WILDLIFE experts have won a £49,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to enable them to implement a pioneering recovery plan for water voles.

The project, by the Durham Wildlife Trust, is of enormous significance as the waterways and wetlands of east Dur-ham's urban areas hold the UK's last important remnant populations of water voles.

The creatures are extinct in almost all of central and western Durham.

The grant is the Lottery fund's first award to a priority species, as defined by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

The project is also the first local demonstration in the country of a fully-integrated strategic approach to water vole conservation.

The two-stage programme will take place over a three-and-a-half year period.

During stage one, a full-time officer will review all existing water vole data in east Durham.

In stage two, a part-time officer will liaise with the land-owning community to promote positive management of water courses.

He or she will also identify three core water vole populations on land, and raise the profile of the water vole. The community and schools will be able to become involved through water vole watches, guided walks and other events.

Heritage Lottery Fund regional manager Keith Bartlett said: "This is an extremely important project.

"It would be a tragedy for the water vole to become extinct and we're delighted to be able to support Durham Wildlife Trust in its work to protect them."

The water vole was immortalised as Ratty in Kenneth Graham's book The Wind in the Willows.

It is Britain's most threatened mammal. There has been a 90 per cent decline in numbers due to habitat loss and predation by the feral American mink and is extinct in some areas.