Watch Out for Water Voles – Part 1: Legal Considerations and Planning Works

Posted by Hannah Maben - BSc (Hons) MIEEM on 27/01/2011

Water vole and its habitat are protected and as such are a key consideration when planning and undertaking any works affecting aquatic habitat, be it conservation, maintenance, management or development works.  This Blog considers the legislation and processes involved to ensure that works can be undertaken and has been split into two parts:

Part 1: Legal Considerations and Planning Works; and,

Part 2: Implementing Works Affecting Water Vole Habitat

Part 1 provides a brief background to the legislation affording protection to this species and its habitat, water vole ecology and the broad process in terms of considering this species when planning works including licensing. 

Part 2 gives a more detailed insight into implementing measures to minimize impacts on this species whilst enabling works, focusing on the displacement method.

Part 1: Legal Considerations and Planning Works

The Law in brief

Water voles and their habitat are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended).  This protection means that is an offence to deliberately, capture, injure or kill them or to damage, destroy or obstruct their breeding or resting places.  It is also an offence to disturb water vole in their breeding or resting places.

It is not the intention of the law to prevent any works that may affect this species and its habitat; such works can be undertaken provided that it is an incidental result of an otherwise lawful operation and that appropriate measures are taken to avoid/minimize impacts to water voles during its implementation.

Habitat and distribution

Water voles are associated with aquatic habitats such as rivers, streams, canals, lakes and ponds.  They are herbivores that feed on bankside and in channel vegetation.  Generally they will burrow into steep earth banks; however, they will create nests within reedbeds and marginal vegetation where there is not suitable burrowing habitat. 

Water voles are widespread throughout the UK, but population’s are in significant decline.  Therefore this species is a consideration for any works affecting aquatic habitats.

Planning works

When planning any works that affects suitable water vole habitat, Ecosulis recommends the following approach:

  1. Undertake a survey – Surveys for water vole should be undertaken as soon as possible when planning works affecting aquatic habitats.  This should be in advance of any applications in respect to planning, Environment Agency permits or seeking any other permission required for the works.  The optimal season for undertaking water vole surveys is between mid-April and October.
  2. Avoidance measures – if water vole presence is confirmed then works should, where possible, implement measures to avoid impacts on this species and its habitat.  Avoidance measures may include relocating outfall pipes, road crossings etc.
  3. Mitigation strategy – where avoidance is not possible then a detailed mitigation strategy should be compiled that clearly considers the impacts and outlines measures to be taken to minimize these impacts on water voles and their habitats.  Wherever possible measures to enhance conditions for this species would also be identified.  Part 2 considers some mitigation in more detail.
  4. Monitoring – it is best practice to monitor any water vole population; however, this is especially important where mitigation works have been implemented (assessing success of mitigation) or along water bodies that require long-term maintenance (to inform future works).


Statutory National Governmental Organisations, such as Natural England, are able to issue licences to allow certain activities that would otherwise be offences.  However, there is no opportunity to obtain a licence for the purpose of development, maintenance or land management and as such activities must be as an incidental result of a lawful operation and could not reasonably be avoided.

That said, Natural England may be able to issue a licence to trap and translocate the water voles for the purpose of conservation if, despite all reasonable efforts, properly authorised development will adversely impact on water voles and there are no alternative habitats nearby.

Further useful reading

Natural England (2008).  NE86 Water Voles - the law in practice. Natural England 

Natural England (2008).  TIN042 Water voles and development: licensing policy. Natural England

Strachan, R (2006).  Water Vole Conservation Handbook.   The Environment Agency and The Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Oxford. Second Edition