Author: People’s Trust for Endangered Species
Water voles are found throughout the UK. They can thrive in many different wetland habitats in both the lowlands and uplands, such as ditches, ponds and streams. Landowners and farmers are key to helping water voles by creating and maintaining the optimum habitat they need.
Why water voles need help
Water voles were once a common sight along our waterways but experienced one of the most serious declines of any British mammal over the last century. This was driven by the gradual loss and fragmentation of suitable habitat along many of our waterways, and more recently, devastating levels of predation by the non-native American mink.
Water voles essentially need waterways with wide margins of dense vegetation (both on the bankside and in the water) to provide food throughout the year and refuge from predators. They need soft penetrable banks that they can easily dig into to create their burrows and slow-moving, relatively deep water and unshaded banks.
Management for water voles
The below are four key management actions that farmers can undertake to help water voles. These will also benefit a host of other native wildlife, from amphibians to invertebrates, and also help reduce bank and soil erosion.
Buffer strips next to water features
Create tall, well vegetated buffer strips along watercourses, ditches and in-field ponds, to provide important foraging habitat for water voles throughout the year and a refuge from predators. Buffer strips will also provide links between suitable patches of habitat, allowing water voles to disperse and link with other water vole populations. This increases the population stability in the wider landscape.
Some trees are fine but too many trees along a waterway shades out ground vegetation which water voles rely on both for feeding and secure cover from predators. Ensure that trees and scrub are managed so that they don’t dominate.
When carrying out heather or grass burning in the uplands, ensure wetland habitats are protected from burning.
Manage livestock grazing beside water features
Heavily trampled or grazed banks are unsuitable for water voles, as livestock remove taller vegetation, crush burrows and make the bank unsuitable for digging by compacting the earth.
Preventing grazing up to the waters’ edge allows waterside vegetation to recover and prevents the banks being trampled and poached. This can be done by erecting permanent or temporary fencing, ideally at least 2m from the water’s edge. If wetland habitats cannot be fenced off from grazing livestock, reducing stocking densities or adapting the grazing management may help maintain good quality bankside habitat. Water voles are particularly affected by overgrazing of banksides in winter when vegetation is scarce.
Sympathetic watercourse and ditch management
Cut vegetation on a two-year rotation (or longer), leaving one bank uncut each year. Only cutting one bank ensures there will always be a refuge of taller vegetation for water voles to move to. Also consider leaving some strips or patches uncut and not cutting too short to maintain some cover. Carrying out cutting late in the summer reduces disturbance to water voles during the breeding season.
De-silt ditches between mid-September and late January, keeping machinery to just one side of the ditch to ensure that one bank is kept intact for water voles. Deposit spoil as far from the water’s edge as possible.
Restoring, recreating and managing wetland habitats
Restore or create ponds, scrapes, ditches and backwaters to offer important safe havens for water voles, especially during periods of flooding or drought. These features will also add complexity to wetland landscapes, provide refuge from predators and create links between habitats allowing water voles to move through the landscape and migrate between colonies.
Ponds created for water voles should have at least 50m of good quality bankside habitat. Dry ditches can be re-wetted by installing timber boards or bunds at regular intervals.
*Some of these activities may require a permit from the Environment Agency for works in a main river or a bylaw consent from the local Risk Management Authority (RMA) for ordinary watercourses. Please visit https://www.gov.uk/guidance/flood-risk-activities-environmental-permits, or contact your local RMA to check if you need a permit or consent.
How to find out if you have water voles on your land
As with many mammals, it’s not always possible to see water voles, even if they’re present. The best way of looking for them is to keep an eye out for signs they’ve left behind. These include:
Burrows in the bankside, or nests in certain habitats
Droppings (usually left in piles called latrines)
There is more detailed information on management to help water voles in the guide ‘Helping water voles on your land’, which can be downloaded here. Control of non-native American mink is also covered, in addition to details about agri-environmental schemes.