Have you spotted any mysterious tracks or unexplained droppings? Solve the case with some tips from Darren Tansley, the Mammal Detective.
Mammals are all around us, from mice and voles to deer and foxes. They’re on our nature reserves, in our parks, and even in our gardens. But how often do you see them? Most mammals like to stay hidden, and they’re very good at it! Many prefer to emerge at night, when they’re protected from prying eyes by the cover of darkness.
However, even the stealthiest species leave behind clues for us to find. Look around and you’ll see telltale signs of these animals’ hidden presence. Some are obvious, like large piles of poo left in prominent places, others are more subtle, like nibbled pinecones at the base of trees. One of the most exciting things to find is a footprint. The best place to look for prints is in soft soil or mud, especially after rain. If it’s been snowing, footprints can be seen almost anywhere.
Let’s take a look at some of the prints you might find…
Cats and dogs
There are millions of cats and dogs in the UK, so there are plenty of pet prints around, especially in popular dog walking spots. Being able to tell them apart from prints left by wild animals is necessary when playing detective. Because dogs come in such a variety of sizes, their prints can be very variable, though are often around 3-5cm wide. They have four toes with big claw marks in front of the toes. Cat prints are generally 2-3cm wide and, because cats pull in their claws when walking, they have no claw marks at all. Another key feature that sets them apart from dog prints is that one middle toe is always longer than the other.
Foxes are the wild cousins of dogs, so their prints also have four toes, but their footprint is a neat diamond shape. There is a triangular foot pad with four toes around the sides and front, with two neat claws forming a point at the front. Their droppings are also dog-like, usually pointy at one end, and full of fur, feathers, tiny bones, seeds and berries. Fresh dropping have a particularly pungent, musky smell.
Badger feet are as big as a medium dog’s but have five toes instead of four. Their prints show a wide, squarish foot pad with five toes in front of it. The toes have long claws for digging. Badgers follow the same routes when they’re foraging, so leave well-worn trails wherever they search for food. Look for straight tracks across fields or coming out of woods, hedges or along fences. They poo in shallow pits called latrines, and their droppings vary from firm and sausage shaped, to soft and slimy.
We have several species of deer, from the dog-sized muntjac to the horse-sized red deer. But all their tracks are roughly the same shape, just different sizes. Muntjac tracks are around 3cm long, whilst red deer tracks are up to 9cm long. Deer really walk on tip-toes, so you only usually see two long pointed toe prints side by side, with no claws or foot pads. Some species live in herds and create big muddy trails with dozens of footprints. Look for tracks crossing streams, footpaths and ditches, or heavily trodden tracks through woodlands. Deer droppings are smooth, shiny dark pellets that are pointed at one end and often stuck together in clusters.
Rabbit footprints are an oval shape. You won’t really notice separate paw marks, but the four feet are arranged in a triangle as they hop around. It is often easier to find rabbits by looking for the little round pellet droppings they leave on lawns and fields where they have been feeding.
Rats have star-shaped toe prints on the front feet and long back feet. Rats are similar in size to guinea pigs, so their footprints are only 1.5-2cm long. They can often be found along ditches, streams, and river edges – so long as there is food and somewhere to burrow! Rat droppings are flat at one end and pointy at the other, light brown to black, slimy and soft, and smell unpleasantly like wee. Their droppings can be harmful to humans, so you should avoid touching them.
Otters spend a lot of their time in rivers, so you’re most likely to find footprints along muddy banks coming out of the water, or on sand and silt under bridges. They have five teardrop-shaped toes around a large pad, but one toe is usually off to one side – like if you spread your hand out and look at your thumb. Otters will often leave droppings (known as spraints) in prominent places along rivers, such as on rocks or under bridges, to mark their territory. Spraints are crunchy looking, filled with fish scales and tiny fish bones, and when fresh smell like jasmine tea.
For more tips on recognising animal signs, check out our poo and track identification pages.