European water vole guide: identification, diet and habitat

The European water vole is a large species of rodent found throughout much of Britain, but has undergone a serious decline in numbers.

Water vole, Arvicola terrestris, Kent, August 2009

The UK’s population of water voles have fallen over the last 25 years, although they still remain the largest species of vole in Britain. Sometimes mistaken for the brown rat, the water vole is also known by the name of ‘water rat’ and gained legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act in 2008.

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water vole is a large species of rodent found throughout much of Britain, but has undergone a serious decline in numbers

Learn more about the water vole with our expert guide which explains how to identify, best places where to see water voles in the UK and conservation efforts to protect the species.

How to identify water voles

The water vole is occasionally, mistaken for a brown rat, which can be found in a similar habitat. However, he water vole can be identified by their silky, yellowish-brown to dark brown coat, blunt nose, rounded body and long tail. The brown rat is larger with a pointer nose. See how to tell the difference between a water vole and a brown rat. 

Water vole, Arvicola amphibius, single mammal by water, Warwickshire, UK/Credit: Getty Images
Water vole, Arvicola amphibius, single mammal by water, Warwickshire, UK/Credit: Getty Images
Rat in a drain/Credit: Getty Images
The brown rat has a longer, pointer nose than the water vole/Credit: Getty Images

Do water voles hibernate?

Overwinter, water voles go under ground and maintain energy levels by sleeping more, and by laying down stores of tubers, bulbs and rhizomes.

One farmer uncovered a hundredweight of potatoes cached in a ditch, presumed by water voles.

Are water voles territorial?

Although water voles hunker down together throughout winter to keep warm, aggression is triggered again in February and they become highly territorial throughout the breeding summer months.


What are alternative names for water voles?

The water vole is sometimes known as the water dog, or even water rat in some areas around the country.

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Water voles are excellent swimmers. If disturbed, they dive into the water with a ‘plop’. © Mike Lane/Getty

How to water voles survive winter?

These rodents plug some of their burrow entrances with a mixture of mud and vegetation to help maintain heat in their burrows through winter.

Voles have galleries that they excavate for storing compacted waste. These chambers are full of food scraps and excrement that will decompose and help to generate heat throughout the cold winter months.


Why are water voles threatened?

Although water voles are on the up at the moment, at one point they were the fastest declining species in Britain.

Between 1989 and 1998, the population fell by almost 90%. Hopefully with continued conservation efforts they have escaped extinction.

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Water voles can be spotted swimming in rivers and waterways/Credit: Getty Images

How are water voles threatened by mink?

Before 2000, mink regularly escaped or were released from Britain’s fur farms. These alien invaders pose one of the biggest threats to water vole survival as they predate on the native rodent.

American Mink in Surrey, England.
American Mink in Surrey, England/ Credit: Getty Images

Are Scottish water voles different?

Scottish water voles have a completely different ancestry to their southern cousins across the border. Voles to the south of Scotland migrated over from south east Europe, recolonising after the Ice Age. Scottish voles came from the Iberian Peninsula.


How much do water voles eat?

Water voles eat 80% of their own body weight every day. Adult water voles weigh 200-350g on average, and will consume approximately 80 per cent of its body weight every day, generally eating a diet of plants found on the banks of waterways. British water voles have been recorded eating 227 plants.

European water vole (arvicola amphibius) smelling berries/Credit: Getty Images
European water voles eat berries and plants – consuming around 80% of their body weight daily/Credit: Getty Images

Do water voles always live in water?

Water voles in mainland Europe don’t actually live near water at all, but borrowed in underground systems more like that of a mole.


Do water voles scent mark?

Water voles don’t use faeces or urine to scent mark. Instead, they actively scratch flank glands with hind-feet at latrines and during agonistic and sexual encounters.


How long do water voles live for?

Water voles usually live a maximum of two winters. However, they can raise two litters each year with up to five offspring in each brood.

Water vole emerging from a drainage pipe
Water voles are much bigger than other vole species, and can sometimes be confused with brown rats. © Jamie Hall/Getty Images

Best places in the UK to see water voles

Unexpectedly, of the UK largest populations of water voles doesn’t live near water, but close to one of Glasgow’s housing estates. Researchers found that the small rodents were living in a rough area of grassland, with some even existing by the side of motorway. Studies found the water voles were still creating burrow systems and foraging in a similar way to their bank side relatives.

Cardowan Moss, Glasgow

Scan the ditches around the wetland section of this reserve for black-furred water voles. This melanistic form is more common in the Scottish Highlands.

Cromford Canal, Derbyshire

Set off from the car park at High Peak Junction, and cross to the canal. This is a very popular location for wildlife photographers.

Barton Broad, Norfolk

This Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve lies in the valley of the River Ant, a water-vole hotspot. You might see otters here, too.

Rainham Marshes RSPB, Essex

The ditches on this popular reserve in East London host a thriving water-vole population. Check the wooden feeding rafts positioned along the banks.

Cheddar Gorge, Somerset

There are several reliable sites for water voles here, the most popular of which is Mill Pond. If you’re travelling up through the gorge, it is on the left-hand side, just past Cox’s Cave.

Arundel WWT, West Sussex

Spot the reintroduced water voles from the reedbed walk or, in summer, take a trip in one of the silent electric boats.

Askham Bog Nature Reserve, Yorkshire

The boardwalk footpaths make this reserve very accessible. Follow the path to the pond where you will come to a viewing area with a bench – then just sit and wait for the voles to appear.

Cors Caron National Nature Reserve, Tregaron

Follow the raised boardwalk, suitable for wheelchair users and pushchairs, across the peat bog to search for water voles. Otters and polecats might also be spotted.

West Sutherland, Lairg

The watercourses in the Assynt area support sizeable water-vole populations. Voles also inhabit the surrounding area, including the mountainous terrain to the south.

Sandown, Isle of Wight

Head to the metal bridge on the Wetland Walk; from there, let it guide you along a network of waterways where riverbanks have been constructed to encourage water voles.


How to spot signs of water voles

Water voles favour open wetlands away from tree cover, with lush vegetation that offers both food and protection. Search flat spots on banks for chopped up piles of vegetation and latrines of 1cm-long droppings.

If you do find these signs, put out some apples over the course of a few days, then return in early morning or late evening: you may be rewarded with a sighting of Ratty.

Look for these telltale clues that will reveal if water voles are in your area.

Burrows

Water-vole burrows are about 7cm wide – roughly the same as a Pringles tube. Since the voles dig upwards from below, the entrances are tidy, without spoil heaps on the outside. The grass around the entrance is often nibbled short to make a ‘lawn’.

Droppings

Among the species’ most reliable field signs, water-vole droppings are shaped like Tic Tacs but slightly larger, at about 8–12mm in length. They range in colour from olive to black, depending on freshness. Both sexes deposit piles of droppings to mark territory.

Feeding signs

Search for stems of grasses, rushes and sedges consistently cut at a 45° angle. The offcuts are often left stacked in small piles.

Water vole reaching for berries/Credit: Getty Images
Keep an eye out for feeding signs from water voles/Credit: Getty Images

Prints

Water-vole prints are a similar size to those of rats, so can be tricky to identify, but there is a ‘starry’ shape to a water vole’s paw as the outermost toes splay out on both sides.

Trackways

Water voles push tunnel-like paths through long grass on banksides, and make muddy slipways leading into the water.


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Main image: Water voles are active during the day. © Mike Lane/Getty