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Water voles (Arvicola amphibious) live in and amongst watercourses throughout the United Kingdom, they can be found most commonly along rivers, streams, and ditches, but have also been found in and around ponds, lakes and even canals. Water voles prefer habitats with ‘soft banks’ where they can dig burrows and have plenty of marginal vegetation for food and protection from predatory birds. Water voles are generally herbivores choosing to eat grasses and rushes but are able to eat 227 species of plant in Britain. Unfortunately this species is becoming a rarer sight throughout the UK.

Protection Status

Although listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN Red List due to higher populations within Europe, within the UK the species is listed as a UK Biodiversity Action Plan Species (UKBAP) and is listed on Schedule 5 on the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This means that it is an “illegal offence to intentionally kill, injure or take any wild animal listed on Schedule 5 and prohibits interference with places used for shelter or protection, or intentionally disturbing animals occupying such places” unless under specified circumstances.  The maximum fine on conviction of offences is currently £5,000.


Why Water Voles are Protected

Once one of our most common mammals, water voles have become the fastest declining mammal species in the UK. The species has been lost from 90% of sites where it had once existed over the past 100 years. One of the main reasons for this decline comes from the loss of suitable habitat due to hard engineering processes such as culverting, bank stabilisation and dredging, as well as overgrazing, poor grass cutting regimes and over shading from scrub, trees and invasive plants. The other major factor leading to water vole decline is due to the escape and release of the American Mink (mustela viso) into the wild where it preys upon the water vole.


Identifying Water Voles

Water voles are the largest of the three vole species we have in the UK measuring around 12-20cm. Water voles have a glossy, silky, yellowish-brown to dark brown coat of fur, a blunt nose, a rounded body and a long slightly hairy tail. Water voles are a secretive species but they do leave plenty of signs indicating their presence alongside a water body such as:

  • Latrines: areas of ‘uniform cigar shaped’ droppings can be found close to the waters edge.
  • Feeding signs: pieces of vegetation are left in piles around 10cm long and cut at a 45 degree angle, with grooved teeth marks at one end.
  • Burrows: typically water vole burrows have a grazed lawn surrounding the hole and are generally disconnected from each other at the surface.
  • Footprints: Water voles usually leave behind a ‘star shape’ from their fore feet and a short heel on their hind feet.


Similar Species

It is a common to mistake water vole for other members of the rodent family such as other voles, but in particular the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus). When compared to other voles, the water vole at 12-23cm  is considerably larger than its cousins the Bank Vole (Myodes glareolus) at 9-11cm and Field Vole (Microtus agrestis) at 9-13cm in size.


It is more difficult to distinguish between water voles and the brown rat due to their similar size and cohabitation of the same environments. Whereas the water vole has glossy, silky, yellowish-brown to dark brown coat of fur, a blunt nose, a rounded body and a long slightly hairy tail; the brown rat is brown or black, has a pointed muzzle, larger ears and a scaly tail. Both these species can swim and can take an expert eye to differentiate.

For more information on the difference between water voles and brown rats see the The Wildlife Trusts website.


Water Voles on Waterways

If you think you have spotted a water vole the first thing you should do is a notify the appropriate conservation body or authority such as the Wildlife Trust, RSPB, NBN Gateway, Environment Agency, The Biological Records Centre, Natural England or Local Authority. These organisations will be able to give advice on how to move forward with a project.

When working on canals it can be important to follow these steps before and during a project to ensure you do not breach The Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981).

  1. Before beginning a project look into whether water voles have been recorded on site or near the site by contacting your local conservation charity or authority.
  2. Inspect the site for signs of water vole including: feeding signs, latrines, burrows and footprints. Seek advice for a more qualified opinion. If you do find signs report this to the appropriate conservation body and await further advice.
  3. If water voles have only been discovered after development of a site has commenced you can contact the appropriate conservation bodies for advice. All works should be stopped until an appropriate survey has been undertaken and measures taken to protect the water voles on site.
  4. Report back head office or appropriate governing body.
  5. If Water Voles  are found to be using the habitats on site, permission will be required to undertake works.


Other Protected Species