AppearanceWater voles reach 140–220 millimetres in length plus a tail of 55–70 millimetres of this. Adults weigh from 160–350 grams , juveniles weigh less but must reach around 140–170 grams to be able to survive their first winter.A water vole named ''Ratty'' is a leading character in the 1908 children's book ''Wind in the Willows'' by Kenneth Grahame: the locality used in the book is believed to be Moor Copse in Berkshire, England, and the character's name "Ratty" has become widely associated with the species and their riverbank habitat, as well as the misconception that they are a species of rat....hieroglyph snipped...
In the comic novel and film ''Cold Comfort Farm'' by Stella Gibbons, one of the characters, ''Urk'', refers to the subject of his unrequited love, ''Elfine Starkadder'', as his little water vole. Throughout the story, Urk spends a lot of time talking to the water voles on the farm.
C. S. Calverley a 19th Century writer of light verse, in his poem "Shelter," beginning:
''By the wide lake's margin I mark'd her lie--''
''The wide, weird lake where the alders sigh--''
Tells of an apparently shy, easily frightened young female by a lakeside, who in the last line of the poem, it's revealed that:
''For she was a water-rat.''
StatusThe water vole population in the UK has fallen from its estimated pre-1960 level of around 8 million to 2.3 million in 1990 and to 354,000 in 1998. This represents a 90–95% loss. It is still declining dramatically: the most recent estimate for 2004 is around 220,000. This decline is partly attributed to the American Mink, an aggressive predator of the vole, together with unsympathetic farming and watercourse management which destroyed parts of the water vole's habitat.
On 26 February 2008, the UK Government announced full legal protection for water voles would be introduced from 6 April 2008.
The water vole is the UK's fastest declining mammal and efforts are under way to protect it and its habitat from further destruction. One aspect of water vole conservation in the UK is focused on non-linear habitats such as reed bed which support extensive networks or metapopulations. Other areas supporting healthy populations of water voles are large conurbations such as Birmingham and London and some upland areas where American Mink are scarce. Across the UK the Wildlife Trusts and other organisations are undertaking many practical projects to conserve and restore water vole populations.
Water voles have recently returned to Lindow Common nature reserve in Cheshire, UK, after many years of absence. The reserve rangers credit this to conservation management, which included thinning of woodland.
Wetlands West reports on work done as part of the Water Vole Recovery Project in the Berkeley Vale. In Gloucestershire a new nature reserve for water voles was created in 2009/2010 at Nind .
There are also indications that the water vole is increasing in numbers in UK areas where the European otter has made a return. The otter is a predator of the American Mink.
BehaviorWater voles are expert swimmers and divers. They do not usually live in large groups. Adult water voles each have their own territories, which they mark with fecal latrines located either near the nest, burrow and favoured water's edge platforms where voles leave or enter the water. Latrines are known to be a good survey indicator of this species, and can be used to gauge abundance of animals. They also scent-mark by using a secretion from their bodies , although this is not normally detectable during a field survey. They may attack if their territory is invaded by another water vole.
HabitatIn Britain, water voles live in burrows excavated within the banks of rivers, ditches, ponds, and streams. Burrows are normally located adjacent to slow moving, calm water which they seem to prefer. They also live in reed beds where they will weave ball shaped nests above ground if no suitable banks exist in which to burrow.
Water voles prefer lush riparian vegetation which provides important cover to conceal animals when they are above ground adjacent to the water body. Areas of heavily grazed and trampled riparian habitats are generally avoided. Water voles may be displaced by the introduction of riparian woodland and scrub as they prefer more open wetland habitats away from tree cover.
As well as frequenting typical lowland wetland habitats dominated by rank marginal aquatic vegetation, water voles are also just as at home in areas upland 'peatland' vegetation where they utilise suitable small ditches, rivers and lochs surrounded by moorland up to 1000 m asl .
In Europe and Russia, they may venture into woods, fields, and gardens. They live under the snow during the winter.
ReproductionThe mating period lasts from March into late autumn. The female vole's pregnancy lasts for approximately 21 days. Up to 8 baby voles can be born, each weighing around 10 grams . The young voles open their eyes three days after their birth. They are half the size of a full grown water vole by the time they are weaned.
FoodWater voles mainly eat grass and plants near the water. At times, they will also consume fruits, bulbs, twigs, buds, and roots. In Europe, when there is enough food to last water voles a long time, water vole "plagues" can take place. Water voles eat ravenously, destroying entire fields of grass and leaving the fields full of burrows, during these plagues. Ecologists have discovered that normally vegetarian water voles living in Wiltshire, England have started eating frogs' legs and discarding the bodies. It has been speculated that this is to make up for a protein deficiency in the voles' diet.
Food remains alone are not a reliable indicator of the presence of this species, as other smaller voles can also leave remains of large grasses and rushes.
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