A project backed by business is helping the endangered water vole make its last stand against extinction in the North-East.

Companies across County Durham and Tyne and Wear are working with Durham Wildlife Trust on a project called Coals to Voles, which is fighting to preserve water vole habitats and link fragmented populations.

Water voles, the inspiration for the character Ratty in the classic children's story The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, were once common along rivers, streams and ditches.

However, loss of habitat due to development and changes in agriculture led to numbers plummeting.

Another factor has been the impact of the American mink, once restricted to fur farms but now breeding in the wild, having either escaped or been released.

As a result, water voles have all but disappeared from the countryside, yet continue to hang on in urban areas, many of them heavily industrialised.

The wildlife trust has been working with companies in several areas to ensure that populations on their land are protected, including on the north-west and south-west Industrial estates in Peterlee, east Durham, where NSK and npower are among the companies taking part.

Further north, with the help of the local council, work is under way at Silksworth, in Sunderland, already the site of a large recreation complex, with plans also under development to involve businesses at the Simonside Industrial Estate, in South Shields.

A project is also planned for the Rainton Bridge industrial estate at Houghton-le-Spring, on Wearside. All the sites involved have water vole populations.

Jim Cokill, Coals to Voles project officer, who is based at Durham Wildlife Trust's offices, at Rainton Meadows, Houghton-le-Spring, said: "Studies have shown that numbers continued to fall throughout the 1900s as the management of our waterways and agriculture became more intensive and as our cities and urban areas expanded, leading to a loss of suitable habitat.

"Today, industrial sites are very important. Water voles are increasingly urban animals and appear not to have a problem with human disturbance.

"Water voles have been recorded on industrial sites across our area and seem able to live quite happily close to factories. The mink, on the other hand, do not like human disturbance and stay away from such sites, which is probably one key reason why the voles remain."

The project has been enlisting the help of industrial estate owners, agents and grounds maintenance companies, as well as individual businesses, to carry out work to encourage the voles, including ensuring the correct level of riverbank vegetation on streams running across their land - an important source of food and shelter.

Mr Cokill said the idea was to create green corridors to link fragmented colonies. He said: "When a water vole colony becomes isolated and cut off from other colonies, it becomes extremely vulnerable to extinction, especially in winter when the animals gather together in one location.

"A single event, such as a winter flood, could kill most of the individuals in a colony and, whereas in previous centuries voles would be able to migrate from neighbouring colonies to fill any gaps, today, that is no longer the case.

"What we are seeking to do is give water voles ways of moving between good habitats so that they have somewhere to go, and the companies we are talking to are understanding, supportive and eager to help."

There is a sense of urgency about the work: in 1990, the number of water voles in County Durham and Northumberland was estimated at 427,000. Less than ten years later, the figure was 29,000, a catastrophic drop of 93 per cent.

The Coals to Voles project, which has financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Environment Agency, is working to stop that decline and has enlisted the help of rural landowners and farmers.

Mr Cokill said: "There is hope, and the trust is doing all it can to ensure that we can all enjoy the sight of water voles along the rivers and streams of the area. It is more by luck than judgment that there are still water voles in County Durham, so maybe this time we will learn our lesson and take care of what we have before it is gone."

* To support the project, call Mr Cokill on 0191-584 3112 .

Published: 16/11/2004