COLUMN: Water voles are truly ‘charismatic’

A water vole enjoys munching on some vegetation. Photo by Neil Smith.
A water vole enjoys munching on some vegetation. Photo by Neil Smith.

By Dr Chris Andrews, from the RSPB

Have you read ‘The Wind in the Willows’, by Grahame Green? A marvellous book, with some unforgettable characters. Gruff Badger, Mole, and the silly Toad. Not to forget Ratty.

Now, Ratty actually wasn’t a rat, but a water vole. And it those engaging creatures I’d like to talk about. Water voles are maybe one of our most charismatic creatures, and we are privileged at Frampton Marsh to have some. Plump balls of round fur, they are bigger than normal field voles, up to 20cm from nose to rear. The name ‘Ratty’ comes from their country name of ‘water rat’. They do look rather different though, with rounded noses, fuzzy faces and ears, tails and paws covered in fur. Water voles live on quiet stretches of river, eating the waterside vegetation. They sometimes create little floating platforms out of plants, where they sit and eat. If you are lucky, you might see one there, sat nibbling away on a blade of grass. They are a strange combination. They can be quite shy, disappearing into the water with a loud ‘plop’. But at other times they can appear unconcerned and sit there quite happily. If you do manage to see one, count yourself lucky. In recent years the UK’s water vole population has plummeted. It is estimated that before the 1960’s there were eight million across the UK. These days the number is thought to be only 250,000. This is a staggering loss, and they are our most endangered mammal. Part of the problem has been American mink. Escaped or released from fur farms, these lithe predators have become a big issue for water voles. The poor old vole has no escape. It is hoped the increasing otter population might help matters, as they are too big to fit down the vole’s burrows, and otters will keep mink out of their territories. Even in ‘The Wind in the Willows’, Otter was one of Ratty’s friends!