The water voles (Arvicola amphibius) are a large, semi-aquatic rodent in the UK. Scottish water voles have a slightly darker coat than their English counterparts, which may be explained by a different genetic background migrating to the UK from different parts of Europe at different times. They are fairly short lived little animals that generally don’t live more than 2 years and a fully grown adult can be anywhere from about 170g to 300g. They are also been known as a “water dog” and you may be most familiar with water voles from the book, The Wind in the Willows. Ratty was actually a water vole.
But Where does it live?
The live all over the UK and across much of Europe. In the UK they are found near slow moving water in canals, streams, creeks (known as “burns” around here in Scotland), and ditches. But they really like to have nice tall and grassy vegetation to eat and soft soil banks that they can burrow into. Imagine something like this ->
In the highlands of Scotland, these places are often fragmented into discrete little patches. These nice little homes can be separated by miles by harsh unlivable habitat (although gorgeous, see below) for these animals.
The hills near Loch Muick in Balmoral. Hidden thoughout this big landscape are little pockets of good habitat, fragmented by other types of vegetation.
But there is a problem. In the last several decades, the number of water voles have declined dramatically in the UK, some estimates have put it at 90% reduction from historic numbers. In much of the lowlands where the biggest colonies existed in large habitat areas, human development has removed much of the available habitat and fragmented those remaining populations too much. They have also been hit really hard by an invasive predator (more on that in a later post), adding to the troubles for them.
Why does it matter?
Beyond the inherent right to exist without worry of being pushed to extinction by our activities, voles can be important ecosystem engineers, by doing things like aerating soil with their burrows.
Another point is best summed up by a conversation with a “hill walker” (aka hiker) while I was returning from my first series of surveying for these majestic wee-beasties. He asked me what I was about and I explained why I was out there, surveying for voles. He replied, “Oh how are they doing, always seems like they are always getting eaten?” This is a keen insight, as rodents often are a cornerstone of foodstuffs for other animals. Water voles are prey for weasels, stoats, golden eagles, owls, herons, foxes, pike, and more! They are important element in the ecosystems they play a part in.
So, I will leave you to mull over that and in my next H2Vole post, I will tell you more about how they have come to be in such a precarious situation in the UK.
For more information on water voles in the UK: