Fossorial Water Voles

Water Voles (Arvicola amphibius) are one of those creatures I’ve been keen to see and photograph for some time.  Images of them sitting on river banks munching on grasses are adorable.  However they have been in serious decline for many years due partly to changes in agricultural methods and the removal of many of the habitats they would frequent and also the introduction of the American mink which is not only semi-aquatic, but is also small enough to access their burrows and kill the voles.  I do know a few locations in Glasgow where the “Riparian water voles” can be located, but I’ve only ever spotted one briefly when out walking the dog (who was quite taken aback at my sudden excitement!). It might of course have been a brown rat swimming across the pond, but I’m sticking to my belief it was a water vole!  Admittedly though, I haven’t made much effort to check these locations out as yet, but it’s on the to do list in the spring/summer when they are more likely to be seen above ground.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I was told of a successful colony of water voles not on a riverbank, but in a small park in a fairly depressed area of the city!  Hard to believe.  These voles, known as “fossorial water voles” do not live beside water but have their burrows in areas of the park which are kept unmown to protect the fragile habitat and infrastructure.  The locals are apparently quite proud and protective of their “rats”.  They were discovered about a decade ago when one was found in a rat trap.  The council have been pretty good at protecting them during a period when this area has been going through a lot of regeneration which is good.  Fossorial water voles are  uncommon in the UK but Glasgow has a few pockets of them in one specific area although I have read that they are more prevalent in Europe.  In some ways water voles are more suited to life away from water as they don’t have webbed feet, nor are their coats particularly water proof.  No idea why these voles are mostly black though.  It’s great to have a water vole success story mind you, and almost on my doorstep.

Obviously within days of being told of their existence last April I took advantage of an afternoon off and went to investigate.  It did feel ever-so-slightly surreal walking round the small park with my camera gear as folk walked their dogs or took a lunchtime stroll.  A few did approach me wondering what I was doing or offering advice on where to look but everyone was friendly.

The voles are in a number of areas of the park, obvious by the fact the grass is uncut and they are riddled with burrows.  Interestingly there are no signs up asking people to stay off these areas (so as not to destroy the burrows) and I did see a couple with their dog stomping over it.  I stayed on the outskirts so as not to damage the burrows, looking for signs of life but it took a while to get my eye in.  Eventually I started to spot things moving that weren’t the local jackdaws, flashes of black in the grass.  On closer inspection these were the voles which are mostly very dark in colour.  They’d pop out, munch some grass then disappear again.


Even although I was now seeing the voles, photographing them proved challenging primarily because of the grass.  The ground is uneven and the voles, who often only came part way out of their burrow to allow for a quick exit if required, were almost always at least partly obscured by blades of grass.  It’s also not the most picturesque of settings. Eventually however I found this one.  It sat on some open ground for ages facing towards me as it fed.  Brilliant, and still my favourite photograph of these animals.  Unfortunately a dog came over and the vole disappeared – the problem with parks!


Still, it was a good start.  I planned to return as soon as possible, but never quite found the time. I did pop along during the summer, only to quickly realise that the now long grass made it impossible to spot the little voles at all.

Finally I made it back in January.   Again, like the first time it took me a while to spot the water voles.  I stood at the back of one of their areas, away from the public path, but did feel quite self-conscious.  After 30 minutes or so I saw one pop up and headed round the edge towards it… but it vanished.  Another one caught my eye, but was gone by the time I was within a decent distance of it for a 900mm focal length.  Oh so frustrating, but I have patience.  Finally one appeared and stayed visible.  I edged a little closer and slowly sat down to watch and wait for some clear shots.  Before long a second one appeared, and then when I turned to my side, a third!  Clear shots were still difficult though.  I had to delete the majority of pictures because of the grass.  Again, the ground wasn’t particularly photogenic, half dead grass at this time of year and a fair bit of refuse, nothing like those picturesque river shots…  Being low down did allow for a shallow depth of field to soften these, but the grass was an issue and I couldn’t exactly pop over and give it a trim!


These initial voles eventually headed back to their burrows and I stood up to move closer to some others I’d seen a little further along.  This time I stayed standing to see if that was more successful, much as I do prefer to be eye-level.  Grass wasn’t quite such a problem – except for one annoying blade obscuring bits of the one eating facing towards me, but depth of field here meant more of the ugly stuff was in focus.


I confess the photoshop spot healing brush helped cut the grass in this image!

Sometimes I’d see the ground move, but no vole appear, obviously one moving about just under the surface. Suddenly one popped its head out a burrow right in front of me, really close!  It sat there and looked around, including directly at me for a minute or so.  Fortunately it was just far enough away for me to focus on.  Great to see one so close though, and it really was quite adorable, almost like a little cat with its whiskers. Sadly it never turned fully towards me and I didn’t want to move and spook it.


I also finally saw a brown one, which was a beautiful chestnut colour.  And then there were three brown voles, one peaking its head out a pile of dead grass for a second.


It’s quite an experience being amongst these water voles, who are just going about their business within a stones throw of park users and a whole lot of dogs.  For an animal so endangered in the UK, to see so many in one place, obviously surviving and thriving is brilliant and a real privilege.

Highland based nature photographer and guide specialising primarily in Scottish wildlife but available to cover live music and events.

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