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How to spot water voles

A water vole by a canal
A water vole prepares for a dip | © National Trust Images/Richard Bradshaw

Water voles are an endangered species in Great Britain, so if you're hoping to see them, it's worth first finding out where your nearest populations are based. They're also rather shy, so spotting them can require patience, stealth and a bit of insider knowledge about where they live, what they eat and the signs they leave behind.

What to look out for

Water voles live along riverbanks and streams, and around ponds, lakes and marshes. The entrances to their burrows are usually next to slow-moving water and are about the size of a tennis ball but wider than they are high.

Look out for small piles of chewed plants, or stalks cut at a 45-degree angle, as well tiny star-shaped paw prints in soft mud.

You might also spot a water vole latrine – layers of flattened, greenish droppings, which they use as scent markers.

Be stealthy and vigilant

When you’re tracking water voles, try to be as quiet as possible. Sudden noises will send them straight to their burrows or into the water. Listen out for that distinctive ‘plop’ sound as they enter.

It can often pay to sit or stand still in the same place for a while. Watch for twitching stalks or ripples at the edge of the water, which may be signs of a water vole feeding.

A pair of brown rats
Brown rats finding food among the leaves | © National Trust Images/Richard Bradshaw

How to tell water voles from rats

Water voles are often mistaken for brown rats, which share their waterside habitats. But water voles are smaller with more rounded faces and bodies. Their tails are also shorter, and furry rather than hairless.

A water vole's coat is generally a chestnut colour, while a rat often has greyish flecks in its fur. Water voles have smaller ears, tucked close to their heads, compared with rats’ much more prominent pink, pointed ears.

Swimming style

Get a good look at them swimming and you should be able to tell the difference. A rat swims with just its head out of the water, but if it's a water vole you've spotted, you'll see a lot of its body above the surface too.

Where to see water voles

Depending on where in the country you're based, you might want to try your luck at Malham Tarn, England's highest freshwater lake, in the Yorkshire Dales, Miller's Pond at Hardwick in Derbyshire, Wicken Fen nature reserve in Cambridgeshire, or along the streams and rivers of Avebury in Wiltshire.

Avebury, Wiltshire
Not only is Avebury a World Heritage Site with an ancient stone circle, a manor house and a museum, its streams and rivers are also home to a population of water voles.Visit Avebury
Hardwick, Derbyshire
Miller’s pond at Hardwick is accessible to everyone and offers the chance to spot kingfishers as well as water voles.Visit Hardwick
Malham Tarn, North Yorkshire
Between 2016 and 2017, 200 water voles were reintroduced to Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales, to take up residence around the highest freshwater lake in England.Visit Malham Tarn
Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire
Wicken Fen was the first nature reserve owned by the National Trust. Today it's home to over 9,000 recorded species, including birds, wild flowers and those elusive water voles.Visit Wicken Fen
Looking through a magnifying glass at Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire

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