EFFORTS are being stepped up to save the endangered water vole on Teesside following research which discovered that many of the creatures live along the beck valleys of Middlesbrough.

Arthur West and Jonathan Pounder, assistants with Middlesbrough Borough Council's leisure and arts section, have been carrying out research into the status of the creature in the borough.

A survey carried out two years ago showed that Middlesbrough had the highest water vole population in the area, with the town's six main becks supporting colonies.

The latest information will form part of the council's conservation plan for its becks, which are a haven for wildlife.

Water voles were once a familiar sight on waterways and ponds throughout England, but numbers have declined rapidly as their habitats have been destroyed by factors including the loss of bankside vegetation, changes of waterway use and new development.

They have also suffered from attacks by mink, which have spread rapidly throughout the countryside over recent decades.

The council is also concerned that voles are often mistaken for rats, not least because the character Ratty in Kenneth Grahame's children's book, The Wind in the Willows, was actually a water vole.

As a result, water voles are often persecuted, and the council is working with other local authorities and conservation organisations in the region, such as Tees Valley Wildlife Trust, to protect the creature before it disappears altogether.

Nationally, some estimates have suggested that the creature will have all but gone within the next five years.

Tansee Cartwright, community action officer for the council, said: "We want to raise awareness of the water vole and its habitat, and we would like to start doing talks in schools and to community groups.

"Involving young people and neighbourhoods as volunteers in the protection of the vole is vital, and by improving the environment for the water vole there will be spin-off benefits for other protected species."