Water Vole

Scientific name: Arvicola amphibius


Photo by Laurie Campbell

Water voles have a characteristic rounded body with a blunt muzzle and short rounded ears nearly hidden by the fur.  Pelage is usually mid-red to brown in colour, but upland individuals are frequently melanistic, turning the coat black. Adults weigh between 200 and 350g and measure approximately 29cm from nose to tail tip.

Habitat and Distribution

Water voles are semi-aquatic.  Prime habitat is densely vegetated with riparian plants including sedges, rushes, grasses and reeds. They tend to select slow-flowing water courses with earthy banks and often prefer ponds, streams and ditches to the main river channel.  They create an extensive burrow system of tunnels linking food and nest chambers, with entrances both above and below water.  The species is extremely well distributed throughout most of Europe and Russia.

Global distribution of the water vole (IUCN 2011)


Water voles are normally exclusively vegetarian, consuming a mixture of lush sedges, rushes and grasses.  In the winter months they consume more woody material, and roots, rhizomes and bulbs become an important part of the diet.


Water voles are short-lived and produce large and frequent litters.  The breeding season is normally from March-September and the gestation period is 20-30 days.  Females will generally have 2-3 litters a year, with an average of five young in each litter, although upland populations tend to produce smaller and less frequent litters.   The young are independent after just three weeks.

Status and Threats

The European water vole is classified by the IUCN as being ‘Least Concern’.  However, within the UK the species is under huge threat.  It is our most endangered mammal and has declined by 88% in just seven years, with some populations having decreased by 98%.  The main threat comes from invasive American mink (Mustela vison), however habitat degradation and fragmentation have also contributed to its decline.

The water vole is a protected species and is listed under Schedule 5 of The Wildlife and Countryside Act and receives further protection through the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004.  It is an offence to intentionally or recklessly damage, destroy or obstruct access to any structure or place which water voles use for shelter or protection, or to disturb water voles while they are using such a place.