Spotting the signs: Water Voles

Recently, I’ve been helping on the Reserve team at WWT Llanelli to carry out surveys on the land. One of the surveys was that of Water Voles to compare with previous data to see how the population is doing giving that the land has had some work done to it. Nothing says fun like wading through thick mud with water up to your waist and a crowd of people in a hide or walking past wondering what on earth you are doing! We had a briefing before we set out to remind ourselves what evidence we were looking for and be able to link it to Water Voles and nothing other species which find their way onto the land such as rats. The habitat you are generally looking for is near water and plenty of hiding places. River, pond and stream bank are a good place to start and make sure to get your face stuck into the reeds or vegetation and search the banks for signs, well-shaded areas are a bit hit-and-miss but worth checking anyway.

Some basic kit you will need:

  • Safety goggles – Heath and safety! If you are shoving your face in reeds then goggles are vital since you don’t want to tell your friends you were blinded by a piece of tall grass..
  • Clip board and recording sheets- self-explanatory really.
  • A trusty stick to separate the reeds whilst you look.
  • GPS finder if you have one if not the site code and a map will suffice.
  • Basic knowledge or help sheets to help with identifying signs, remember it could be something else not just a Water Vole!
  • And for the squeamish, rubber gloves for playing with latrines..

First up:

If you don’t know what Latrine is, let me enlighten you. Latrine is just another word for poop. Water Vole latrine is usually a light brown, or brown colour depending on how fresh it is, if you give it a squeeze you will find vegetation within. Water Vole’s will leave their latrine by burrows, runs or next to feeding remains but they can turn up anywhere! The easiest way to describe the size of it is that its about the size of your little finger nail so not very big but they are like tic-tac shapes, if they are pointed on the ends then you may have some rat latrine.
Feeding Remains

Feeding remains are normally the easiest way to identify water vole activity, they eat their plants at a 45 degree angle by chewing the top with the corner of their mouth. They’ll create a feeding remains pile in deep vegetation or their favourite spot to eat but, they can leave piles outside of burrows so if a pile is close to a bank its worth having a look for a burrow. Speaking of burrows..

Water vole burrows are quite hard to spot because of their size! The image above gives you a general idea of the size that you are looking for, the size can vary though so generally look for a hole that about the size of the hole when you put your thumb and middle finger together. With burrows, if you put your finger inside and can’t feel the end then you have an actual burrows, if you can feel the end then you have an attempted burrows and should record it separately on your sheet, if your finger goes right the way through then you have yourself a water vole run, These are used to get through thick vegetation via the bank instead of swimming around.
Footprints are extremely hard to come by but you may be lucky! Because Water Voles tend to use vegetation or swim then you don’t usually find any but always worth looking. If you imagine the size of a Water Vole and the image above gives you a general idea of the size of the print, the front paw and the hind paw are different with the front looking almost hand like and very spread out with only four toes and the hind paw is like a hand again with five toes and a longer part of the back. It’s always worth looking for other footprints around and note them down on your survey since that could have an impact on your Water Vole population.
Activity idea for children: I always get my pre-school group to have a look around for prints and a fun thing to do is to make a plaster-cast of it for them to keep. If you don’t have any children then you can still make a plaster cast of the print for future reference but it’s a novelty piece for your home anyway!

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