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Water voles and the law

Legal protection

Water voles are listed on Schedule 5 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). In Scotland, the legal protection associated with this listing is currently restricted to the water vole's places of shelter or protection and does not extend to the animals themselves. However, full protection covering the animals themselves is proposed.

At present it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly:-

  • Damage, destroy or obstruct access to any structure or place which water voles use for shelter or protection, and;
  • Disturb water voles while they are using such a place.

The law in practice

It is not the intention of the law to prevent all activities in areas used by water voles. However, legal protection does require that due attention is paid to the presence of voles and appropriate actions are taken to safeguard the places they use for shelter or protection.

There is a defence against prosecution if it can be shown that the unlawful act was "the incidental result of a lawful operation or other activity" and that "the person who carried out the lawful operation or other activity took reasonable precautions for the purpose of avoiding carrying out the unlawful act" or that the person "did not foresee, and could not reasonably have foreseen, that the unlawful act would be an incidental result of the carrying out of the lawful operation or other activity". This defence only applies if the person stops causing any further illegal actions as soon as practically possible once he or she realises they are occurring.


In some cases licences may be issued by Scottish Natural Heritage to enable certain otherwise illegal activities to take place. With respect to development-related activities, licences can be issued where there is likely to be damage to a water vole burrow, or disturbance to a water vole within its burrow, for social, economic or environmental reasons. Licences may only be issued for this purpose provided that:

  • the activity authorised by the licence will contribute to significant social, economic or environmental benefit; and,
  • there is no other satisfactory solution.

Further details are available in Licensing.

Last updated on Tuesday 9th June 2015 at 09:03 AM. Click here to comment on this page