Water voles are often mistakenly called water rats, but they are only distantly related to rats. Water voles have a chubby face with a blunt nose and short furry ears almost hidden by long fur.

Territory

A male water vole occupies an area of waterbank of about 130m and will usually live in this narrow strip of land at the water's edge for a long time, sometimes all its life. A female has about half the range of a male and will sometimes leave her territory to live elsewhere. The voles leave small piles of droppings to mark the edge of their territories. Secretions from flank glands are also used to mark territories, particularly by the male. If overcrowding becomes a problem, males, and sometimes females, will fight, with loud high-pitched squeaks. Large social colonies are not usually formed and when numbers are high, after a good breeding season, some voles will leave the overcrowded area and look for somewhere else to live. During times of peak population, more than 100 water voles may live in one hectare of land (area of two football pitches).

The vole excavates a system of burrows in a waterside bank and the entrances may be above or below water. Inside the burrow, it builds a ball-shaped nest of grass and other plant material. These nests may also be built under driftwood or on the water bank if there is thick vegetation there. It may also build a small platform of grass and twigs on tufts of weed where it will sunbathe.

The water vole does not always live at the water's edge. In central Europe, it lives rather like a mole, some distance from water, burrowing in woodland, meadows, crop fields and gardens.

It burrows just under the surface, pushing the dug-out soil upwards into little heaps.

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