Written By - Lucy Scruton

Water voles are a native species to the British Isles, which were once found in abundance living along rivers, streams and ditches, around ponds and lakes and in marshes, reedbeds and areas of wet moorland. The water vole belongs to the rodent family, like the beaver, and can be identified by its chestnut-brown fur, rounded nose, small, rounded ears and furry short tail.

Water voles can be found in most areas of the British Isles, however the introduction of the
American mink contributed to their decline. Photo © Terry Whitaker

Under threat

Over the past 50 years water voles have been in decline, with a population decrease of over 90%. As such they have become a protected species under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Their decline is partly due to habitat loss; however the main threat to the water vole is the American mink. As we saw in the last blog post, the American mink is an invasive species that escaped from fur farms in the 1960s. American mink are a predator that eats anything they are able to catch, which includes water voles. Female mink can fit into the water voles’ burrows and steal their young, and because of the large amount of predators that the water vole already has (stoats, weasels, foxes, badgers, buzzards, kestrels, owls and large fish!), the introduction of the very effective mink was of huge negative effect to water vole populations.

American mink were introduced to Britain in the fur farming trade and have become widespread throughout Britain,
predating on native species including water voles and birds. Photo © Darin Smith

Spot the signs

  • Water voles like to stay in the same place when they eat, so you will often see a ‘lawn’ of grass and stems outside their burrows in the river banks, with ends chewed to distinctive 45° angled cuts.
  • The burrows can be found in river banks at water level, with a track running into the water; however they are not stand alone evidence of the presence of a water vole as they can often be confused with burrows of other species.
  • Their droppings or latrines are tic-tac shape and size and are brown or green in colour. These are often the best way to identify water voles.

 Water vole at The Mill, Salisbury. Photo © Emma Matthars

What can you do?

Every little helps - You can help us identify where water voles are present in the county by looking out for their burrows, droppings, food and water voles themselves! This helps us to understand how they are distributed and therefore which areas are doing well and which need more work.  If you spot them, report them to us through our Living Record online wildlife recording system. You can find a step-by-step guide of how to do this here: http://bit.ly/WSBRC_LR

The Water Team also undertake surveys around Wiltshire to assess water vole populations in the County. The WWT’s Wessex Chalk Stream Project, which started in 1999, and many other of the Water Team’s restoration projects have helped the water vole through restoring habitat on river banks, and through the control of the American mink. The decline of the mink is also thanks to the increasing population of the otter, a competitor of the mink. These combined efforts are helping the water vole numbers to increase.

Further reading







Volunteer’s for any of our projects - including water vole surveys and habitat restoration – are always welcome; our projects are always lots of fun, very satisfying and a great way to meet new people. Check out our latest volunteering opportunities here: https://www.wiltshirewildlife.org/practical-volunteering-with-the-water-team  

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