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About The Water Vole

 

The water vole, Arvicola amphibius, is the largest of our British vole species weighing between 180-260g for males and 160-220g for females. Similar in appearance to  brown rats although there are a few subtle differences. Water voles can be confused with brown rats but they have smaller ears, hidden behind a layer of fur, a blunt muzzle and a hairy tail. Water voles dig underground burrow systems where they  rest, avoid predation and rear young. The burrow entrance is often close the waters edge, usually amongst dense vegetation.

 

Water voles are not very well adapted to water. They lack the webbed feet often associated with aquatic mammals, and whilst swimming appear very buoyant, making diving more of an effort. They mainly use water to avoid predators, to travel to the opposite river banks and to forage for food. Being a prey species water voles are on the constant look out for predators, and any slight noise  or disturbance can lead them to  characteristically ‘plop’ into the water alerting neighbouring voles to danger.

 

 

Being herbivores water voles eat a number of  wetland and bankside plant species including reedmace, reeds and rushes. During the winter when the vegetation is sparse the water vole population can suffer a huge decline due to cold weather, predation, lack of cover and reduced food availability. At this time fo year they turn to roots and bark of over-hanging trees such as  willow, Salix sp. or hazel, Corylus avellana.

As the name suggests, water voles in Britain are generally confined to aquatic habitats. Rivers, ponds, lakes, ditches and dykes are classic examples of where to spot one. They prefer sites with steep banks for burrowing, lush bank side vegetation and clean, slow-moving water at a depth  of less then a metre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like many rodent species water voles have a short lifespan, surviving up to three years in captivity but often only two in the wild. To make up for this females can produce several litters of, on average 6 young, in a breeding season. This generally starts from late March through to September, but can vary depending on weather conditions. The juveniles are weaned after 21 days, and postpartum allows the female to give birth to another litter almost immediately.

In recent years water voles have suffered a huge decline across the UK. The main causes are habitat fragmentation and loss and the introduction of the North American mink.

 

The construction of transport networks and housing developments split vole territories and prevent migration between colonies. This can lead to inbreeding within the population and eventually cause localised extinctions.

 

On top of this, during the 1900’s American mink were brought to the UK and kept in fur farms. Many escaped or were released, allowing a wild population to establish and thrive. Female mink are slim enough to follow water voles into their burrows , gradually removing them from their natural range. It soon became evident that without extensive conservation efforts and a change in legislation, water voles would soon become extinct in  the UK.  

Burrows

 

A number of species produce burrows in wetland areas, which can be easily confused with that of a water voles. Water vole burrows are generally 4-8 cm wide and located near to the water, along the banks.   

As water voles can be difficult to spot in the wild, their characteristic field signs are often used  to determine their presence:

 

 

Reasons for Decline Field Signs

Feeding Stations

 

Whilst feeding, water  voles chop up vegetation into sections up to 10 cm long with a 45 degree angle cuts at each end.. These neat piles are located at haul-out platforms, along their runways or near burrow entrances.

Latrines

 

Latrines are regular sites that water voles use to deposit faeces, for territory marking. The  voles add additional scent by rubbing their feet against scent gland on their flanks then trampling on the droppings.

 

Latrines are usually positioned in prominent places throughout the vole’s territory usually near to the waters edge. These act as a warning to others nearby, but also as a means of expressing breeding condition to potential mates.

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