Mole was busy contemplating a dark hole in the river bank…

 ‘As he gazed, something bright and small seemed to twinkle down in the heart of it ….then as he looked, it winked at him, and so declared itself to be an eye, and a small face began to gradually grow up round it. A brown little face, with whiskers.  Small neat ears and thick silky hair. It was the Water Rat.’

Thus we are introduced to this charming little creature in Kenneth Grahame’s romantic tale of old England The Wind in the Willows. ‘Ratty’ was thereafter impressed on the public’s consciousness, but the boat loving, riverside dwelling gentleman of leisure subject of the tale was not a rat but in fact a water vole.

Water vole photo by Pat Adams

Water voles are fastidiously tidy animals with glossy chestnut brown fur, a blunt muzzle and small, black eyes. They reach lengths of up to 20cm with their tail adding a further 10-14cm. A distinguishing feature as observed by Grahame, is that unlike the superficially similar brown rat which has quite large protruding ears, their ears are rounded and largely hidden beneath their fur.

They are mostly active during daylight hours when they can be encountered sitting on their hind feet and nibbling grass stalks which they hold daintily in their front paws.

Water voles are short-lived, most only surviving a few months and seldom living long enough to experience the rigours of a second winter. Their breeding season runs from early spring through to the autumn. During this time females can produce several litters of, on average, 4-5 young.

They do not hibernate; instead they remain in their burrows, sometimes with other members of their colony, venturing out in milder conditions to feed.

In Grahame’s day water voles would have been a common enough sight, inhabiting wetlands and sometimes dry habitats all over the country. Sadly nowadays these mammals, the largest of their family present in the UK, are far scarcer and more difficult to find.

Water vole survey on the North Norfolk coast

Whereas up until perhaps the 1980s it was a familiar experience to hear the plop of a water vole as it jumped into the dyke upon your approach, or to see one swimming across a stream to avoid your company, now in our urbanised 21st century one has to search diligently to locate them.  

Yes water voles have been subject to serious declines. Degradation of habitat during the 20th century coupled with the post war intensification of farming practices began this process which is exacerbated by increasing urbanisation. The escapes and wilful release of predatory and proliferate American mink during the 1970s and 1980s was the coup de grâce; the already weakened and fragmented population simply couldn’t cope and has suffered a 90 per cent decline.

Although much reduced in numbers, water voles are still a widespread inhabitant of Norfolk which represents a stronghold for the species. They prefer slow moving streams and river systems that are not prone to significant fluctuation in water levels. They like well vegetated areas with soft banks in which they can dig their burrows; just the kind of habitat we have on some of our commons.

Since May Wildlife in Common project volunteers have been surveying the wildlife of common land across Norfolk and water voles are one of the creatures being searched for in the ponds and ditches of Norfolk commons.

Common land in Norfolk covers a range of habitats, from heaths in the north of the county, to grazing marsh in the Broads and the ancient clay commons of South Norfolk, where water voles are sometimes found in the old clay pits, originally dug for building materials.

If you have a local common on your doorstep, take a stroll. If you walk slowly and quietly along the edges of these waterways you may be rewarded with the sight of a water vole feeding or grooming.

Or if you want to play nature detective you can look for the less obvious signs including their oval shaped burrows which will be approximately 6-8cm wide, caches of grass stalks that have been neatly clipped at a 45 degree angle or possibly latrines where the small, odourless, oval droppings will provide sure evidence that water voles are present on your local patch. With patience these small mammals can become quite confiding and you may be able to observe them at close quarters. Wouldn’t that be a lovely thing to see on your doorstep?

Commons that exist within the Broads, dyke systems in the Fens, the north Norfolk coast and the Claylands south of Norwich will be excellent places to look, although commons elsewhere could also be fruitful.

Water voles, being small and at the bottom of the food chain do have many predators. As well as the aforementioned mink, foxes, stoats, weasels, owls, herons, marsh harriers, pike and domestic cats all take their toll. Targeted efforts by conservation bodies, will hopefully reverse the decline; certainly recent increases in sightings would suggest a slight upturn in fortunes. It is clear though that these cute, furry mammals need our help. Key to ensuring water voles can thrive as we move further into the 21st century  is the creation, conservation and sympathetic management of favoured habitats, including those tracts of common land that contain suitably wet conditions beloved by these animals. And this is where you can make a difference.

As part of Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Wildlife in Common project we are inviting people to visit a local common and submit records of wildlife they find. Your records of any wildlife are useful, but records of key species, such as the water vole, that are subject to decline are especially valuable. The project runs from September 2018 to April 2020. Take a walk, keep your eyes and ears open and be part of nature; it will do you the world of good.

Wildlife in Common has been made possible by National Lottery players thanks to £58,800 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, with additional support of £7,750 from Essex & Suffolk Water Branch Out fund.
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