IT’S the tiniest of noises, but the distinctive ‘plop’ of a water vole entering the water is a welcome sound at Moors Valley Country Park and Forest.

Despite conservationists nationally reporting a further 20 per cent decline in an already-threatened population, water voles are thriving at the park, near Ringwood, thanks to the dedication of a team of countryside management rangers.

Saving the species has become something of an obsession, after the park began an extensive water vole reintroduction programme in 2011, which was followed in 2012 by a further release.

In all, more than 300 water voles found a new home in East Dorset and sightings throughout 2013 indicate that the reintroduction was a huge success with water voles now seen regularly along the extensive Crane and Moors river system.

“Moors Valley was the first country park in the south to take this initiative and we believe our hard work has really paid off for our water vole families,” said Matt Reeks, senior countryside ranger.

“The project has also united the local landowners who we brought together and encouraged to provide suitable habitats and continue to monitor a wide surrounding area for mink activity to ensure our voles are not eaten by this aggressive, non-native predator.”

Good habitat management is crucial to the success of a programme of this nature. The river system in the park is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Natural England, which inspects SSSIs, has put it in its top-rating category.

Its careful management is a testament to the work of the ranger team that not only ensures the success of the park’s wildlife but also plays host to more than 800,000 visitors each year at what is now the third most-visited country park in England.

“We have had many sightings of water voles near their release area over the last two years, and recent indications show they are now populating the river system adjacent to Moors Valley,” said Matt.

“We are interested in finding out how far they have moved along the river system. I’d ask anyone visiting Moors Valley or strolling by the Moors River to keep their eyes open – and listen out for the distinctive ‘plop’ of the vole when it enters the water – and report any sightings to the Visitor Centre.

“We log all confirmed sightings and they will help us to ensure the future of the water vole in East Dorset.”