Water voles: surveys and mitigation for development projects

Standing advice for local planning authorities who need to assess the impacts of development on water voles.

Applies to England

Survey reports and mitigation plans are required for development projects that could affect protected species, as part of getting planning permission or a mitigation licence. Surveys need to show whether protected species are present in the area or nearby, and how they use the site. Mitigation plans show how you’ll avoid, reduce or manage any negative effects to protected species.

This is Natural England’s species standing advice for local planning authorities who need to assess planning applications that affect water voles.

Local planning authorities should use this advice to decide what is needed for surveys and planning mitigation measures to protect water voles.

If a local planning authority consults Natural England and the Environment Agency on the same planning application, Natural England will use this standing advice and the Environment Agency will lead on providing additional advice.

Ecologists need to decide which survey and mitigation methods are right for the project they’re working on. If this standing advice isn’t followed, they’ll have to include a statement with the planning application explaining why.

Where this guide says ‘you’ it means the applicant or their ecologist.

Get more information

You’ll need to decide which methods are right for the project you’re working on. If you can’t follow this standing advice, include a statement with your application explaining why.

Get more detail on:

What you must not do

The water vole is fully protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and is a priority conservation species.

You’re breaking the law if you:

  • intentionally capture, kill or injure water voles
  • damage, destroy or block access to their places of shelter or protection (on purpose or by not taking enough care)
  • disturb them in a place of shelter or protection (on purpose or by not taking enough care)
  • possess, sell, control or transport live or dead water voles or parts of them (not water voles bred in captivity)

If you’re found guilty of an offence you could get an unlimited fine and up to 6 months in prison.

Decide if you need to survey

Survey for water voles if:

  • distribution and historical records suggest they may be present
  • if the habitat is suitable for water voles, eg if there’s diggable earth or silt-shored banks for burrowing, wide swathes of soft vegetation growing from the banks and water and slow-flowing and relatively deep water courses

The absence of a record doesn’t mean there are no water voles in the area but could be a result of there being no survey data available for that location.

Survey methods

Surveys should be done between April and October by an ecologist experienced in water vole ecology.

Closely examine the waterway and pond banks, up to at least 2 metres from the water. Look for the following signs and record them on a detailed map:

  • faeces
  • latrines
  • feeding stations
  • burrows
  • footprints
  • runs or pathways

The survey should aim to gather information on the size and extent of the population on and adjacent the development site.

Assess the impacts

Activities that can harm water voles include:

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

In most cases you should be able to avoid harming the water voles, damaging or blocking access to their habitats.

Assess the harm this development would have on water voles if no mitigation measures were planned and submit it with your planning application. Include the potential effects of work to the watercourse itself and work nearby.

Avoidance and mitigation methods

You should address the potential impacts you’ve identified on water voles with your mitigation plans.

Aim to avoid negative effects by:

  • avoiding works to areas where there are water voles
  • avoiding habitat fragmentation and isolation by ensuring connectivity of habitat
  • limiting damage to water vole habitat

If this isn’t possible, use mitigation measures to reduce the impacts by habitat manipulation – encouraging them to move to a connected habitat

Only capture and move (translocate) water voles if there’s no reasonable alternative, eg there’s no way to allow the water voles to stay in the same place or nearby. The habitat you’re moving the voles to needs to be capable of supporting the water vole population. You’ll have to prove that capturing and moving the water voles as part of any development work would help their conservation.

Compensation methods

Use compensation measures to offset any remaining negative impacts for water voles that can’t be solved using mitigation.

Compensation measures can 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

It is also strongly advised that you carry out mink control as part of any mitigation, compensation and licensed action when you’re dealing with water voles.

Additional licensing information

This additional licensing information is for ecologist and developers who are considering applying for protected species licence.

If a protected species licence is needed the application needs to follow the above standing advice and this additional licensing information.

Water voles, their breeding sites and resting places are protected by law. In most cases, you should be able to avoid harming water voles by adjusting your planned work. If you can’t avoid disturbing them or damaging their habitats, you may be able to get a licence from Natural England.

Licences can’t be issued for the specific purpose of development. In some circumstances Natural England will consider issuing a licence in relation to a development proposal if the licensed action is going to provide a conservation benefit for water voles. If you need planning permission, you must get for it before you apply for a licence.

You can do work like building or waterway maintenance near water voles but you must comply with the laws protecting them even when planning permission isn’t needed.


You won’t normally need a licence to survey for water voles unless you need to trap them or put a camera into their burrows.

Published 9 October 2014
Last updated 28 March 2015 + show all updates
  1. Guide fully updated after consulting Natural England experts.

  2. The link for more detail on surveys and mitigation is now higher up in the guide.

  3. First published.