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Water voles

Water voles are the largest of the British vole species. They usually live beside water bodies where they feed on grasses and herbs growing on the banks where they dig their burrows.  Scottish water voles are genetically distinct from those in the rest of the UK. The voles that colonised England and Wales following the last Ice Age originated from South East Europe, whereas Scotland's voles appear to be descended from migrants from northern Iberia.

In lowland areas, water voles occur beside small slow-flowing burns, small backwaters, canals, ditch systems and overgrown field drains, sometimes in intensively-farmed and urban areas. The best sites support a continuous swathe of tall grassy vegetation top provide food and cover for the voles.  

Due to desperate losses in the lowlands, water voles in Scotland are now mainly restricted to the smaller tributaries and headwaters of the rivers in the uplands. Here they are found in narrow moorland burns and barren peat hags on flat or gently sloping ground. Areas with a thick layer of peat and lush vegetation are preferred.

How is the water vole threatened?

The water vole is one of our most threatened native mammals, having undergone a dramatic decline, particularly during the latter part of the twentieth century. The reasons for this include habitat degradation and fragmentation, but also predation by American mink. Water voles have many native predators but, unlike the mink, none of these seem to threaten the survival of the water vole. Mink are waterside animals and female mink are capable of following the voles into their burrows.

How you can help

If you know of a water vole colony, you should make sure that it is known about - contact your local mammal recorder external site

If you own or manage land, the guidance below may help. 

What needs to be done

Water vole habitat can be damaged by reductions of the height of bankside vegetation due to grazing. But the growth of dense scrub or trees is equally damaging as it leads to a decline in the bankside grasses, reeds, sedges and rushes needed by the voles.

Water vole conservation relies on:

Maintaining tall grasses and herbs alongside the water body.  Fencing may help although the growth of young trees and scrub needs to be prevented.

Minimising the opportunity for mink colonisation (including habitat management to reduce the opportunities for denning, targeted mink control and rabbit control if required.)

Last updated on Monday 8th June 2015 at 12:35 PM. Click here to comment on this page