The humble water vole is to receive extra protection, Biodiversity Minister Joan Ruddock has announced.
The water vole - together with the angel shark, roman snail, spiny seahorse and short-snouted seahorse - will gain protection against being killed, injured or taken from the wild from April 6. They join the list of wildlife species which includes the otter and grass snake that already enjoy protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
In addition, the possession or selling of the water vole and other species added to the list will become an offence. (It will also become an offence to damage or obstruct the short-snouted and spiny seahorses' place of shelter or disturb them in their place of shelter).
Visiting the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust London Wetlands Centre to see at first hand a project to protect water voles, Joan Ruddock said: "It is in all our interests that England's valuable wildlife is protected and a lot of work has been done to ensure that the list of species being protected is comprehensive... The additional protection we are providing for these creatures will ensure a more secure future for their species."
Alastair Driver, National Conservation Manager for the Environment Agency and Chair of the UK Water Vole Species Action Plan Group welcomed the announcement, saying: "This is great news for water vole conservation and not only serves to minimise deliberate persecution and accidental poisoning, but also clarifies the law for planners and developers.
"Water vole populations have declined by 90 per cent since 1990 and this added protection will make a real difference to the work being done to conserve this charismatic species."
Stephanie Hilborne, Chief Executive for The Wildlife Trusts, said: "We're absolutely delighted water voles have finally been given this life line. Water voles have been lost from many parts of the UK, including significant areas such as Cornwall, but this excellent news will undoubtedly help our efforts to bring the water vole back from the brink.
"Full legal protection should ensure remaining water vole populations are not compromised during development works and that incidents of trapping and persecution do not go unpunished. Over the last 10 years, The Wildlife Trusts have worked closely with the Environment Agency, Natural England, water companies and others to ensure the water vole remains a feature of our rivers, streams, canals and other watercourses."
The maximum penalty for not complying with the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is a £5,000 fine and/or six months imprisonment.
Photograph of the water vole is by kind permission of Simon Booth Photography.com.