24 March 2023


A paw-some duo has been helping workers detect – and protect – endangered wildlife as they construct a new multi-million-pound water main network. 


Hetty and Rex have been sniffing out water voles along a 90-kilometre section of the Anglian Water’s new network, spanning Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk.  


Tiny water voles inspired Ratty, one of the best-loved characters from The Wind In The Willows. 


But in real life, they came close to vanishing forever – their numbers dropped by 95 per cent between 1939 and 1998 and they are still listed as endangered. 


For that reason, Anglian Water has teamed up with Conservation K9 Consultancy, who train wildlife detection dogs, to make sure their work doesn’t harm the cute creatures. 


Highly trained, and accompanied by their handlers Louise Wilson and Willow West, when Hetty, a cocker spaniel, and cocker spaniel labrador cross Rex, detect water vole habitat they sit down. 


Ecologist Andrew Weston, from the team delivering the new water main grid, said: “Maintaining good-quality habitat is key to ensuring water voles thrive. 


“Hetty and Rex are the ‘Sherlock Bones’ duo of our team. Their exceptional sense of smell helps our team of ecologists to detect water voles, or to rule out the presence of the animals, before we start any of our pipelaying work. Where we do find them, we’ll take steps to make sure our work doesn’t harm them.  


“As well as delivering a much-needed network of water pipelines, we’re committed to maintaining rich, diverse, environmentally-friendly landscapes in the areas we work, and in doing so helping water voles – and all other animals – to thrive across our region.” 


Water voles are often mistaken for rats but there are distinctive differences. The water vole has a rounded muzzle and ears mostly hidden in the fur while rats have pointed faces, obvious ears, and large eyes and a long, hairless tail.  


They were once common across the UK but have vanished from many locations due to the loss of their natural habit and the introduction of American mink, which prey on water voles. 


Both Hetty, seven and Rex, two, are rescue dogs. 


Louise, who is also the founder of Conservation K9 Consultancy, said a dog’s sense of smell is at least 100,000 times more sensitive than a human. 


She said: “The use of dogs to help with conservation is more common in other parts of world than in the UK - but when it comes to detecting animals, dogs are quicker than humans and have less impact on the environment. 


“We train Hetty and Rex, and all our other dogs, to detect wildlife in the same way the police dogs are trained to detect bombs and drugs, allowing organisations like Anglian Water to protect wildlife, ecology and biodiversity.”  


The water company’s new water main network – hundreds of kilometres of underground, interconnecting pipelines, stretching from North Lincolnshire to Essex – will move water from wetter to drier areas of the region.  


Without it, parts of the east of England could run dry by 2030.  


But Anglian Water are also committed to leaving a long-lasting green and social legacy along the route of the new grid.  


The water company has donated 2,000 books to 11 primary schools along the pipeline route, built special 'navigation' fences to help bats, placed dozens of boxes for barn owls and donated a life-saving defibrillator.  

James Cowley, who is overseeing the construction of the new network between Peterborough and Downham Market, said last summer’s unprecedented heatwave highlighted the need for the water company’s work: "The east of England is one of the driest regions in the UK and has a rapidly growing population, which is why we've spent many years developing and now implementing our plans to combat water shortages and increase resilience.   


“Simply put, without the new water main grid, demand for water could outstrip supply in parts of the east of England as soon as 2030.  


“The importance of our work really cannot be underestimated.”