European water vole guide | BBC Wildlife Magazine

European water vole guide | BBC Wildlife Magazine

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The water vole is a species of rodent found throughout much of the UK and Europe, but has undergone a serious decline in numbers due to a mix of habitat loss and degradation, and predation by the introduced American mink.

Sometimes mistaken for the brown rat, the water vole is also known by the name of water rat and in fact, the character of ‘Ratty’ in The Wind in the Willows was actually a water vole.

Learn more about the water vole with our expert guide by the Mammal Society:


What is the scientific name of the water vole?

The scientific name of the water vole is Arvicola amphibius.

The other two species in the Arvicola genus are the montane water vole (A. sherman) and the southern water vole (A. sapidus), neither of which are found in the UK.

The European water vole is sometimes known as northern water vole, the water dog, or even water rat in some areas around the country. The character of ‘Ratty’ in The Wind in the Willows was actually a water vole.

Water vole, Arvicola amphibius, single mammal by water, Warwickshire, UK/Credit: Getty Images

Water vole by water, Warwickshire, UK. © Mike Lane/Getty

It is the only water vole found in the UK, but is absent from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

However, there are some other UK species in the same family (Cricetidae) as the water vole. These include the bank vole (Myodes glareolus) and field vole (Microtus agrestis).


How to identify water voles

Water voles are much larger than other species of vole in the UK at 14-22cm compared to 9-12 cm for the other voles mentioned above. They are actually more likely to be confused with the more similar-sized brown rat (Rattus norvegicus).

Look out for the more chestnut brown colour of a water vole compared to rats which have grey/brown top fur and a grey underside. Rats also have more pointed muzzles than water voles, longer, hairless tails and more prominent ears.

Another clue can be how much of the animal you can see when it is swimming. When a water vole swims, its whole body is seen above the water, whereas when a rat swims, only the head is visible out of the water.

More details on how to tell the difference between a water vole and a brown rat.

Rat in a drain/Credit: Getty Images

The brown rat has a longer, pointer nose than the water vole. © Getty


Where are water voles found?

In England, the water vole is found across the Midlands, East Anglia and southern England, the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Sheppey, and North Wales, though within these core areas, the population is fragmented. Its distribution is patchy in northern England, the rest of Wales and Scotland.

Water in Sussex, England, UK. © David Tipling/Universal Images Group/Getty

Water vole in Sussex, England, UK. © David Tipling/Universal Images Group/Getty

The water vole is absent from Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, the Scottish Islands (with the exception of terrestrial/fossorial populations on small islands in the Sound of Jura), and both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

This species is found throughout much of Europe and, according to the IUCN Red List, extends as far as the Lena Basin and Lake Baikal in Siberian Russia and extends north of the Arctic circle and south into Iran and the Near East.


How many water voles are in the UK?

Our latest population estimate for water voles, published in the Mammal Society Red List of British Mammals (2020) was 132,000 in Great Britain. This can be broken down as: 77,200 estimated in England, 50,000 in Scotland, and 4,500 in Wales.


What habitats do water voles live in?

Water voles are found in a wide variety of wetland habitats. They have a general preference for still or slow-flowing water, with lush riparian bankside vegetation and steep, earthen banks into which they can burrow. However, water voles can be found in a range of sub-optimal habitat too, including seasonally dry or over-shaded ditches.

Water vole by the edge of a canal in Derbyshire, England, UK. © Kevin Sawford/Getty

Water vole by the edge of a canal in Derbyshire, England, UK. © Kevin Sawford/Getty

Although most water voles in Britain have an aquatic lifestyle, there is a second form which lives entirely on land (usually grasslands), which is known as fossorial. In Scotland, where water voles are often black in colour rather than a rich chestnut brown, there is a well-publicised fossorial water vole population in Glasgow which has no reliance on water bodies but instead has colonised areas of rough grassland. Fossorial water voles are common in parts of continental Europe. These two types of water vole are not separate species or subspecies.


What do water voles eat?

Water voles are herbivorous and eat a variety of plant species in the summer, and roots, bark, berries and food which they’ve stored in underground caches during the winter. British water voles have been recorded eating 227 plants.

An adult water vole weighs between 200-350g on average, and will consume approximately 80% of its body weight every day.

A European water vole feeding on blackberries. © Getty

A European water vole feeding on blackberries. © Getty


What eats water voles?

Water voles have evolved with a plethora of native predators and as such can provide food for a range of species including fox, otter, stoat, weasel, brown rat, owls, herons and pike. In the Scottish Highlands, golden eagles will also eat water vole.

One of the biggest threats to water voles is predation by the non-native American mink, females of which are slender enough to gain access to water vole burrows, thereby providing no escape for the water vole.

American Mink in Surrey, England.

American mink in Surrey, England, UK. © Getty


Do water voles hibernate?

