The voles of Britain

The voles of Britain

Posted 20th Jun 2018

We find out about the three different types of vole we may see in the UK – two of which are far more common than the other one…

The bank vole

Image courtesy of Wildstock

Chestnut-brown in colour, the bank vole is our smallest vole and can be found in hedgerows, woodlands, parks and gardens.

Eating nuts, fruit and small insects, it's particularly keen on hazelnuts and blackberries. Very active and agile animals, they will be frequently seen - you could even spot one visiting a bird table.

Bank voles live in shallow burrows, but could make grassy, round nests above the ground should the soil not be suitable for digging.

They will have three to four litters each year, each of which includes three to five young. They do not hibernate.

A rich, chestnut-brown above, the bank vole is white below. Richer in colour than the similar field vole and with a proportionally longer tail, the voles have a blunter, rounder face, with smaller ears and eyes, along with shorter tails than mice.

Despite being widespread, the bank vole is absent from most of the Channel Islands, the Isles of Scilly, many Scottish islands, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man.

Interestingly, the bank vole that lives on Skomer Island in Wales have managed to evolve into a unique subspecies which is known as the Skomer vole. They are a larger and bolder breed than their mainland cousins.

The Field vole

Image courtesy of Philip Precey

Despite having a population of 75 million and being one of the UK's most common mammals, the field vole is not always easy to spot. Hidden among the grassland, heathland and moorland vegetation, it will be active both day and night, and relies on a diet of seeds, roots and leaves.

It also forms an extremely important part of the diet of many predators, including the kestrel, weasel and barn owl. With Field voles not great climbers, they instead prefer to move along the ground through a network of well-used runs that will lead to a burrow. From there, they can produce three to six litters of up to seven young a year, and undergo population booms every few years.

However, these increases do not last long, due to their short lifespan of a year, and as they fall prey to other animals.

A grey-brown above and a pale grey below, the field vole has shaggier fur than the similar bank vole, along with a proportionally shorter tail (this is less than 30 per cent of its body length).

They can be identified from mice by their blunter, rounder faces, smaller ears and eyes, along with their shorter tails.

The widespread vole is absent from most of the Channel Islands, the Isles of Scilly, most of the Scottish islands, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man.

When breeding season comes around, male field voles will produce a musky and unpleasant smell, from which they will defend their territories fiercely, squeaking loudly and fighting, quite often to the death.

The water vole

Image courtesy of Margaret Holland

The water vole faces a serious threat from habitat loss and predation from the non-native American mink.

Found around out waterways, it looks like a brown rat, but with a blunt nose, small ears and a furry tail.

Living along rivers, streams and ditches, around ponds and lakes, and in marshes, reedbeds and areas of wet moorland, you should be able to tell if a water vole is around by the signs, which include burrows in the riverbank. These will typically have a nibbled 'lawn' of grass around the entrance too.

They like to sit and eat in the same place, so you may be able to see piles of nibbled grass and stems near the water's edge, with a distinctive 45 degree, angled-cut at the ends.

'Latrines' of rounder, cigar-shaped droppings can also be spotted.

Starting to breed in spring, water voles will have three to four litters a year of up to five young.

Bigger than other vole species, the water vole has chestnut-brown fur, a blunt, rounded nose, small ears, and a furry tail. The similar brown rat will be larger, with grey-brown fur, a pointed nose, large ears that protrude from its fur, and a long, scaly tail.

Despite being famously known as 'Ratty' in Kenneth Grahame's classic children's tale, The Wind in the Willows, there is actually no such thing as a 'Water Rat' - instead, there are brown rats, black rats and water voles.

Information courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts

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