Some 200 water voles were released into the River Gara near Dartmouth last week as part of a programme to reintroduce the species in Devon’s waterways.

The rodent has been under serious threat of extinction in Devon and Cornwall for many years and is in fact considered ‘functionally extinct’ due to escaped American mink predation, pollution and habitat loss.

A team led by water vole expert Derek Gow released the voles, placing crates containing the little creatures at intervals along the river bank before covering them with foliage to protect them from the sun.

The voles were then given carrots and apples prior to being set free. Of the 200 animals, 15 were released directly into the stream.

Experts continued to feed them during the week and the plan was to remove the crates altogether by Saturday.

Victoria Benns, from Wild About Nature, took part in the operation and witnessed how the water voles leapt to freedom, swimming instinctively across the stream.

“It was hard to believe our dream has become a reality. This incredibly special moment was the culmination of two years of planning and collaboration between landowners, experts and a local group of enthusiasts whose passion and commitment has fuelled this reintroduction project,” she told the Kingsbridge Gazette.

She said last week’s release will be repeated again next June and August and for the succeeding years to ensure the population has the best chance of thriving.

Across the country, the water vole population has shrunk by 90 per cent in the last two decades and there are thought to be fewer than 100,000 left, despite being a protected species since 1981.

The endearing little animal has in fact completely disappeared in the Channel Islands, Isles of Scilly, Scottish islands, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man.

In Devon, the plan is to release up to 800 of the little animals at different sites around the River Gara over the next three years in a bid to establish a healthy population and halt the population’s decline.

According to wildlife experts, water voles are a ‘keystone species’ that help maintain wetland ecosystems along riverbanks. They substantially increase plant diversity by chewing down vegetation, and in turn help other species such as butterflies, bees and other pollinators.

This also creates more food for other animals up the food chain, including birds, bats and mammals that eat those insects.