Water vole

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What is a Water vole?

Water voles are the largest species of vole in Britain with bodies up to 20cm long. They have glossy brown fur, sometimes verging on black, with a blunt nose, inconspicuous ears, a slightly furry tail and will invariably be found in or near aquatic habitats. Their diet consists of rushes, sedges, grasses and other aquatic plants during the summer and as they don’t hibernate, will turn to roots, bulbs and rhizomes during the winter. When swimming, they are quite buoyant with about half their body showing above water.


Why are Water voles important to the Surrey Hills?

Water voles have undergone one of the most serious declines of any wild mammal in Britain during the 20th century  and there hasn’t been a confirmed water vole record in Surrey since the end of 2005.

The condition of water vole habitat and successful breeding is threatened by:

  • Predation. Water voles have a number of indigenous predators such as owls, herons, foxes, weasels and stoats but they are particularly vulnerable to the non-native American mink which is able to enter their burrows and wipe out entire colonies.
  • Habitat loss and fragmentation. Unsympathetic bank and channel management, trampling of banks by livestock and development on floodplain habitats all contribute to this.
  • Population fragmentation. The loss of habitat connectivity reduces their genetic diversity, their range and their potential for dispersal which are all vital for maintaining healthy and viable populations.

What habitat does a Water vole like?


Water is the dominant component of many of our most diverse and valuable habitats.  The running water of rivers, streams and ditches; static water bodies in natural lakes and ponds, ephemeral features such as winterbournes and dew ponds, manmade reservoirs and restored gravel pits with canals having the appearance of manmade rivers but more characteristic of a still water body. Water is also vital in terrestrial habitats such as marsh, fen, bog, reedbeds and carr woodland, where its presence is a permanent requirement.   In Surrey it’s estimated that water as habitat (both aquatic and wetland habitats) occupy 3,516 hectares or 2.1% of the county’s land area.   The list of bird, mammal, insect, amphibian, fish and plant species that rely on wetland and aquatic habitats is immense.

What can be done to benefit the Water vole?

Good habitat management for water voles includes:
  • Restricting livestock access to rivers, streams and lakes to the smallest area possible.
  • Providing alternative access to drinking water for livestock.
  • Control of the mink population.
  • Allowing bankside and in-channel vegetation to develop.
Creating and managing areas for Water voles will help deliver the following benefits to communities:
  • Clean water
  • Clean air
  • Protection from and mitigation of environmental hazards
  • Mitigation of and adaptation to climate change
  • Thriving plants and wildlife
  • Beauty, heritage and engagement

These illustrations are by an artist taking part in a programme delivered by Watts Gallery Trust and funded by the Michael Varah Memorial Fund. This series of 30 Surrey Hills Indicator Species were commissioned by Surrey Hills Society and funded by Surrey Hills Trust Fund as part of the Making Space for Nature Exhibition.