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Tales of the Riverbank

How to spot 'Ratty'

Ratty – a famous vole

'Ratty' in Wind in the Willows is a water rat - and therefore in fact, a water vole. While true rats and voles are both rodents and are relations, they belong to different families. 'Ratty' is in the vole family.

Ratty, you might know, shared a far from normal life with Moley and Mr.Toad and had great adventures. His picnic included:


As you might guess, this is hardly usual – water voles are normally vegetarian (herbivorous) – choosing juicy grasses and sedges as their main food and very occasionally snacking on snails. They may eat up to four fifths of their own body weight in food each day!

Chosen titbits are taken to favourite places near the water's edge to be eaten. The piles of nibbled leftovers are handy clues for people searching for water voles. The water vole's droppings look a bit like those of guinea pigs and are a valuable clue for vole detectives. Droppings are left in the same places over a period of time. These vole loos are called latrines and you need to look for them in this survey.

How to spot a vole

Water vole

The chances are you've never seen a water vole. They are the largest British vole and at 20cm from nose to bottom, much bigger than bank voles and field voles. They have furry tails, small neat ears (almost hidden in their silky fur) and, if you are ever lucky enough to see one, a blunt nose and chubby cheeks with plenty of whiskers. The fur is usually a rich chestnut-brown colour but in some regions, particularly in Scotland, there are water voles with black fur.

The only animals water voles can really be mixed up with are brown rats. These are common rats and are about the same size as voles and can be found in similar places. Rats have bigger ears and pointy noses, less rounded bodies and larger tails. Just to confuse things, water voles are also known as water rats. Water rats and water voles are the same species.

Key signs for voles
Droppings and food remains are important – but so are burrows. A female vole, bringing up her young, needs to make sure there is enough food and shelter for them all close by. She does this by having her own territory which she defends against neighbours. In a bumper year she may have up to five litters each of six young.

The young are born in a burrow and, when she is nursing, the mother will often choose to feed on the grass just around her burrow entrance. This leaves a short grazed area around the opening. It is these holes with 'lawns' that we are asking you to record in Water Volewatch, mostly because they are easiest to tell apart from those used by other species.


Listen for a plop
Burrows are sometimes used by water voles to hide from danger, but often they choose to use the water instead – they are excellent swimmers. Some burrows actually have their entrances below the waterline. The 'plop' of a water vole entering the water used to be a common sound along watery edges – let's hope that it will be a sound we can all look forward to hearing more of in the future.

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