Water voles do not hibernate, however they spend a greater proportion of their time underground in winter, where they utilise their stored food caches and rhizomes. The lack of riparian vegetation which in other seasons is used both for food and protection renders water voles more susceptible to predation when they’re above-ground.


Are water voles territorial?

Although water voles hunker down together throughout winter to keep warm, aggression is triggered again in February and they become highly territorial throughout the breeding summer months.


How long do water voles live for?

In the wild, water voles live for an average of five months. In captivity, the oldest was two years.


What are baby water voles called?

Baby water voles are called pups.

Water voles have up to five litters a year, each of about six pups, born from April to September in England and May to August in Scotland. Gestation is 20-30 days. The mother is solely responsible for her offspring, receiving no assistance from either the father, or other family members.


How to spot signs of water voles

Water voles favour open wetlands away from tree cover, with lush vegetation that offers both food and protection. Search flat spots on banks for chopped up piles of vegetation and latrines of 1cm-long droppings.

If you do find these signs, put out some apples over the course of a few days, then return in early morning or late evening: you may be rewarded with a sighting of ‘Ratty’.

Look for these telltale clues that will reveal if water voles are in your area:

Burrows

Water-vole burrows are about 7cm wide – roughly the same as a Pringles tube. Since the voles dig upwards from below, the entrances are tidy, without spoil heaps on the outside. The grass around the entrance is often nibbled short to make a ‘lawn’.

Droppings

Among the species’ most reliable field signs, water-vole droppings are shaped like Tic Tacs but slightly larger, at about 8–12mm in length. They range in colour from olive to black, depending on freshness. Both sexes deposit piles of droppings to mark territory.

Feeding signs

A water vole feeding on the edge of a stream in Swindon, Wiltshire, England, UK. © Gary Chalker/Getty

A water vole feeding on the edge of a stream in Swindon, Wiltshire, England, UK. © Gary Chalker/Getty

Search for stems of grasses, rushes and sedges consistently cut at a 45° angle. The offcuts are often left stacked in small piles.

Prints

Water-vole prints are a similar size to those of rats, so can be tricky to identify, but there is a ‘starry’ shape to a water vole’s paw as the outermost toes splay out on both sides.

Trackways

Water voles push tunnel-like paths through long grass on banksides, and make muddy slipways leading into the water.


Are water voles endangered?

On the global IUCN Red List, water voles are listed as Least Concern.

However, in 2020 the Mammal Society published the first IUCN authorised regional Red List for Great Britain. In this Red List, the water vole is Endangered in England and Wales, and Near Threatened in Scotland. Overall, in Great Britain water voles are Endangered. They are one of Britain’s fastest declining mammals.

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Water voles can be spotted swimming in rivers and waterways. © Getty


Where are the best places in the UK to see water voles?

Cardowan Moss, Glasgow, Scotland

Scan the ditches around the wetland section of this reserve for black-furred water voles. This melanistic form is more common in the Scottish Highlands.

Cromford Canal, Derbyshire, England

Set off from the car park at High Peak Junction, and cross to the canal. This is a very popular location for wildlife photographers.

Barton Broad, Norfolk, England

This Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve lies in the valley of the River Ant, a water-vole hotspot. You might see otters here, too.

RSPB Rainham Marshes, Essex, England

The ditches on this popular reserve in East London host a thriving water-vole population. Check the wooden feeding rafts positioned along the banks.

Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England

There are several reliable sites for water voles here, the most popular of which is Mill Pond. If you’re travelling up through the gorge, it is on the left-hand side, just past Cox’s Cave.

Arundel WWT, West Sussex, England

Spot the reintroduced water voles from the reedbed walk or, in summer, take a trip in one of the silent electric boats.

Askham Bog Nature Reserve, Yorkshire, England

The boardwalk footpaths make this reserve very accessible. Follow the path to the pond where you will come to a viewing area with a bench – then just sit and wait for the voles to appear.

Cors Caron National Nature Reserve, Tregaron, Wales

Follow the raised boardwalk, suitable for wheelchair users and pushchairs, across the peat bog to search for water voles. Otters and polecats might also be spotted.

West Sutherland, Lairg, Scotland

The watercourses in the Assynt area support sizeable water-vole populations. Voles also inhabit the surrounding area, including the mountainous terrain to the south.

Sandown, Isle of Wight, England

Head to the metal bridge on the Wetland Walk; from there, let it guide you along a network of waterways where riverbanks have been constructed to encourage water voles.


Established in 1954, the Mammal Society is a charity that promotes science-led mammal conservation to preserve these charismatic species for future generations. As the only society focused on all of Britain’s mammals, it works to identify effective conservation strategies and to provide scientific evidence to determine policy and practice.

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Main image: A water vole sitting on the edge of a pipe in Kent, England, UK. © Mark Bridger/Getty

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