JENNY SIMPSON: Tracking down Ratty, the water vole

The water vole is shy but numbers are going up at last PICTURE by Tom Marshall
 for Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust
The water vole is shy but numbers are going up at last PICTURE by Tom Marshall for Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust

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LIVING along rivers and streams and around ponds and lakes, water voles dig their burrows into the river bank.

Water voles are much bigger than other voles and can be distinguished by their chestnut-brown fur, rounded nose, small rounded ears, and furry tail.

Water voles are expert swimmers, able to swim up to 500m on the surface or 15m underwater.

They will kick up a cloud of mud underwater if they are being chased, acting as a smokescreen to help them get away from predators.

Water voles will also add several underwater entrances to their burrows to provide more escape routes.

As well as digging burrows, water voles may also build small platforms from twigs and grass on tufts of weed which they use to sunbathe.

The water vole is Britain’s fastest declining wild mammal, and has disappeared from many parts of the country where it was once common.

It is threatened by habitat loss, but has suffered particularly from predation by the introduction of the American mink.

However, improvements to river bank habitats, the control of mink populations, and reintroduction schemes have all helped the numbers of water vole to recover somewhat.

Over the past few years we at the Wildlife Trust have supported water vole reintroduction schemes on Hampshire rivers.

In June 2015, 190 water voles were released within the South Downs National Park to return these mammals to the River Meon.

About 450 water voles were previously released at Titchfield Haven in 2013 and a further 600 in 2014.

Since then, teams of volunteers monitoring the water voles have gathered evidence to show that the individuals are settled and are now breeding at the release sites – which is fantastic news.

Water voles and their tracks and signs can be spotted among other places at Winnall Moors nature reserve, just a short distance from busy Winchester.

Why not walk the water vole trail, from the city centre to the reserve?

Look out for burrows, which often feature a nibbled lawn area of grass around the entrance.

As water voles like to sit and eat in the same place, piles of nibbled grass and stems displaying a distinctive 45 degree angled-cut at the end may be found by the water’s edge. And finally, listen out for the plop as they slip back into the water.

To find out more visit our website at hiwwt.org.uk.

Jenny Simpson is from Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust