Water voles are disappearing. They started to lose their homes in the 1940s and 50s with the intensification of agriculture, but the most devastating factor to their demise came during the 1980s and 90s. Illegally released American mink spread furiously across the countryside preying on the vulnerable native mammals, and continue to do so today. In just ten years water vole numbers had crashed by almost 90%.
Found along our waterways, water voles are similar-looking to the brown rat, but with a blunt nose, small ears and furry tail! Surveying plays a crucial role in monitoring vole presence/absence, as well as relative abundance, at sites across England, Scotland and Wales on an annual basis so we can detect any changes in their populations and distribution.
Over the past few weeks, I have been chest deep in a freezing cold local river, surveying for signs of water voles! There are 4 main things to look for: burrows, footprints, feeding signs and droppings.
First of all we found hundreds of burrows! There burrows are generally oval shaped, usually 5-8cm wide, often seen along the water’s edge and bank but with some under the waterline! They often have a ramp/slip outside the burrow, where they slide out!
Burrows at the top of the bank may have a distinctive cropped ‘lawn’ surrounding them where the voles have cut a clear path around the opening!
Water voles have star-shaped footprints. Their footprints are similar to a rats, but have a shorter heel and the first and fifth toes are at right angles to the three central toes.
Diagonally nibbled stalks of grass and leaves in small piles along tunnels in long grass indicate the presence of water voles. However, field voles and bank vole do leave similar feeding signs, so always look for supporting evidence, ideally droppings.
Piles of droppings (latrines) are used as territory markers by females during the breeding season. Water vole droppings are usually 8-10mm long, with virtually no odour. They are particularly distinctive as they are often described as having a tic-tac shape!
We had a fantastic survey with lots of promising signs of voles living on the river! Here are our results:
Sources: Mammal Society, PTES, The Wildlife Trusts
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