Identification

There are three species of vole on mainland Britain, the water vole, field vole and bank vole. All voles have a round face, with a blunt nose and tiny ears barely visible in the fur, and a relatively short tail. The bank vole is the smallest and the one most likely to live in gardens. Its most obvious feature is its chestnut brown fur. The bank vole is slightly larger, more of a grey-brown colour, and has an even shorter tail – it is sometimes known as the short-tailed vole. The water vole is much larger, with a shaggy brown coat.

Size

Bank vole

Head and body length, 9-11cm (3 ½-4 1/2in), tail 3.5-6.5cm (1 ¼-2 1/4in)

Field vole

Head and body length, 9-13cm (3 ½-5in), tail 2.5-4.5cm (1-1 3/4in)

Water vole

Head and body length, 12-23cm (4 ¾-9in), tail 4-14cm (1 ½-5 1/2in)

Distribution

All three voles are widely distributed across Britain, although the water vole is now very rare.

Status

The bank and field voles are believed to be in decline due to loss of habitat, but precise numbers are unknown. The water vole is now one of our most threatened mammals and numbers have declined by 95 percent in recent decades. It has full legal protection, and is listed as a priority species for conservation under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Habitat preference

The bank vole lives in woodland and hedgerows, keeping close to shrubby cover, but adapts well to gardens.

The field vole lives in open, tussocky grasslands, so is unlikely to occur in most gardens, although it will sometimes live in orchards.

Water voles live alongside rivers, ponds and canals, wherever there is dense waterside vegetation to provide food and shelter. They are occasionally found living around large garden ponds.

Where to find them in the garden

Bank voles are most likely to live in hedge bottoms or shrubbery, sometimes venturing into overgrown patches of long grass or brambles.

Role in the garden

Voles are vegetarians, feeding mostly on grass and herbaceous plants, although they will take fruit in the autumn. They are themselves food for many predators, including owls, foxes, stoats and weasels.