB

01903 883355

www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/arundel

EAT

The Black Rabbit

Mill Road, Arundel,

West Sussex BN18 9PB

01903 882828

www.theblackrabbitarundel.co.uk

Just a stone’s throw from the reserve, this warm and welcoming pub offers a fresh, modern menu and classic ales.

NEARBY

Arundel Castle

Arundel, West Sussex

BN18 9AB

01903 882173

www.arundelcastle.org

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Take in nearly 1,000 years of history at this ancient castle, set high on the top of a hill.