Theory predicts that the impact of gene flow on the genetic structure of populations in patchy habitats depends on its scale and the demographic attributes of demes (e.g. local colony sizes and timing of reproduction), but empirical evidence is scarce. We inferred the impact of gene flow on genetic structure among populations of water voles Arvicola terrestris that differed in average colony sizes, population turnover and degree of patchiness. Colonies typically consisted of few reproducing adults and several juveniles. Twelve polymorphic microsatellite DNA loci were examined. Levels of individual genetic variability in all areas were high (HO= 0.69–0.78). Assignments of juveniles to parents revealed frequent dispersal over long distances. The populations showed negative FIS values among juveniles, FIS values around zero among adults, high FST values among colonies for juveniles, and moderate, often insignificant, FST values for parents. We inferred that excess heterozygosity within colonies reflected the few individuals dispersing from a large area to form discrete breeding colonies. Thus pre-breeding dispersal followed by rapid reproduction results in a seasonal increase in differentiation due to local family groups. Genetic variation was as high in low-density populations in patchy habitats as in populations in continuous habitats used for comparison. In contrast to most theoretical predictions, we found that populations living in patchy habitats can maintain high levels of genetic variability when only a few adults contribute to breeding in each colony, when the variance of reproductive success among colonies is likely to be low, and when dispersal between colonies exceeds nearest-neighbour distances.