Wandering for Water Voles

Tom Marshall

Conservation Officer Ben Devine shares some tips on how to track down and experience one of our most endangered yet magical mammals

Now is an excellent time of the year to wander down to your nearest waterway in the hope of spotting Water voles, one of our most iconic mammal species. In this blog we take a look at what you need to look out for and the best ways to maximise your changes of seeing Water voles in Leicestershire and Rutland.

How do they look?

Water voles are our largest vole species and are often misidentified as rats when seen or heard “plopping” into the water to escape approaching walkers. You can tell them apart quite easily as water voles have shorter tails that are furry as opposed to scaly and ears that are buried in fur as opposed to being prominent and hairless. Water voles also have characteristically blunt cubby noses instead of the more pointed noses found in rats. The two can both be seen in and around our waterways, but have very different tell-tale field signs and dietary habits, all of which are helpful to keep in mind when heading out water vole spotting.

A crash course in Water vole ecology

Water voles live in a variety of wetland habitats including along slow-moving rivers, streams, ditches, ponds, lakes and canals. They dig burrows in grassy banks close to these places and are also known to have out of sight underwater burrow entrances that are easily missed.

Living together in groups called colonies, individuals spread themselves out along the watercourse each with their own specific territory which they mark-out using latrine sites close to their burrow entrances.

They feed on a diet of reeds, grasses, sedges and other waterside plants which can often be seen left nibbled at an angle when water voles are close by.

Water voles don’t hibernate in winter, instead they significantly reduce their activity levels and spend much more time in their burrows until spring begins.

Water vole burrow

Karen Lloyd

Water vole burrow

Top spotting tips and field signs:

  • Try looking first in spring when riverside vegetation is still emerging, making life much easier by increasing views from further away.
  • Approach watercourses carefully and quietly to avoid hearing the “plopping” sound as the voles quickly swim away out of sight.
  • Increase your chances of a good view with a pair of binoculars, stopping silently at suitable places to look around for up to 10 minutes before moving on.
  • Look out for specific field signs including active burrows, latrine sites (piles of flattened cigar-shaped droppings) and feeding locations (vegetation nibbled short at a 45° angle and/or patches of short vegetation referred to as “lawns”), stopping for longer periods of time when any of these are found.
  • Avoid wearing brightly coloured clothing that becomes noisy when walking.
  • Don’t ignore urban areas as water voles can be found in both rural and built-up places.
  • Try visiting a known colony location to greatly improve your chances of a sighting (see map below for places worth a visit).
  • Record any valuable sightings with the Leicestershire and Rutland Mammal Group or via the NatureSpot website (all contact details below).
Water vole latrine

Karen Lloyd

Water vole latrine site

Water vole lawn

Karen Lloyd

Water vole 'lawn'

Where to look in Leicestershire and Rutland

Unfortunately, Water voles have undergone significant population declines and major reductions in their distribution over the last 50 years. Despite this however, there are still places that you can see and enjoy them within our two counties. Some of these are highlighted on the map below, which shows publicly available records submitted in our region over the last 10 years.

Map of water vole sightings

LRWT

One of the most well-known local places to have a potential close encounter with a wonderful Water vole is the Ashby Canal, particularly the section between Hinckley to Snarestone where sizable areas of soft-sided canal banks still support water voles in some places. Due to increases in predation by Mink, numbers are believed to be much lower than they were as little as 10 years ago here, but the canal remains a good place to start spotting nevertheless.

Another good place to head to is Rutland Water Nature Reserve, where the water vole population is now understood to be thriving, thanks to a successful reintroduction project in 2011 coupled with ongoing Mink control and regular monitoring surveys. Ask the visitor centre staff and volunteers about recent sighting locations to improve your chances when making a visit.

Other contenders for spotting sites include:

  • Upper Soar Valley – Croft to Aylestone Meadows
  • River Wreake – Around Melton Mowbray
  • River Welland – Around Market Harborough

The importance of recording your sightings and how to do this:

Historically water voles were to be found in almost every waterway in England, Scotland and Wales, but have thought to have been lost in up to 90% of these sites making them Britain’s fastest declining mammal.

Therefore, if you are lucky enough to see a water vole on your travels, recording your sighting is a must in order to help protect these brilliant creatures.

Please submit your valuable records to either of the following groups, remembering to make note of where and when the sighting took place and including a photograph where possible:

If you don’t look, you’ll never find!

It has to be said that seeking out water voles isn’t always the easiest of tasks, as they can be rather elusive living mainly under a protective cover of tall waterside vegetation for much of the year. It is however certainly worth the effort and very possible if you follow the tips highlighted above. One such example of success in discovering a new population took place along a section of the River Chater in Rutland in May 2019 and was captured on video for us all to enjoy!