Creating habitat for water voles

Perfect water vole habitat on the River Stour (Darren Tansley)

Good news! If you have land with a river, stream or even a watery ditch running through it, you’re in the perfect position to help our water voles recover...

What makes good water vole habitat?


Water voles prefer slow flowing, meandering rivers and streams, or ditches, canals and pools that are at least a metre deep. 

Vegetation cover

They need plenty of lush, grassy vegetation to feed on and take cover from predators. Large reed beds and grazing marshes have been found to be critical in helping water voles evade mink predation.

Steep banks

Water voles live almost exclusively in burrows built into bank sides. Some entrances will lead straight into the water (as escape routes), but most will be above water. Therefore it is crucial that there are enough steep banks, which will remain out of the water even in flood conditions.


Water voles need between 30 and 200 metres of water edge for their territory (this varies between males and females, and also depends on the habitat quality). Being extremely territorial, it is unlikely that there will be much overlap between water vole territories. If the watercourse is more than about 3 metres wide, each bank may be territory for a different water vole.


How can I manage land to benefit water voles?

Leave at least 2 metres of bankside vegetation or grass to provide food and cover for feeding water voles. Wider buffer strips (5 - 50 metres) will trap sediment, absorb run-off and the habitat that develops will provide food and cover for water voles and other wildlife.

Open up sections of the bank to the sun by coppicing bankside trees in densely shaded areas. This will prevent overshading and encourage grasses and herbs to grow, providing food and cover for water voles.

If livestock use the fields adjacent to the watercourse and you need to allow them to access the water, reduce the impacts of poaching by fencing off part of the watercourse. If only fencing one bank, choose the steeper, higher one, where water voles can burrow more safely.

This photograph shows how disturbance by cattle has detroyed a water vole colony 

Poaching by cattle destroyed this water vole colony

Reedbeds, ponds and backwaters provide a refuge for water voles and other aquatic wildlife such as dragonflies, fish and amphibians. Digging deeper junction ponds where ditches meet, or creating low bunds to hold back water for longer, can provide deeper pools for water voles to use when water levels drop over summer.

Don't cut bankside vegetation too short - this results in slower regrowth and so water voles will lose cover for longer.

Cut alternate banks each year so there is always a refuge for the water voles to escape to.

Riverbank management with one side left uncut. Water voles  are present here (photo: Darren Tansley)

Cut late in the summer to reduce disturbance to the voles during their breeding season. The best time to carry out habitat management is at the end of the breeding season in late September or October. Works can also be carried out by early February ahead of the breeding season.

When de-silting, avoid scraping the bank edges or disturbing them with machinery. Leave a fringe of vegetation along the edge.

Only remove silt from the centre of the channel.

Any machinery that might damage the bank should be kept to one side of the watercourse only, so at least the other side will remain intact.

Deposit silt and weed at the top of the bank, well away from the water.


Will water voles survive when vegetation has been cleared?

Probably, however, you are unlikely to see them until the vegetation grows back as they will mostly stay underground in their burrows. Removal of the vegetation – often necessary to keep waterways clear - not only removes the voles’ food, but also takes away the cover that protects them from predators. For this reason, it is probably not advisable to try and provide food for them. You should be able to see evidence of water voles out and about again once the vegetation starts to re-grow.  If possible, the best time of year to undertake this work is between November and January when water voles tend to stay in their burrows.

What should I do if I have water voles in my garden pond?

Water voles have full protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which means that it is illegal to kill, injure or take one from the wild, or intentionally or recklessly damage or disturb the places they use for shelter. Young male water voles disperse from the nest when they are about 4 months old to find new habitats, and it is quite common for them to then move on again to a more suitable habitat. Their occupation of small, lined garden ponds tends to be transient and it is most likely that the voles will move on. Water voles cannot be moved without a conservation licence issued by Natural England.

How can I create a pond to benefit water voles?

Creating new ponds can help water voles by extending or linking existing colonies, adding complexity to wetland habitats to help confound hunting mink, and providing a refuge during periods of flooding.

The Freshwater Habitats Trust has produced a guide to pond creation for water voles.


Further information

The Water Vole Conservation Handbook by Rob Strachan, Tom Moorhouse and Merryl Gelling. In-depth book on water vole conservation.

Derek Gow Consultancy website - lots of useful information on water vole ecology, folklore, management and more - website by water vole conservationist Jo Cartmell with lots of information on water voles and how to look after them.

Restoring Ratty - information on a large-scale water vole reintroduction scheme in Northumberland, involving Northumberland Wildlife Trust, Forestry Commission, Tyne Rivers Truust and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.