Environmental management – guidance

Water voles: protection, surveys and licences

What you must do to avoid harming water voles and when you need a licence.

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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. If you need to apply for planning permission, your planning authority will check you’re taking the right steps to avoid harming them.

What you must not do

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 be sent to prison for up to 6 months and be fined £5,000 for each offence.

Activities that can harm water voles

Activities that can affect 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.

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. If you need planning permission, you must get for it before you apply for a licence.

Trapping crayfish, eels and elvers

If you trap crayfish, eels or elvers you must follow certain rules to protect water voles.

Decide if you need a licence

It’s up to you to decide if your activity will affect water voles or their habitats, and whether you’ll need a licence. You can get expert advice from an ecologist to help you decide, but this isn’t a legal requirement.

You should try everything else possible to avoid disturbing the water voles, blocking access to or damaging their habitats. In most cases you should be able to plan the work to achieve this.

You can’t get a licence for illegal actions against water voles during development work. You may get a conservation licence to destroy habitats or trap and move water voles if it helps to conserve them. Licences will only be given if you enhance water vole habitats and benefit their conservation status. Natural England will decide on a case-by-case basis.

When you apply for a licence to trap and translocate water voles you need to include:

  • planning permission for the work (or justification for why the work needs to take place if planning permission isn’t needed)
  • a water vole survey showing how the water voles use the area
  • a statement explaining why you need to trap and translocate the water voles and why they can’t be accommodated on the site
  • map of the affected area
  • timescale of the trapping and releasing
  • a plan for how you plan to trap and hold them
  • details of the release site
  • management plan for the release site

Get expert help

Species surveys need to be conducted by a qualified and experienced ecologist. You can find an ecologist from:

Standards for surveys

Natural England and your planning authority will check that your surveys and mitigation plans meet certain standards, summarised below. These aren’t legal requirements, but they constitute Natural England’s standing advice. For more detail, refer to water voles guidance for planners and developers.

The planning authority and Natural England will check how recent the survey is – the older it is, the less reliable its findings may be.

Surveys should include enough information to show any possible impacts to water voles and their conservation status. They should:

  • examine waterways and pond banks for at least 2 metres from the water’s edge
  • be done between April and October (water voles are less active above ground in winter)
  • include a detailed map of where signs are found

Water voles are rarely seen, so surveys should look for the following signs:

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

Your planning authority may also consult Natural England and the Environment Agency for advice once they have survey results and proposed mitigation measures.

Apply for a licence

Licences are free. Allow up to 30 working days for a licensing decision to be made.

If you need to apply for planning permission, you should get it before applying for a licence.

Apply online

To apply online:

  1. Read the guide to applying online for a protected species licence (PDF, 568KB, 16 pages) .
  2. Register on Government Gateway.
  3. Log on to Natural England’s online licensing portal using your Government Gateway ID and password.

Apply by post or email

You can download water vole licence application forms to complete and return to Natural England.


Natural England

Wildlife licensing

Natural England wildlife licensing
First floor
Temple Quay House
2 The Square


Opening times: 8:30am to 5:00pm, Monday to Friday

Environment Agency

General enquiries

National Customer Contact Centre
PO Box 544
S60 1BY

Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm

Where water voles are found

Water voles are found throughout England in areas with vegetation on the banks of:

  • slow-flowing rivers
  • ditches
  • dykes
  • lakes
  • ponds
  • marshes or bogs
  • canals
  • reedbeds

Check where waters voles are found:

If there aren’t any records of water voles in the area, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there.