Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows popularized animals that could be found in the British countryside. One of the beloved characters in the story is Ratty, which in connection to his name, is actually water rat, or more formally – a Water Vole. Often at times, people misidentify the Water Vole and confuse them with common rats leading to their wrongful persecution by unknowing citizens. The water vole is smaller than rats. Measuring the body and the head, they can grow up to 190 mm and weigh an average of 220 grams. As their name implies, water voles’ natural habitat could be found in aquatic environments such as the burrows that they make near riverbanks. It feeds on vegetation near bodies of water. They escape from predators by diving into the water. As they do so, they make a “plop” sound, an identifying characteristic of their species.
Varieties of the Water Vole in the UK
In the United Kingdom, there are two separate groups or clades of water voles which could be differentiated from each other through variations in their DNA. The source of the water rat populations in Britain was traced by analyzing their DNA found in sample droppings. The first clade is the water voles from Scotland which were traced to have come from the Iberian territory. While the water vole variety found in England and Wales were discovered to be from Eastern Europe. Water voles that are found in the European continent like the UK varieties all possess a dark brown appearance while their bellies have a slightly lighter color. Unlike common rats, water voles have fur all over their body, including their tails. The dark tones of their fur serve as a defense mechanism to make them blend well with the vegetation found in their habitat.
The Habitat, Behavior, and Conservation of UK Water Voles
The water voles in the UK live beside ponds, streams, ditches, rivers, and other bodies of calm and slow-moving water. They burrow in the banks of rivers where they make ball-shaped nests. These nests can also be found aboveground if there are no areas for the water voles to burrow in. Water voles prefer undisturbed wetland as their habitat. Aside from providing food like bulbs, buds, twigs, and roots, the lush vegetation serves as protection for them as well. Water voles are known to be experts on the water as they are excellent divers and swimmers. They prefer not to live in large groups as each water vole adult establish their own territories. The boundaries of their area are differentiated from others using scent marks. The water voles’ mating period is from March to the last weeks of autumn. The females take about 21 days to complete their pregnancy. They give birth to as many as eight babies who weigh approximately 10 grams. Scientists working for the UK’s environment agencies have noticed a decline in the population in the 1990s. Their numbers dropped from 8 million to 2.3 million. Up to the early 2000s, the population continued dropping drastically to a mere 220,000 water voles. In 2008, the government formally acted to protect the water voles by declaring the destruction of the water voles’ habitat as an offense.