Move to get plans out of a vole

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MOVING home is always going to be an expensive business in the Lothians, especially if you’re a water vole.

The endangered creatures, who inspired the character of Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, are preparing to follow their fictional, boat-loving cousin’s lead by taking a long trip upstream - at an estimated cost of 100,000.

They are flitting to make way for a huge housing development at Polkemmet colliery in West Lothian.

As part of a massive 51million site clean-up operation, professional trackers will hunt for the small mammals day and night by following droppings and footprints and will catch them using special metal traps baited with the vole’s favourite food - apple and carrot. There are believed to be at least 30 of the creatures living on the site, but experts say they are so elusive that there could be up to 100.

The animals, which are holed up along sections of Cultrig Burn and Bickerton Burn which pass through the derelict site, will be transported to another habitat further upstream which houses West Lothian’s largest population of water voles.

The colonies will then be returned to the regenerated Polkemmet colliery when work is completed on transforming swathes of wasteland into a special habitat for the voles.

Developer Ecosse Regeneration Ltd, which will bear the cost of the move, plans to rejuvenate the 470-hectare Polkemmet site, near Whitburn, to include championship golf courses and 2000 new homes as well as new parklands and the return of natural habitats destroyed by mining.

West Lothian Council has demanded that the endangered voles be relocated as a condition of its planning permission to Ecosse.

Senior planning officer Chris Norman said protecting the water voles was imperative before any works could go ahead.

He said: "The developer, between planning permission being granted and works starting, will need to get people on to the site and trans-locate these voles.

"The developer will then have to redesign the route of the burn and that will have to facilitate the kind of habitat the water voles require.

"We are told they will then inhabit the burn themselves. It might be successful, it might not, but at least it gives the water voles a chance."

The voles, which are protected under legislation, will take at least two weeks to catch and can only be moved during the months of March and October, avoiding the winter and summer breeding seasons.

Experts estimate that the UK’s water vole population has shrunk from almost 2.4 million to about 350,000 during the last decade.

Terry Walker, development director of Kelvin Homes, a key player in the regeneration project, acknowledged that the water vole relocation would be pricey.

The company has commissioned a special river technician to design around 500 yards of burn inside the Polkemmet site, re-directing it, improving the water quality and establishing the right depth of slope and planting on embankments for the water voles.

He said: "When we return the burn to its original quality, the ecology of the era will increase dramatically and that will encourage the voles to go back to that area."