THEIR cheeks are chubbier, their ears furrier and their bodies just that little bit more tubby; water voles are way cuter than their less welcome cousins.

Yet when the now endangered rodents were first spotted in Glasgow’s Easterhouse scheme, locals were sure they had a problem with a nasty pest.

“They thought they had rats,” said Martin Faulkner of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). “So they rang up the council to complain.”

What city workers found was one of Britain’s most significant populations of a once ubiquitous animal nearly wiped as its habitats were destroyed.

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Now a few years after their discovery the voles - described as “enterprising” by Mr Faulkner because of their survival in an urban setting - are part of a whole new “green infrastructure” scheme that will help both them and their human neighbours.

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Work underway at Easterhouse. Pic: Jamie Simpson

Much of Glasgow’s drainage system is being rebuilt and redesigned under a £46m infrastructure programme. The aim? To stop the kind of catastrophic flooding that are occurring more often as global heating provokes extreme weather.

The work includes new concrete pipes and culverts - what SNH’s Mr Faulkner calls grey infrastructure. But it also involves taking away the grey stuff. Right in the heart of Easterhouse, there are red blaes pitches, which covered a stream that flowed through concrete pipes.

Right now the pitches are a muddy field, a construction site. Soon they will go back to their original state, a grassy wetland, a home for water voles. “We are opening up the burn,” Mr Faulkner explained with a wave over a Hera fence. “That means this area can flood, protecting property that would otherwise be at risk.

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Martin Faulkner and Iain Rennick of Scottish Natural Heritage. Picture: Jamie Simpson

The property he is talking about is pretty important. Because he does not just mean homes. He means the M8, central Scotland’s main transport artery, which is a few hundred metres away. Glasgow City Council, SNH and others are busy recreating and supporting wetlands on either side of the motorway, including at Cranhill Park.

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SNH in recent years has been working with councils and others to try and develop such nature-based solutions to tough problems.

Its chief executive, Francesca Osowska, last week used a landmark lecture to the Royal Society of Edinburgh to spell out her vision for putting places like Easterhouse’s wetlands on the frontline of the climate emergency.

“We need to be nurtured by places around us, and not cooped up and seeing nature ‘out there’ unconnected with us,” she said.

And so the scheme is not just for flooding, or for voles, but for people too. Mr Faulkner stressed Easterhouse is not losing a park, it is gaining a connected network of green spaces that people - and, yes, voles can use to move around.

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Opening up a burn in Easterhouse. Picture: Jamie Simpson

People will be able to walk through the wetlands fron Easterhouse railway station to the Seven Lochs nature area behind what is still one of Scotland’s poorest communities.

Mr Faulkner reckons this marks a new way of thinking of regeneration, with well-being and the environment at its heart. This, he and his colleagues reckon, is about rethinking what productive land is, realising it is not just offices, homes or factories. “It is always ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’, he said. “But we know green spaces make a difference. Being close to natural automatically has a good impact on you.”

His colleague Iain Rennick, however, suggests there is a lot still to be done, to convince officials that wetland or woodlands are good economics

“This is not stopping development,” Mr Rennick said of the Easterhouse scheme. “It is facilitating development. Our planners have been slow to pick up the idea of green infrastructure. It it still not the norm.”

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A Glasgow water vole, by Steve Hosey/GCC. Voles should only ever be handled by trained experts

A spokeswoman for the city council made the kind of noises environmentalists like.

“Our water voles are unique and of national significance, dwelling in high densities within urban grasslands, particularly to the east of the city,” she said. “We map our green network to achieve a balance between the regeneration of vacant and derelict sites for housing whilst preserving key corridors to prevent the water vole population fragmenting.

“These green infrastructure works will provide water voles with new and additional habitats that can support a new population, and are being partly EU funded.

“We are keen to raise awareness of the water vole population in the east of Glasgow and with our partners from the University of Glasgow, SNH and Seven Lochs, we are doing just that.”

Glasgow voles, meanwhile, are off on holiday. A group living on the site of an abandoned Easterhouse primary school now scheduled for redevelopment is to go to a “vole hotel’. They will be brought back when the wetland is ready. The lesson, for SNH, is simple: what is good for voles is good for all of us