Tracks & signs

Mammal tracks and signs by Gwen Hitchcock and Ruth Hawksley

Detecting who has been visiting from the signs they leave behind

As we enter National Mammal Week it’s a good time to discuss the importance of tracks and signs. Many of our British mammals are nocturnal (active mainly at night) and of those that come out during the day many have learnt to be wary of humans and run or hide when we approach. However, mammal, and many other creatures, can leave us clues to their presence even when we don’t see them.

Upon hearing tracks & signs most people first think of footprint, but there are many different types of sign animals can leave behind. I was recently introduced to the mnemonic FEATHER to remember them all:

  • Footprints – Including number and arrangement of pads, presence of claw marks, size and gait pattern
  • Excreta – Droppings and pellets. Consider location, size, shape, contents, even smell & texture for some species!
  • Activity – Scratches caused by claws or antlers, wallows, etc.
  • Trails – Worn paths, tunnels through vegetation
  • Homes – burrows, nests, forms,... Location, size, shape and construction can indicate who's home it is. 
  • Eating signs – bones, feathers, nuts, leaves, etc. For example the tooth marks on gnawed nuts can indicate which small mammal has been eating them.
  • Remains – Bones, especially skulls, can are useful for identification, Also check low strand of wire fences for tufts of fur.
Mammal tracks and Signs

Top: Rabbit track in snow, badger prints in mud, dormouse nest in bush
Middle: Badger skull, water vole feeding signs, muntjac skull
Bottom: Hedgehog prints, nuts opened by various small mammals, bat droppings
Photos by Gwen Hitchcock, Sian Williams, Ruth Hawksley and Martin Pride.

Most of our British mammals (except dormice, hedgehogs and bats) stay active during the colder months. Autumn and winter are a good time to look for prints in mud or snow and the dying vegetation can make other signs, such as droppings, latrines, nibbled nuts and bones, easier to spot too.

There are numerous guides out there to help you get started from simple fold out guides through to detailed books. We regularly run a Mammal Tracks and Signs session as part of our Wildlife Training Workshops, and several other organisations run similar events. More information on how to identify some commonly spotted footprints can be found here.

The benefit of recognising animals from their signs is that we can cause less disturbance, particularly important when looking for rare or protected species. We have been using footprints and other signs to help with various surveys including surveying for the presence of dormice, water voles, otters and mink. We also work with local mammal groups and other projects, including the use of footprint tunnels to monitor hedgehogs around Brampton.  

Please share any tracks or other field signs you come across on your please do post your photographs on our Facebook page as part of our #WildlifeFromHome initiative (depending on your level of local lockdown home can include your local nature reserves too!).  A good tip when taking photos of footprints or other signs is to include something for scale. A ruler is ideal, but anything on hand which you know the size of will help - in the past I've used a biro, notepad, my shoe & my fingers - anything which allowed to gauge size when it comes to identification, or sharing your finds.