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Published on : 3rd March 2018

What Are Water Voles?

European Water Vole

The European water voles, Arvicola amphibius, belong to the Cricetidae family along with hamsters, New World rats and mice and lemmings. Most of them of them have chestnut brown fur and some have black coat. They have small, rounded, black eyes and a blunt nose. Their rounded ears are not visible because they do not protrude from the coat.

Known as the largest species of voles in the UK, water voles have an average length of 23 centimetres. They primarily feed on plants such as grasses and fruits as well as barks of trees and roots. On rare occasions, they eat invertebrates like insects. They are believed to consume food amounting to 80% of their body each day.

Water voles swim which is why they have flaps of skins over their ears. These flaps keep water out when they are swimming. They are usually found in banks of slow flowing rivers, lakes and ponds. They prefer areas with thick vegetation which makes them less visible from predators. They dig burrows into the banks of these bodies of water. These burrows are extensive with underwater entrances and sleeping chambers. Males typically have bigger homes than females.

A water vole swimming

These semi-aquatic creatures have a very short life span. Most water voles rarely live past two winters. However, in captivity, they can survive for five years, at most.

During their lifetime, females give birth to two to four litters each year which are composed of three to seven pups. The young ones are usually born blind and hairless. The pups usually open their eyes after three days and stay with their mothers for 28 days. In order to survive their first winter, young water voles need to at least weigh 140 grams.

The breeding season for water voles is from April to September. The gestation period only lasts for 21 days. While breeding, females become very territorial, often marking their territories with flat piles of droppings called latrines. Their breeding nests made up of shredded grass are found underground.

What Are the Differences Between Water Voles and Brown Rats?

Sometimes referred to as water dog and water rat, these charismatic creatures are often mistaken as brown rats. Although they are sometimes found on the same location, they are not really that similar. If you examine them closely, you would notice their differences.

Brown rat and its prominent ears

One distinct feature that sets water voles apart from brown rats is the ear. Water voles have ears buried under their fur, while brown rats have very prominent ears that stick up above their head. Their tails are also very different. Water voles have short tails which are thin and furry. Brown rats have scaly and long tails which are over half their body’s length. As compared to rats, “water dogs” have rounder and chubbier bodies.

Where to Find Water Voles in the UK?

Native to the UK, water voles are found in different parts of the country. Some of the best places in the UK to see water voles are the Cardowan Moss, Richmond Park, Cromford Canal, Cheddar Gorge, and Margam Country Park. The brook at Sherbourne Estate is also home to a number water voles as well as otters.

A water vole out of a hole

Water voles can be spotted all year round, except during winter because they spend most of their time underground. The best time to see them is when vegetation is not too thick yet, like during spring to the early weeks of autumn. May is usually a good month for spotting these so-called water rats. Since this is their breeding period, you may even see juvenile voles. If you go out in search of water voles, some of the things you have to look for include footprints, burrows, droppings and feeding signs.

Are European Water Voles Declining in the UK?

While they can be found all over the country, water voles are not as abundant as they used to be. In fact, this mammal is one of Britain’s most endangered species. From a population of about 8 million prior to the 60s, there were just around 220, 000 of them in 2004. Furthermore, research showed that they have disappeared from 94% of the areas where they were previously found. Due to this, water voles are now considered the fastest declining mammal species in Britain.

A water vole eating grass

What is causing the decline in water vole population? Predation is the top reason why water voles are vanishing. Their number one predator is the American mink. Brought into in the 1920s for fur farming, minks escaped and bred in the wild. These predators prefer to live near waterways like the water vole which is why the latter is an ideal prey. Minks are very invasive and aggressive; oftentimes, a single mink can destroy colonies of water voles.

Aside from predation, habitat loss is another reason for the decline. Water voles are losing their homes to urbanisation and development. Massive grazing and poaching are turning banks into unsuitable habitats for water voles.

There are different conservation efforts to save water voles from extinction. For one, mink population along water ways is being controlled. There are also river restoration projects to create more suitable habitats for water voles. There have been efforts to reintroduce them in different parts of the country. In 2017, 700 water voles were released into Kielder Forest in Northumberland. This was dubbed as one of the largest water vole reintroduction projects in the UK.

Despite the aforementioned efforts, reports indicate that more needs to be done to reverse the decline. Conservation groups are calling on everyone to volunteer and save water voles from extinction. Just recently, advocates for water voles asked landowners to join in creating suitable habitats for water voles. If you want to help water voles, contact your local Wildlife Trust to learn about how you can prevent these creatures from going extinct in the UK.

European Water Vole photo by Peter G Trimming

A water vole swimming photo by Mrs Airwolfhound

A brown rat and its prominent ears photo by Steve_Herring

A water vole out of a hole photo by Peter G Trimming

A water vole eating grass photo by Nick Goodrum Photography


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