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Eight top tips to spot a water vole

The endangered water vole is a special sight along our canals and rivers.

A water vole sits on a branch in the canal holding food in its paws

Once a familiar sight, water voles are now hard to come by. A combination of habitat loss and attacks from invasive species like the American mink have resulted in a 97% decline in population in the last 50+ years.

However, our canals can offer places for them to eat, sleep and breed and we're working hard to create even more sheltered nesting sites through installing floating reedbeds along the network.

Next time you're along the towpath, why not use our top tips to increase your chances of spotting these endearing creatures?

1. Know your water vole from your rat

Often mistaken for rats, water voles have distinguishing features that set it apart – the most obvious of which is their tail length. A water vole's tail is about half its body length and often remains out of sight, whereas a rat's is about as long as its body.

Water voles also have a more rounded face and small ears, mostly hidden by fur. This is in complete contrast to a rat, which has a pointed face and noticeable ears.

2. Visit the canal during the day

Water voles are active during the day, when they spend most of their waking hours eating out in the open. They may also be busy collecting grasses and reeds to take back to their burrow to stock their shelves for the colder months.

3. Aim for Spring to early Autumn

Visiting our canals between April and September can increase your chances of seeing a water vole, because the vegetation along the canal banks is shorter. Breeding season also occurs during these months, with a female birthing between five and six litters of around three to five pups every year.

A vole looks out from the bankside on a canal

4. Find shallow waters

Shallow, stable water levels are ideal for water voles, who create burrow entrances and bolt holes just below the surface away from predators. However, they need to make sure that their homes are high enough so the burrow systems don't flood in wetter weathers.

5. Look for nibbled grass

Water voles are home-bods, and don't venture too far from their burrow. Piles of chewed grass can be a tell-tale sign that you've discovered one.

6. Spot the droppings

During their breeding season, water voles will mark their territories with piles of green-brown droppings, known as latrines. They will be round and small (roughly the size of a baked bean). If you find these, chances are you're not far from a burrow.

Water voles nibble on grass along waterway banks. Photo credit: Jack Perks

7. Look out for ripples and listen for ‘plops'

Ripples close to the banks can often be a sign of a water vole just below the surface. They aren't graceful swimmers, and often make a loud ‘plop' when they enter the water. You may also see them mid-swim; water voles adopt a slow, doggy-paddle stroke, which is a treasured sight along our canals and rivers.

8. Don't get too close

Water voles are sensitive creatures, and you'll increase your chances of seeing one if you're a reasonable distance away. They'll likely be on the opposite side to the towpath, so grab some binoculars and keep your eyes peeled towards the waterway bank.

Last Edited: 18 August 2023

photo of a location on the canals
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