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Water vole

All about water voles

The Northern water vole is Europe’s largest native vole. It is only in the UK that water voles are dependent on living by water, so ours is a unique population. The water vole was once a common and familiar mammal, but its numbers have declined greatly over the last two decades.

What to look for

The water vole has a rich, silky, yellowish-brown to dark brown coat, a blunt nose, a rounded body and a long hairy tail. The adults weigh 200-350g. It is 12-20cm long, with a tail of 7-11cm. The males are usually slightly larger than females, except during pregnancy, when the female becomes larger.

Did you know?

  • Water voles excavate extensive burrow systems into the banks of waterways. These have sleeping/nest chambers at various levels in the steepest parts of the bank and usually have underwater entrances to give the animals a secure route for escape if danger threatens. They will also weave nests of reeds and sedges in marshy areas.
  • A water vole will consume approximately 80% of its body weight every day. Water voles are generally herbivores, eating a wide range of vegetation, especially the lush stems and leaves of waterside plants. They will also eat invertebrates. Water voles often bring their food to chosen places near the water’s edge to eat. Their food remains, usually bits of chewed plants, are left in neat piles.
  • Water voles will have up to five litters per year, ranging from three to seven young. They are territorial during the breeding period, marking their territories with piles of green droppings, 1cm long. These piles are called latrines. The young are born between April and September, blind and helpless in a nest chamber made of grass. They will leave the nest at about four months. If the young are born before July they may breed that autumn, but most will reach sexual maturity after their first winter. They are less active and gregarious during the winter and winter mortality is very high, often up to 70%. The water vole’s lifespan is usually no more than two years.
  • The water vole is often confused with the brown rat, which is slightly larger and has a pointed nose and a shorter, naked tail.
  • The Trust runs an Adopt a Water Vole scheme, where you can help provide funding to protect their habitat. If you would like more information, please contact the Adopt a Species team on 0115 958 8242.

Photo gallery

Water Vole Notts WT (cpt Tom Marshall) Water Vole Notts WT (cpt Tom Marshall) Water Vole Notts WT (cpt Tom Marshall) Water Vole NottsWT (cpt John Smith) Water Vole NottsWT (cpt John Smith) Water Vole Notts WT Water Vole Notts WT Water Vole NottsWT (cpt John Smith) Water Vole NottsWT (cpt Darin Smith) Water Vole NottsWT (cpt Darin Smith)

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Water vole Printable Factsheet


The water vole was once a common and familiar mammal. However, over the last 20 years the water vole has undergone a catastrophic decline. It is now a priority species in the Nottinghamshire Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) and its habitat has legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.


The most common sites for water voles are vegetated banks of ditches, rivers, streams, canals, ponds, and marshes with still water or little flow, and where water is present all year round. As these suitable habitats decline, water voles are increasingly reported to be using reed-bed pools and ditches. Water vole colonies can stretch down below the surface of the water for up to two metres.

Where to see

Water voles tend to be active more during the day than at night. Although the water vole swims and dives well, it is not particularly adapted to water; it is very buoyant and swims high out of the water, doggypaddle style. When it enters the water it makes a distinctive ‘plop’ sound. If you hear one, look for the V-shaped wake that the swimming water vole makes in the water.


Protecting Wildlife for the Future