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Water Vole Licensing

Water voles are fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). This has implications for developers and planners who wish to:

Under Section 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981(as amended) (W and CA) it is illegal to:

  • Intentionally kill, injure or take any wild water vole. 9(1)
  • Possess or control any live or dead wild water vole or any part of, or anything derived from, such an animal. 9(2)
  • Intentionally or recklessly damage or destroy, any structure or place which any wild water vole uses for shelter or protection. 9(4)(a)
  • Intentionally or recklessly disturb any such animal while it is occupying a structure or place which it uses for that purpose. 9(4)(b)
  • Intentionally or recklessly obstruct access to any structure or place which any wild water vole uses for shelter or protection. 9(4)(c)
  • Sell, offer or expose for sale, or have in possession or transports for the purpose of sale, any live or dead wild water vole, or any part of, or anything derived from, such an animal. 9(5)(a)
  • Publishes or causes to be published any advertisement likely to be understood as conveying that you buy or sell, or intend to buy or sell, any of those things 9(5)(b)

Exceptions to the above

It is legal to tend a sick or injured water vole with the sole intention of releasing it when no longer disabled, or to kill a seriously disabled water vole that has no reasonable chance of recovering (W and CA 10(3)(a) and (b)).

Penalties

Offences under section 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) carry a maximum penalty of imprisonment for up to 6 months or a fine not exceeding level 5 (currently £5,000), or both. In addition, the courts may order the forfeiture of any vehicle or other thing that was used to commit the offence.

Licences

Licences are issued to permit acts that would otherwise be illegal. They must be issued under the purpose for which the proposed activity is being carried out. There are only a limited number of purposes for which licences may be issued in the UK. Within Wales these licences are issued by Natural Resources Wales (NRW).

Licensing purposes

Under 16 (3) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981(as amended) NRW are able to issue licences of relevance to water voles for the following purposes:

  1. Scientific or Educational
    A licence is required for the purpose of taking or disturbing a water vole or damaging or obstructing access to a breeding or resting place in order to carry out any kind of research or detailed survey
  2. Ringing or marking
    To take a water vole for the purpose of ringing or marking. This includes any type of mark, identification method or radio tracking tag
  3. Conservation
    Any activity carried out where the primary purpose of that activity is the long term conservation of water vole. This can include management or restoration of water vole sites
  4. Protecting any zoological or botanical collection
  5. Photography
  6. Preserving public health or public safety
    This may for instance be the restoration or maintenance of canals or footpaths beside rivers
  7. Preventing serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber or any other form of property or to fisheries.This may relate to damage to the above caused by water voles

It is not possible to issue a licence for “development” under the Wildlife and Countryside Act in a similar way to some of the licences issued under the Habitats Regulations. Licences can be issued for the purpose of ‘preserving public health and public safety’ eg restoration of a canal bank. However, not all developments fit under this heading.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act provides a defence against the above offences where the action is the incidental result of an otherwise lawful operation and could not reasonably be avoided (10(3)(c)).

Development issues and water vole sites

The best advice from NRW is for the developer to consult the Water Vole Mitigation Handbook in all situations. This document replaces those sections in the Water Vole Conservation Handbook that refer to developments and licensing. In particular it should be noted that displacement is now a licensable activity in addition to removal by trapping and the Mitigation Handbook focusses on the techniques used in these practices.

The guidance relates to development projects and other construction activities, including those requiring other environmental permits, such as flood defence consent. It is not intended to be used in relation to routine management or maintenance of watercourses for flood risk management purposes, in order to preserve public health and safety or for conservation management. These activities may be subject to different licensing requirements and the Water Vole Conservation Handbook should be consulted for advice on these.

Use of the incidental result defence

Up to now, displacement and trapping of water voles for development (England and Wales) has been carried out without a licence with the ‘incidental result’ being used as a form of defence.

 A review of the legislation by the Statutory Nature Conservation Organisations has concluded the ‘incidental result’ defence does not cover displacement and trapping for development and a licence must now be sought.

In Wales this is in the form of a site-specific licence which is required for all displacement and trapping activities and will be issued by Natural Resources Wales (NRW).

Frequently asked questions

Do I need a licence to survey for Water voles?

If you are going to interfere with burrows eg block with hay, and disturb water voles in their burrows or trap them then you will. If you are simply surveying for holes, droppings and feeding signs you will not.

What do I do if I wish to undertake development work on a water vole site?

If the nature of the work is such that an offence is likely then you should discuss the matter with the regional NRW officer and it is likely that a licence will be required.

If water voles are on a site where I am undertaking work in line with an agreed method statement will I still be committing an offence?

Only a court can decide if an offence has been committed. All operations must now be carried out under licence to be issued by Natural Resources Wales.

What about site crossing over the border between England and Wales?

For sites on the English side of the border you will need to consult with Natural England. For sites on the Welsh side you will need to contact the regional NRW officer.

Where can I find out more information on water voles?

The following documents should be consulted:

The Water Vole Conservation Handbook Second Edition provides extensive advice on habitat management and ecology;

The Water Vole Mitigation Handbook provides extensive advice on mitigation.

Both documents include a number of useful case studies.

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