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Water vole


Water vole

Water vole (Arvicola amphibius)

The water vole Arvicola amphibius (formerly terrestris) is the largest species of vole in Britain and inhabits canals, rivers, streams, ditches and other wetland areas.  Water voles are herbivorous and feed primarily on the lush aerial stems and leaves of waterside plants during the growing season, and the roots and bark of woody species such as willow, together with the rhizomes and bulbs and roots of herbaceous species during the winter months. Water voles use a series of bankside burrows comprising many entrances, inter-connecting tunnels, food storage, nest chambers and bolt holes.  Occasionally water voles will weave a nest into the base of sedges and reeds as a large ball of vegetation. Water vole activity above ground is largely confined to runs in dense vegetation within 2-5m of the water’s edge.  Water voles exhibit strong habitat preferences amongst riparian vegetation, selecting sites with grass tussocks and emergent plants while avoiding sites that are heavily grazed, trampled or over-shaded by dense scrub.

The water vole breeding season is from March to October, during which time breeding females are territorial and defend a length of habitat.  Males are not territorial, and have ranges that overlap with the ranges of females and other males.  Depending on overall population density, season and habitat quality, the length of a female’s territory varies between 30m to 150m, and a male home-range from 60m to 300m.  The increasing day length of spring stimulates breeding and sexually mature female can produce between 2-5 litters, each of 5-8 young annually.  Young born before July may breed that autumn, but most reach sexual maturity after their first winter.

Applied Ecology Ltd has considerable experience in carrying out water vole surveys and can provide accurate and up to date advice on how best to mitigate for this species, should it be present on your development site.

Conservation status

Water vole populations in England, Scotland and Wales have declined dramatically over the last century, and in particular over the last 30 years as a result of habitat loss and fragmentation, and predation by the introduced American mink. Water voles are not found in Ireland.


Water voles are listed as a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as they are still common in many parts of Europe.  However, the water vole is a UK BAP Priority Species and a Species of  Principal Importance in England under Section 41 of the NERC Act 2006 (Section 42 in Wales) and the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act in Scotland.

As of 6th April 2008 water voles are fully covered by the provisions of section 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended), which make it an offence to:

  • Intentionally kill, injure or take water voles
  • Possess or control live or dead water voles or derivatives
  • Intentionally or recklessly damage, destroy or obstruct access to any structure or place used for shelter or protection
  • Intentionally or recklessly disturb water voles whilst occupying a structure or place used for that purpose
  • Sell water voles or offer or expose for sale or transport for sale
  • Publish or cause to be published any advertisement which conveys the buying or selling of water voles.


A licence is required in order to capture water voles (e.g. for trans-location/marking) or damage their habitat.  In most cases such licences are awarded for conservation and not development purposes.  Conservation licences are issued by Natural England, the Countryside Council for Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage depending on which country you are in.


Survey for water voles generally involve searching for and recording characteristic water vole field signs along the edge of a water course or water body.  Field signs include, droppings (8-12 mm long and 4-5 mm wide, cylindrical with blunt ends, usually green or brown in colour), latrines (discrete piles of droppings), feeding stations, burrows, lawns around on-land burrow holes, above ground nests, footprints, and runways in vegetation.

Water vole


The presence of water vole on a site would be a material planning concern, and efforts should be made to ensure that water voles and their habitat are retained and suitably protected within a development layout wherever practicable.  In instances where it is not practicable or feasible to retain water vole habitat, it may be necessary to capture and re-locate water vole to suitable alternative habitat under the auspices of a licence from the relevant Statutory Nature Conservation Organisation (SNCO). Such operations need to be completed by experienced personnel since the potential for compromising the welfare of individual animals is high.  Water vole are relatively easy to capture especially during the breeding season using specially designed fencing and traps.  In some situations, however, it might be feasible via vegetation management to encourage water voles to disperse to alternative habitats nearby.

Captured water vole in "soft release" pen

Captured water vole in "soft release" pen

Click HERE to read about a recent water vole translocation project managed by AEL.

See Survey Calendar for survey timings.

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