Water voles: advice for making planning decisions

How to assess a planning application when there are water voles on or near a proposed development site.

Applies to England

This is Natural England’s ‘standing advice’ for water voles. It is a material planning consideration for local planning authorities (LPAs). You should take this advice into account when making planning decisions. It forms part of a collection of standing advice for protected species.

Following this advice:

  • avoids the need for you to consult on the impacts of planning applications on water voles in most cases
  • can help you make decisions on development proposals

You may need a qualified ecologist to advise you on the planning application and supporting evidence. You can find one using either the:

Qualified ecologists should follow the:

How water voles are protected

Water voles are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is an offence to intentionally:

  • kill, injure or take them
  • possess or control them (alive or dead)

It is also an offence to intentionally or recklessly:

  • damage or destroy a structure or place used for shelter or protection
  • disturb them in a place used for shelter or protection
  • obstruct access to a place used for shelter or protection

Water voles are also listed as rare and most threatened species under Section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (2006). You must have regard for the conservation of Section 41 species as part of your planning decision. Find out more about your biodiversity duty.

The developer must comply with the legal protection of water voles.

You should consider if the developer has taken appropriate measures to avoid any negative effects on water voles in their development proposal. If not, check that they have mitigated or compensated for these effects.

The developer may need to apply for a water vole mitigation licence to carry out their proposals.

When to ask for a survey

You should ask for a survey if distribution and historical records suggest water voles may be present - you can search the National Biodiversity Network Atlas by species and location.

Absence of a record does not mean there are no water voles. It could mean there is no survey data available for that location.

You should also ask for a survey if the habitat is suitable for water voles, for example, if there are any of the following:

  • silty shore banks for burrowing or earth for digging
  • wide swathes of soft vegetation growing from the banks and in the water
  • slow-flowing water courses of varying depths
  • places for water voles to escape from predators

You must check if the ecologist is qualified and experienced to carry out surveys for water voles. CIEEM publishes:

The ecologist should also follow the Biodiversity code of practice for planning and development (BS 42020:2013) available on the British Standards Institute website. These documents may not be accessible to assistive technology.

Assess the effect of development on water voles

Developers should submit qualitative and quantitative information with their planning application on how their development avoids or mitigates harm to water voles.

Activities that can harm water voles include:

  • destroying or damaging their habitat
  • destroying or disturbing places used for shelter or protection
  • changing water quality

To understand the level of mitigation needed, the development proposal needs to show:

  • how likely it is that water voles will be affected by any development work
  • the potential effects that work to the watercourse itself and work nearby would have on the water vole

Avoidance, mitigation and compensation measures

Look for examples of avoidance, mitigation or compensation plans in the development proposal. Developers could redesign the proposal to avoid:

  • working where there are water voles
  • habitat fragmentation and isolation by maintaining habitat connection
  • damage to water vole habitat

Where this is not possible, mitigation measures could include encouraging water voles to move to an alternative connected habitat by removing vegetation, known as displacement.

If larger areas of water vole habitat will be affected, the proposal could include capturing water voles and moving them to a suitable receptor site away from the works, known as relocation by trapping.

Any new habitat acting as a receptor site should be nearby and must be capable of supporting water voles before any trapping starts.

Natural England will only grant a licence to translocate water voles off site or take them into captivity as a last resort. The proposal should include evidence that removing water voles from the site will:

  • not have a detrimental effect on the source population
  • benefit water vole conservation

To compensate for any negative effects on the water vole or its habitat, the proposal could include:

  • providing more or better habitat for the water voles, to make up for any lost through development
  • improving water quality
  • enhancing bank and vegetation structure
  • carrying out mink control

For more information on mitigation plans and compensation measures, read the planners guide for protected species and development.

Planning and licence conditions

If the proposal is likely to affect water voles, the developer must apply for a water vole mitigation licence.

If the project affects less than 50m of bank, the developer can employ an ecologist registered under class licence CL31 to displace water voles.

Before you can grant planning permission, you must be confident that Natural England will issue a licence. You do not need to consult Natural England on the wording or discharge of any conditions you impose on a planning proposal. Natural England is unable to provide advice on this.

Enhance biodiversity

To meet your biodiversity duty, you should suggest ways for the developer to:

  • create new or enhanced habitats on the development site
  • achieve a net gain in biodiversity through good design, such as green roofs, street trees or sustainable drainage

Site management and monitoring

You should consider the need for site monitoring and management. These measures are likely to be a condition of wildlife licences.

A site management and monitoring plan should include:

  • vegetation management to maintain shelter and foraging resources
  • managing the potential risks from increased human presence and pollution
  • water quality management to make sure it’s maintained or improved at the site
  • monitoring water vole populations after development

This can include carrying out management works to habitats and additional survey work to check that mitigation measures are working as intended, followed by remedial work if needed.

Published 14 January 2022
Last updated 21 December 2022 + show all updates
  1. Guidance updated to include information about the new licensing purpose: reasons of overriding public interest.

  2. First published.