The largest of the four British vole species, the Water Vole Arvicola terrestris is legally protected in the UK under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Celebrated as Ratty in Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’, these beautiful and gentle animals are found in slow flowing rivers, streams, ditches and around lakes, reed-beds, marshes and ponds with relatively steep banks, usually in rural areas. They are also found in uplands areas and heathland.
The Water Vole was once Britain’s commonest small mammal (estimates suggest that in the late Iron Age there were more than 6 billion in Britain), but the species has undergone the most dramatic and serious decline of any British mammal during the 20th Century. They had disappeared from 70% of known sites in only seven years between national surveys in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A nationwide survey carried out in 1997 showed that water voles had vanished from 95% of their habitats.
Their distribution throughout their remaining current range is patchy, though they can be locally common (and now though now absent from much of northern Scotland, Water Voles were rediscovered in Strathspey in July 2014 following mink eradication efforts). They are now classified as a Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.
Habitat loss and predation appear to be the major causes for this catastrophic decline. Changes in land use and management have resulted in loss and fragmentation of habitat which has led to the loss of colonies, isolation of remaining populations, and an increased vulnerability to predators. The deliberate or accidental release of American Mink has had a huge impact: Mink are known to take more water voles during the early part of the year than at other times, and removing adult voles before they have had a chance to breed can threaten the future of whole colonies, increasing fragmentation and putting neighbouring colonies at even greater risk.
However, there is some evidence (according to Scottish Natural Heritage) of direct persecution of Water Voles. Some water gardens and nurseries, fish farms and game fisheries have shot or poisoned Water Voles to prevent or reduce the damage that the voles can do to the banks of their watercourses and holding ponds.
Let’s help protect Water Voles
The laws protecting Water Voles are not the same across its UK range. In brief the species has full protection in England and Wales, but – currently – in Scotland just their ‘places of shelter or protection’ are protected. Water Voles are not found in Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, or Ireland.
ENGLAND AND WALES
The water vole received limited legal protection in April 1998 through its inclusion in Schedule 5 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). This protection was extended in April 2008, so that Water Voles were fully protected under Section 9 (offences under Section 9 carry a maximum penalty of a fine not exceeding Level 5 on the standard scale (currently £5,000), imprisonment for up to six months, or both. In addition, the courts may order the forfeiture of any vehicle or other thing that was used to commit the offence).
Legal protection makes it an offence to:
- intentionally kill, injure or take (capture) a water vole
- possess or control a live or dead water vole, or any part of a water vole
- intentionally or recklessly damage, destroy or obstruct access to any structure or place which water voles use for shelter or protection or disturb water voles while they are using such a place
- sell, offer for sale or advertise for sale live or dead water voles.
Licences are available from Natural England to allow activities that would otherwise be offences for –
- scientific or educational purposes;
- the purpose of ringing or marking;
- conserving wild animals or introducing them to particular areas;
- preserving public health or public safety;
- preventing the spread of disease;
- preventing serious damage to any form of property or to fisheries.
Since 1998 the water vole has received legal protection through inclusion on Schedule 5 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended), in respect of Section 9(4) only. This means that the Water Vole’s places of shelter or protection are protected, but not the animals themselves. Recently the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 enhanced this protection by inclusion of the term ‘recklessly’ in the offences quoted below.
The current partial protection afforded this species is under wider review and may be extended in future.
At present it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly –
- Damage, destroy or obstruct access to any structure or place which Water Voles use for shelter or protection, and;
- Disturb Water Voles while they are using such a place.
NB: There are limited scenarios where specific defences can apply.
There is a statutory defence against prosecution if it can be demonstrated that –
- the unlawful act was the incidental result of a lawful operation or other activity
- the person who carried out the lawful operation or other activity took reasonable precautions for the purpose of avoiding carrying out the unlawful act” or that the person
- did not foresee, and could not reasonably have foreseen, that the unlawful act would be an incidental result of the carrying out of the lawful operation or other activity.
This defence only applies if the person stops causing any further illegal actions (eg development) as soon as practically possible once he or she realises they are occurring.
- If you do see someone committing a crime involving Water Voles take as many photographs as you can. Recording the offender’s face is important of course, but their clothing, the bags they’re carrying, the equipment they’re using are all important too.
Do NOT try to get too close – taking some long-distance images is better than having a camera smashed or being attacked and hurt.
- If it is safe to do so note any relevant car registration plates.
- Note the location as accurately as possible, preferably using a grid reference (free smartphone apps are widely available). If the crime is in an urban area note the address or any other recognisable description of the location.
- If in the countryside take wide angle photographs of any landmarks (a tree, a distinctive fenceline, a hill) that might help officers relocate the crime scene. Imagine we were trying to find the same site again – what information might we need?
- If you see a wildlife crime taking place do NOT approach the participants. If a crime is in progress call 999. Give details as requested, and ask for a crime reference number. If the event is finished then call 101 or call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.
- England and Wales – RSPCA Cruelty line 0300 1234 999
- Scotland – Scottish SPCA Animal Helpline 03000 999 999
Call an animal welfare charity:
For more information on Water Voles see http://www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/water-vole-life
Page updated December 2014.
Do you have any comments, additions, or corrections? Please let us know.