How to identify water voles

Scientific name: Arvicola terrestris


Fur: Water vole fur is dark chocolate brown, yellowish on flanks

Size: Male water voles can be up to 20cm long (head and body); tail half the length of a rat’s.

Ears: Small and dark and buried in fur

Nose: Chubby and rounded

Water vole (Arvicola terrestris)
Water vole on land. Note the chubbier body, different head structure and lack of obvious ears. © Duncan Shaw/Getty

Body: Rounded and chunky

Tail: A water vole's tail is furry, thin and hard to see and it's short - less than half the body length

What can I look for on land? The blunt head, brown fur and short, hairy tail that’s hard to see. Their tracks are easy to identify – the forefeet have four toes, while the hindfeet have five.

What can I look for in water? Swims well and dives with a loud ‘plop’ if alarmed.

Any other signs? Substantial piles of droppings at the water’s edge. Voles also eat aquatic vegetation and leave bits lying around. Their burrows are similar to those of rats.

Habitat: Water voles live in and around rivers, ditches, ponds and along urban waterways.

How to identify brown rats

Scientific name: Rattus norvegicus

Fur: Brown rat fur is mainly pale grey-brown; grey-white on flanks and belly

Size: Male brown rats can be up to 50cm long (head and body 25cm, tail about the same).

Ears: Prominent and pale and stick up above head

Nose: Pointed

Side view of a Brown rat with typical long tail
A brown rat showing all of its distinctive features. © Peter Chadwick/Getty

Body: Long and lean

Tail: A brown rat's tail is scaly, thick and very obviously long - more than half the body length

What can I look for on land? The rat’s prominent ears and long, scaly tail are key identification features.

What can I look for in water? There’s possible confusion here because rats can also swim well. However, unlike water voles, they won’t dive if alarmed.

Any other signs? Groups of oval droppings and burrows with obvious trails


Habitat: Brown rats can be found close to human habitation – around buildings, farmyards, rubbish tips and gardens, also urban waterways.