By Annette J Beveridge
Water voles are beautiful animals that are rarely seen unless you are specifically looking for them or can detect the tell-tale signs. They are far more likely to be heard as they plop into the river whenever they feel danger is approaching. They are the largest species of vole in Britain at 12-20 cm and with brown or black fur, chubby faces, small round eyes, and rounded ears, they are often mistaken for rats. Take a moment to notice their tail which is slightly furry and dark whereas the brown rat’s tail is long and hairless. Water voles often tuck their tail away however for identification, note the rounded face. Water voles can often be seen sitting upright and close to the water. They use their back legs for balance and hold stalks of grass, nibbling away at them. Water voles do not live for long – approximately two years so it is important that we do all we can to protect them.
The decline of water voles
Water voles are declining greatly. When mink were released from mink farms, it led to water voles being decimated as they have no natural defence against mink. Aggressive farming practices and the loss of habitat only add to their vulnerability. Heavy grazing of land by livestock can lead to river-banks being trampled. Where there is drought or flooding, this will affect them too. Up to 90% of water voles have already been lost. Water voles have a large number of predators including brown rats, cats, herons, stoats, foxes, mink, and even marsh harriers.
Pollutants entering the rivers can have a detrimental impact on the health of water voles. Farm waste, chemicals, and pesticides still make their way into British waterways even with tighter legislation. The healthiest rivers will often have otters and these are beneficial to water voles as there is less risk of mink.
Water vole facts
Water Voles are known to eat a diverse array of plant species – up to 227 different types. They do not always live near water but burrow underground. In Scotland, some populations have been found living in extensive burrow systems, and not close to water at all. They tend to live in colonies but will spread out along the river. The territory of a breeding female is approximately 20-150 metres and they will defend these territories aggressively. Males tend to have larger territories – up to 300 metres.
Tracking water voles
To locate water voles, watch out for burrows in grassy riverbanks but they are often hidden. There are underwater entrances too. If you find nibbled grass stalks – angled at 45 degrees approximately, this is likely to be near to the entrance hole. Latrines may be found along the bank too… notice rounded, cigar-shaped droppings. While water voles are still widespread, they are vulnerable and we must do all we can to monitor and protect them. Check along rivers near to you and note any disturbance or where there are population increases.