The Vole Story

PUBLISHED: 11:42 07 March 2008 | UPDATED: 15:03 20 February 2013

Kennet and Avon Canal - a Water Vole stronghold

Kennet and Avon Canal - a Water Vole stronghold

The Vole Story and nothing but the Vole Story: water voles have had a bit of a battering from the environment over recent years, but they are very much alive and well in Wiltshire and, if they could steer a barge, probably would.

The water vole was once a familiar creature in Wiltshire and the rest of the UK. Immortalised as 'Ratty' by Kenneth Grahame in his story, 'The Wind in the Willows', the water vole is looked upon as a harmless, lovable creature. So what has caused it to decline in numbers and just how threatened is it? To answer these questions we need to look a little closer into the secret life of 'Ratty', the water vole.

The water vole, Arvicola terrestris, has sometimes been known as the water rat, a description brought about by some superficial similarities between the two species, including their overall size and colour, but the two are only distantly related. The water vole has a much different character and set of habits and it also looks quite different with a rounder face than the rat, smaller ears and a blunter nose. It is altogether a plumper-looking creature and though it does have a long tail, this is fur-covered and often unobtrusive due to its posture.

Water voles are active both day and night, they feed on plant materials, particularly grass and other waterside vegetation, including the leaves of sedge and flag iris, buds, roots and fallen fruit. Often they will sit fairly upright and use their front feet to manipulate their food, a little like a squirrel might do. Water voles are good swimmers but unlike rats they prefer clean water away from disturbance and buildings. When entering the water a water vole tends to make a distinctive 'plop' sound which is often the sign that gives it away to the alert observer, the purpose of this sound is to warn other water voles that there is danger. Once in the water it will swim away to the safety of its network of holes in the bank.

Water voles inhabit ditches, slow-moving rivers and canals. They make burrows in the banks at various levels so that during times of flood they can still gain access to some of their underground chambers. Inside these chambers they make a nest of grass and this is where the females raise their litters of young. Young water voles are born blind and naked weighing about 5 grams. They put on weight at an average of about 1 gram per day. At the age of five days they have furry coats and open eyes; at about fourteen days old they are old enough to become independent of their mother.

Often the first litters of the year will be born in March and the water vole can raise between three and five litters per year. When you consider that a litter can consist of up to eight young and that the first young of the year can also breed before the end of the year it soon becomes apparent that the water vole has the opportunity for swift colonisation of an area, even though a water vole typically lives for only about five months and rarely exceeds eighteen months of age. However, not everything is plain sailing for the water vole.

Nationwide figures for the population of the water vole suggest that it has suffered one of the most catastrophic declines of any British mammal. At one time it is estimated that there might have been about seven million of them in Britain, by 1995 this figure was down to about 1.2 million and by 2004 it had fallen still further to below 900,000. There are two main reasons for the decline; one is the loss of suitable habitat and the other is the spread of the mink. Should some stretches of the waterway become unsuitable for the voles then their population will become fragmented into smaller groups, this in turn makes the species more vulnerable to predation and possibly subsequent localized extinctions.

Despite this population crash it is still possible to see water voles in Wiltshire because this is one of the water vole's strongholds in the country. In fact, the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust recently undertook a survey of the county's waterways and found evidence of the presence of water voles along five of them. They actually found water voles at 23 out of the 25 sites that they surveyed. The hotspots for water voles in Wiltshire are the Rivers Kennet, the Salisbury and Bristol Avon, the Wylye, the Nadder and the Kennet and Avon Canal.


You can get involved in one of three ways:

1. Send in your records;

2. Volunteer to take part in surveying a stretch of water in your area (training will be provided);

3. If you own land which might be suitable for water voles get in touch with the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust for advice about the best management practices.

The Wildlife Trust have some reserves on which you might see water voles, these include: Jones's Mill near Pewsey, Langford Lakes near Steeple Langford and Smallbrook Meadows near Warminster.

If you would like more information about Wiltshire Wildlife Trust then please visit their website at or telephone 01380 725670.

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