During my internship at Loch of Strathbeg I got the chance to take part in water vole surveys here and at Loch Spynie.

Water voles are widespread but have suffered declines due to habitat changes and predation by American mink.  Carrying out surveys is important to firstly find out whether water vole are present on the reserve but also to provide a picture of how the habitat is being used. This is carried out yearly on the reserve.

It is difficult to spot water voles so instead we look for evidence of activity including latrines, feeding stations and burrows along the waterway. These signs can be quite distinctive, however a combination of these gives stronger evidence.

Latrines are spots where water vole deposit droppings, which can be near a burrow, at territory boundaries or at entrance sites to the water. Water vole latrines consist of droppings 8-12mm long that resemble ‘tic-tacs’. If latrines are trampled this gives a good indication that breeding is taking place in the area as water voles drum-mark with their hind feet over scent glands.

Water vole latrine, Katie Horton

Feeding remains will consist of vegetation cut at a 45° angle. This is a characteristic of other vole species as well however water vole feeding signs will be much larger at up to around 10cm long. Piles of cut vegetation can be found in food caches along the waters edge or near burrow entrances.

Pile of cut vegetation by a water vole, Katie Horton

Burrows will typically be found within 5 meters of the water at around 4-8cm wide. However, these can often be mistaken with other species creating similar burrows, especially when these become eroded. Burrows can also indicate previous occupancy but does not necessarily mean water vole are present without other accompanying signs.

Water vole burrow, Katie Horton

During the surveys we did not see a water vole, however we were delighted to find signs in some areas at Loch of Strathbeg. We found quite a few burrows that seemed old and currently unused before we found an active site with plenty feeding signs and a latrine. We were also very excited to find a lot of activity in one of the ditches at Loch Spynie. There were several latrines and feeding signs along much of the ditch we were able to survey. I am hopeful that water vole continue to make use of both reserves and carry on expanding to new areas in the future.

Katie surveying for water voles along a ditch, Heather McCallum

Katie Horton, NE Scotland Coastal Reserves Intern