Water vole - frequently asked questions

Water vole - Tom MarshallWater vole - Tom Marshall

What is the legal status of the water vole?

The water vole and its burrows are both protected by law. It is illegal to kill, injure or take one from the wild. It is also illegal to intentionally or recklessly damage or disturb the places they use for shelter. This protection is afforded by the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981(amended).
 

How do you tell the difference between a water vole and a rat?

Know your vole!  Learn to tell a water vole from a rat using our handy guide.

The water vole is often confused with the brown rat but the resemblance is really only superficial, and the two species are not closely related.  Water voles are much larger than most people realise, up to 9 inches long with a 3 inch tail on top of that.

Water voles (Arvicola amphibius) have a blunt nose; chestnut-brown fur (although some water voles are black); small, rounded ears that are not often clearly visible; and a shorter, furry tail.

Brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) have a much more pointed face with clearly visible ears; their tails are longer and scaly; and their fur is usually darker in colour.

Brown rat (left) and water vole (right)
 

What are the main field signs of a water vole?

Footprints

Water voles leave characteristic tracks in mud close to the water. The forefoot has four toes which leave a distinctive star shaped pattern, while the hind has five toes with the first and fifth toes leaving prints almost at right angles to the three central toes.

Water vole tracks

  
Droppings

Water vole latrine - Gwent Wildlife Trust
Often found in latrines (piles of droppings). Odourless, even consistency (owing to vegetarian status) and usually with rounded tips, about the size of tic-tacs!

Water voles latrines are created as part of a territorial behaviour where a vole will revisit the same area over and over again to deposit its droppings. Because latrines are associated with territorial behaviour, they can be a really good indication to the number of voles using a stretch of bank.

 


 

Feeding signs

Water vole feeding signs - Gwent Wildlife TrustWater voles are mostly vegetarian (breeding females will also occasionally take small snails, froglets, fish and crayfish) and feed on more than 200 different plant species, including sedges, rushes and grasses.  They have extremely characteristic feeding habitats and will leave neat piles of vegetation with all of the ends cut at a 45 degree angle. You can also find stems cut at an angle that are still growing out of the ground.

As well as leaving neat piles, they will also create feeding rafts - piles of cut vegetation that will be thick enough for a vole to sit on in the water. These are most typically found next to areas where suitable vegetation emerges directly from the water.

Water voles will also create feeding lawns, particularly close to their burrows. These lawns are areas of extremely short cut vegetation, where the vole has grazed for a period of time.

 
 Plop!

When a water vole enters the water it makes a distinctive ‘plop’. If you hear one, look for the V-shaped wake that the swimming water vole makes in the water.

Water vole wake - Philip Precey


Burrows

Water voles create underground burrow systems along banks close to the water, with some openings below water level and some on the bank - these can be up to three metres from the water's edge.  Above ground, they create runways and tunnels through the vegetation which can be found up to two metres from the water’s edge.

It can be difficult to determine whether they have been made by water voles or rats. A freshly-dug water vole burrow is unlikely to have any messy debris around it, whereas rat burrows will be muddy and there will often be feeding remains (such as snail shells, bones) scattered close by.

Usually a water vole burrow can only be confirmed if other water vole signs are found nearby.  The burrow entrance below is surrounded by a closely-nibbled feeding lawn and belongs to a water vole.
 Water vole burrow - Karen Lloyd
 

 How far do water voles travel?

Water voles do not travel very far from their burrows. A female will have a territory of about 30 to 150 metres and males range over about twice that. Young water voles will travel 1-2 kilometres when they leave the ‘nest’ in summer or autumn and disperse into the surrounding area.

When travelling, water voles use the water courses to get around. They do not travel over land although they will forage within a few metres of the water’s edge.
 

Do water voles hibernate?

No.  During the winter they spend more of their time underground.  They will dig up bulbs and rhizomes and eat bark to survive as most of the green plants will be too tough for them to eat.


When is the water vole breeding season?

They will readily breed all year round, but conditions are usually only suitable for them from April to October. Females have up to five litters a year with five to eight young in each litter. Young are independent at around 28 days old and are sexually mature at five weeks. Average survival is usually less than a year with high mortality over the winter months.  Since water voles rarely survive two winters it is imperative they breed as much as possible during their short lifetime.

 

Water vole calendar - Cheshire Wildlife Trust
 
 

What makes good water vole habitat?

Water!

Water voles prefer slow flowing, meandering rivers and streams or ditches, canals and pools that are at least a metre deep.  Although the water vole swims and dives well, it is not particularly adapted to water; it is very buoyant and swims high out of the water, doggy paddle style, and after prolonged submergence the fur becomes waterlogged.

Vegetation cover

Water voles 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, for the voles to safely live in.

In extreme conditions (like the flooding seen in summer 2012) water voles will make floating nests. These are large woven structures, which float on top of the water amongst reeds and rushes. These structures are only good as a temporary measure however, as they do little to protect the voles from predators.

Space

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.

 

Water vole requirements
 

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.

Wide 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, allow them to access the water but reduce the impacts of poaching by fencing off part of the watercourse.

Reedbeds, ponds and backwaters provide a refuge for water voles and other aquatic wildlife such as dragonflies, fish and amphibians.

Minimising impacts on water voles - Cheshire Wildlife Trust

 Don't cut bank side 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.

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 in March ahead of the breeding season.

When de-silting, avoid scraping the bank edges or disturbing them with machinery.

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.
 

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 (amended) which means that it is illegal to kill, injure or take one from the wild, or intentionally or recklessly damage or disturn 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.