Water Voles | Are things looking up for Ratty?


When Kenneth Grahame put pen to paper at the turn of the last century to capture the exploits of Ratty, Mole and Toad in The Wind In The Willows, water voles were a regular sight in our country’s streams and waterways.

Driven to the brink of extinction in the 1980s and 1990s from pollution, habitat destruction and predation by the North American mink, the water vole has the unenviable title of the “UK’s fastest declining native animal”. They are still widespread but have undergone one of the most serious declines of any mammal in Britain, especially in England in the South West, South East, parts of the North West and some areas of the Midlands. This long-term decline has continued in the last 10 years.

With populations having dropped by an incredible 95 percent from the 1960s and conservationists warning of total extinction, plans were put in place to protect this much-loved animal.

With the North American mink seen as the main threat, reserves, local councils and conservationists alike have been controlling mink numbers whilst at the same time creating and improving water vole habitat. There has also been the deployment of a number of successful captive breeding and reintroduction schemes (although disease has hampered efforts). The cumulative result (as well as improved protection under the revised Wildlife and Countryside Act) has seen “Ratty” return to many rivers across the country. One WWT centre even reported colonies of 2,000 in 2017 when the same spots in 2007 yielded fewer then 10 animals!

Some water vole facts . . .

  • The term  – Ratty – was derived from confusion over similarities with the brown rat (it’s often informally called the Water Rat or Water Dog). However, the water vole is very different and can be distinguished by its blunt nose, neat fur covered ears and a furry tail (and it’s cuter of course!)
  • On average, water voles live for one year (two winters) in the wild, but have been known to live for up to two and half years in captivity.
  • Water voles reach 140–220 millimetres in length (excl tail) and have to eat at least 80% of their body weight (which is 60 – 360gms) a day just to survive.
  • They live in, and excavate, complex multi-story burrows often on the banks of rivers and streams, normally located adjacent to slow moving, calm water. The burrows normally contain numerous nesting chambers just in case of flooding as well as a food store for long winters.
  • With several litters possible, water voles can produce up to 30 young in one summer.
  • Sadly, 70 percent of young water voles die before their first winter, as a result of predation from domestic cats, North American Mink, weasels, foxes, owls, herons, stoats, snakes and more.
  • Despite their cute appearance both male and female water voles are often aggressive if another invades their territory. During fights, often with high-pitched squeals, chunks of fur can be ripped off.
  • Unfortunately, in most of Europe water voles are seen as an agricultural pest, and in some parts of Russia they are killed for their fur.

The Environmental Agency’s 2010 survey showed new strongholds in Wales, Scotland, Cumbria and the Norfolk Broads and this year saw comebacks at sites in the Midlands, Gloucestershire and North Yorkshire.

So, things may to be looking up for “Ratty”, but we mustn't get complacent, they still need a lot of help. The life of a water vole is an extremely fragile one and no matter how successful the various protection schemes are, I find it hard to imagine that we will ever return to the pre 1960’s population figures of 8 million. But you never know!

The water vole and its burrows are both protected by law. It is illegal to kill, injure or take one from the wild. It is also illegal to intentionally or recklessly damage or disturb the places they use for shelter. This protection is afforded by the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981(amended).

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