Vexing Voles; ID Made Easy!
Would it be presumptuous of me to assume that everyone has heard of the humble vole? To many of us, voles are known purely as owl fodder or the furry things occasionally dumped onto your Persian carpet courtesy of your marauding moggy. Indeed to those absent a keen interest in natural history Voles are often mistaken for mice or worse, rats. As a matter of fact, even when one is sure that they are looking at a Vole it often difficult to differentiate between species. Voles rarely provide good views, a flash of brown or a shrill squeak the only indication of their presence. With this in mind it is often difficult to definitively decide just which species you are ogling. As such I have decided to put together a short identification guide to allow easy differentiation between Britain’s two common vole species. The Field Vole (Microtus agrestis) and Bank Vole (Myodes glareolus). I understand that many people reading this may be more than proficient with their rodents (some undoubtedly more so than I), if this is the case feel free to look away now. I would also like to stress that this is the first time I have conjured up a post of this nature so forgive me if it is difficult to follow or indeed, totally useless. Anyways, here goes nothing..
Habitat preference; not as straight forward as you may think..
So you want to look for voles. Where do you look? Well if the names given to the species in question are anything to go buy you would be forgiven for searching Bank Voles in the vicinity of banks and Field Voles in verdant grassy meadows. I am not for one minute suggesting these names are not justly deserved; indeed Field Voles do inhabit fields and I am sure that somewhere down the line a Bank Vole has taken up residence in a bank. Truth be told however things are far less clear cut and I have seen Bank Voles foraging in fields and their close cousin living quite comfortably on railway embankments. Difficult eh? In truth our two vole species are not all that picky when it comes to real estate, overlapping frequently and at times living quite contently alongside one another. Setting this aside however a brief search on Google does indeed suggest that each species has a particular habitat preference. Field Voles are listed by numerous sources as favouring grassland, heathland and moorland whilst Bank Voles reportedly prefer parks, gardens, woodland and hedgerows. It is however not possible to tell the two species based on habitat alone and to properly identify your particular romping rodent you must take a much closer look.
The Nitty Gritty
You would be forgiven for thinking that Britain’s two common Vole species are fairly similar, at least superficially. Indeed both species are small, brown and furry and both species look similar at a distance. If one takes the time to look however there are a number of features that allow you to differentiate between Bank and Field Voles, many of which can be scrutinized in tandem to make identification relatively straight forward.
Fur + Colouration
Colouration is perhaps one of the best means of identifying Britain’s voles. Both species are indeed small and “brown” though both differ in hue to such an extent to make identification possible. Field Voles as a rule appear much colder. They boast a grey/brown coat as opposed to the warmer, more rustic red/brown of the Bank Vole. The fur of the Field Vole also appears somewhat more unkempt, at times covering the ears and nose though after a good downpour or run in with a cat I am sure a Bank Vole could appear equally as bedraggled. The underparts of both species are both cream/grey and thus can make identification tricky though assuming your vole is not practicing hand stands this becomes almost irrelevant. One last note on colouration is that some Field Voles can occasionally appear yellow/brown in colour and at first glance may appear rather similar to their ginger cousin. This can make things difficult but will force you to take heed of a few less conspicuous features that aid in the ID process.
One of the most regularly cited aids when identifying voles is their tail. As its additional name suggests (Short-Tailed Vole), the Field Vole boasts a relatively short tail. At least in comparison with the Bank Vole. The tail of the former constitutes only 30% of its total body length as opposed to the 50% of the latter. Alongside colouration, tail length is one of the best indicators associated with vole ID though as is so often the case, tails can be obscured relatively easily by vegetation. Should this be the case it then becomes necessary to examine additional features. Among these the head of the vole is relatively useful. I mentioned before that on a typical Field Vole the fur will obscure the ears. This is true though the ears should still remain visible whereas on your typical Bank Vole the ears remain disguised under the ginger/brown coat though I suppose this is only of use should good views of the animal be obtained.
Mice & Rats
As I mentioned in my opening paragraph voles are frequently misidentified as other rodents. Among these, mice and rats are perhaps the most frequently encountered and thus pose problems for the less experienced. Truth be told one should never be able to confuse a Vole with a Rat though I have witnessed this happen on more than one occasion. Rats are much larger, boast a long (somewhat unnerving) tail, are pale brown in colour and showcase an impressive pair ears. Additional features include a prominent protruding muzzle and more apparent beady eyes. Mice pose a little more difficulty. They are indeed comparable in size with Voles and particularly in the case of the Wood Mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus) are found in pretty much the same type of habitat. Like the much larger Rat however Wood Mice (and mice in general) boast much larger ears than voles. Appearing almost satellite like as opposed to the stumps of both common vole species. In addition, Wood Mice are also sandy in colour with pale white underparts as opposed to the various shades of brown present on our voles. Juvenile Wood Mice are much darker in colouration though the ears, pointy muzzle and “cuter” saucer like eyes should be enough to differentiate between the two. The same goes for the House Mouse (Mus musculus) though as a rule these are unlikely to occur alongside Voles. Though on that thought, I once came down stairs to witness a Bank Vole raiding our bread bin. It is therefore wrong to assume that the rodent exploring your kitchen is by definition a House Mouse.
And there you have it. A very amateur guide to vole identification. I sincerely hope it will be of use to someone, somewhere though if not it was still rather fun to spend a length of time discussing voles. Voles are a much overlooked aspect of our countryside; they sustain many of our enigmatic predators, disperse seeds and manicure grasslands. They are also interesting and dare I say it, rather cute. Whats not to like? I will leave you with an ID conundrum, the below image shows a vole I photographed a few days past on a Scottish moorland. Baring in mind what I said about habitat, what do you think it is?
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