Where are the Water Voles?

Friday, February 17th 2017

As regular readers of this blog will know; last June we installed water vole feeding platforms at various locations across the reserve. This increased the number of sightings, photographs and videos (see our youtube page here!) of this elusive and rare mammal throughout the summer. This photo taken by Terry Wright shows one enjoying an apple we provided:

Yet we’ve not had many sightings recently… Water voles don’t hibernate, but during the winter they do spend a lot more time in their burrows which they build into waterside banks. With the weather starting to warm up we’ve played detective to check up on them:

We have floating ‘mink rafts’ at various points around the reserve which we use to check we don’t have any American mink – an invasive, non-native species which is a major threat to water voles. We do this through a pad of soft clay inside a tunnel which records the footprints of all animals that cross it. Here, today, this pad from the raft in the scrapes shows not only star-shaped water vole footprints, but also a water vole dropping!

Water voles are herbivores and have been recorded eating more than 220 different species of plant. They are also untidy and leave leftovers from their meals, but tidy in that they leave them in piles, with the ends cut at a distinctive 45 degree angle. Today, alongside more water vole droppings I found this feeding station on the mink raft in the scrapes.

Apples put on the water vole feeding platforms have been disappearing much more slowly over the winter than during the summer, with the apples appealing to birds too. However, this apple was fresh on the platform yesterday and we know at least some of it was taken by a water vole due to some nibbled parts (as well as some peck marks from birds) and tell-tale droppings again.

The final step of water vole detective work is spotting one, but with them much less active above ground at this time of year we had to get clever… So, recently we put out a motion activated camera trained on a feeding platform. We saw one! The majority of the footage was a close up of the backside of a water vole with whiskers twitching as it tucked into the apple, but this still, taken from one of the videos shows it arriving.

Fingers-crossed for easier water vole spotting opportunities as the weather warms!

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