Top Tips for Tracking Mammals

Thanks to Cumbria Wildlife Trust, I spent a day with Stuart Colgate from Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre to learn about British mammals and how to identify them in the field.

See what I got up to here. Read on for my Top Tips…

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Common Field Signs

Field signs vary between species, but there can also be similarities.


Feeding signs and food stores are key for identification. Examples include browse lines and bark stripping from foraging deer, or chewed honeysuckle flowers from feeding dormice. Other small mammals nibble nuts differently, which can be useful to recognise too.

The characteristics of animal droppings can help distinguish species. For instance, otter spraints have a lavender odour, despite being full of fish bones. Be sure to analyse the size, colour, texture, and smell – but also consider its location and contents.


Burrows, dens, dreys, lairs, holts, and setts… The list goes on. No matter what you’re tracking, there are often specific signs to look out for – here are some common ones:

• Rats and voles are examples of species that create paths, known as ‘runs’, that link between various burrows.
• Badgers like to keep their homes clean by regularly scooping out old bedding, which make key identifiable features when left outside their sett.
• Foxes use dens that look similar to badger setts, but their entrances are taller and thinner.


First, learn to differentiate cat and dog prints – then buy a guidebook. Since tracks and trails are usually obscured, most are only useful if other supporting signs are present. Whilst it is good to consider the gait and size of the tracks, claw marks and tail drags can also provide helpful clues.


Small mammals like mice, voles, and shrews are difficult to correctly identify unless viewed closely. As a cheap and easy method, you can make your own hair trap in your back garden to determine the presence of small mammals – although they tend to have a low ‘catch-rate’ for collecting hairs.

Live-trapping is useful to temporarily detain small species for accurate identification. This is best left for those with more experience, although trip-traps and tube traps are good options for this.

These are easy enough to set up, but ensure that you slant the trap downwards to allow drainage, and fill with substrate and a variety of food types. Take note: a number of species require licences to trap or disturb, so do your research and never live trap mammals without the approprate licences or if you’re unsure what to do!

For a simple, straightforward way to record data accurately and efficiently, visit


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