Guest blogger: Oda Dijksterhuis, Ecologist, The Canal and River Trust
Water voles (Arvicola amphibious) – immortalised by 'Ratty' in Wind in the Willows – are one of the most endearing of waterway creatures. They are also one of the most endangered mammals in Britain, with their population falling by 90 per cent in recent decades. Loss of waterside habitat and introduction of the American Mink, which was released from fur farms and spread rapidly across the country, have been the primary causes.
Canals and rivers are a natural home for the water vole. Dense reed fringes and steep banks offer both food - they have to eat around 80% of their body weight each day to survive - and protection from predators.
Watervole on canal towpath by Jack Perks
Water voles use their teeth to burrow into banks, forming complicated systems of underground tunnels and nesting chambers. Intelligent voles construct their burrows on several levels to minimise the risk of flooding, and at least one entrance will be below the water level for a fast escape if necessary. You might hear their distinctive 'plop' when they dive into the water, which is thought to be vital in their community as a warning call.
Watervole on the Cromford Canal by Jack Perks
If you're hoping to spot a water vole, there are some tracking clues to watch out for. Firstly, the 'lawn' they create outside their burrows – feeding close to home, the vegetation around an entrance will often look neatly trimmed. For those with sharp eyes, you can sometimes spot them pottering along banks, or grooming sitting on a stone or tussock sedge.
The Canal & River Trust is helping the nation's water vole population by restoring stretches of canal banks and new reed fringes. To find out more about what wildlife to spot visit the Canal and River Trust website.