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Feature Creature - Water vole

Credits: Amy Lewis

Who loves this feature creature - the WATER VOLE! These lovely little rodents get a bit of undeserved name-calling sometimes - people often mistake them for rats! They even used to be known as 'water rats', and the name stuck. Ratty in Wind In The Willows is in fact a water vole!

Fantastic facts:

 

*Favourite foods: water plants, grasses     *Enemies: Mink, heron, birds of prey

 

*Life span: about five years     *Super power: waterproof fur coat

 

*Young: litters of around five babies - mums will sometimes carry them in their mouths

 

*Latin name: Arvicola terrestris     *Where found: Widespread but declining

 

But what are these river-dwelling rodents and what can they do? Water voles are:

 

Great swimmers

 

Water voles are at home in the water. They prefer to make their homes along slow moving rivers, ponds, ditches and lakes where they dig burrows in soft banks. The entrances to these burrows open out underwater which helps to keep the voles safe from predators.

 

Getting from one place to another requires them to swim and dive. To do this, the voles trap a layer of air bubbles under their thick fur, preventing water from reaching their skin and helping to keep them warm. It takes a lot of grooming to keep this important fur in tip top condition! 

 

Housekeepers

 

A good home wouldn't be complete without a neatly kept lawn at its front. Water voles know this too! Look out for short areas of grass at the water's edge where the voles may have been munching. 

 

Water voles also use 'latrines' during the breeding season - special areas dotted around the edges of their territory where they leave their droppings. These look like shiny black tic-tacs! The latrines tell other nearby voles that this river bank is taken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Under threat

 

Once a common sight across the UK, the water vole has now become much more scarce. It is thought to be the UK's fastest declining mammal. Destruction of their favourite habitats has played a big part in their disappearance, but perhaps a more well-known danger comes from an alien invader.

 

The American mink, having escaped into the countryside of the UK, has proven very good at adapting to live along our waterways. This non-native predator makes an easy meal of a water vole and is capable of wiping out entire groups within its territory. But their is good news - thanks to work to stop the spread of mink it is thought that their numbers are also in decline, perhaps giving water voles the chance to recover.

 

Images: Water voles (c) Amy Lewis