You probably know your duck from your dog, but would you know your dog from your fox? Or your deer from your badger? Can you identify animal prints? The Ever Wild Outdoors guide to British animal tracks will show you what to look out for when you spot a strange print on the ground.
Have you ever been on a muddy walk or a stomp through fresh snow and spotted unusual animal tracks in the damp earth or the crisp, white snowfall? Maybe you have a nocturnal guest in your garden or a hard-to-spot creature at your local park.
You’re pretty sure the tracks don’t belong to a dog, but beyond that you haven’t a clue. Otter? Hedgehog? Hare? Yeti?!
With much of Britain’s native mammal activity confined to the night hours, these tracks provide vital clues to the animal’s habits. And track spotting is a fantastic way to keep children busy during a walk.
Use our short guide to British animal tracks and the whole family will soon be able to spot the difference between racing rabbits and darting deer.
Common British animal tracks
Here are the tracks, belonging to Britain’s most common wild animals, that you’re most likely to spot while out on your walk.
First, so you can eliminate these from your ecological sleuthing, a dog’s tracks. The print varies in size, of course, depending on the breed, but you’ll find the marks of four pads, four claws, and a roughly-triangular metacarpal (front leg) or metatarsal pad (hind leg).
Usually smaller than dog prints, cat tracks don’t often feature claw marks above the pads.
Fox tracks are those most likely to be confused with the prints of a dog. These shy creatures leave prints roughly 5cm long – if they’re bigger, they’re likely from a dog. The toes of a fox tend to be closer together, so the entire print is more of an oval than the rounder track made by man’s best friend.
British deer tracks are so much easier to spot than those of dogs, cats and foxes, though they can be confused with sheep tracks. While prints made by sheep hooves also feature two distinct claws, deer prints feature fairly pointed toes (sheep toes are more rounded).
The six deer species of Britain feature similarly shaped hooves, though a teeny muntjac will place tracks around 3cm long, while a magnificent red deer stag will leave a whopping 9cm hoof print in his wake.
Roe deer, Britain’s most common species, leave tracks measuring around 5cm in length.
If the ground is fairly soft or the snow deep, you might see the imprint of the deer’s dew claws – the two dot-like features behind the hoof print.
One of my personal favourites, badger tracks are distinct but so hard to find, so it’s a thrill when you do spot them. Featuring a broad pad, five digital pads and five claws, you can’t mistake these for a dog’s prints as dogs have only four digital pads and claws. Badgers often use the same spot to place their front and back paws, so tracks can be a little unclear.
You might wonder what on earth created these tracks when you first clap eyes on the prints of a rabbit. Best seen in fresh snow, a hopping rabbit’s prints appear as four marks, two short and two long, around 6-8cm long. The tracks are also close together and, as the bunny hops, often in a narrow line.
Generally larger than rabbits, including foot size, hare tracks are similar to those of a rabbit but more likely to be around 10-12cm in length.
Often found on riverbanks and beaches, otter tracks feature a broad paw and five toes. They can easily be mistaken for a dog’s prints, as the otter will often leave an imprint of only four of its toes. Look closely to see if there’s a fifth, faint, toe impression, and possibly evidence of webbed toes (or even a dragged tail).
You might find hedgehog prints in your own garden, as these nocturnal creatures love to take up residence in a cosy log stack or piles of leaves. Hedgehog tracks are small, just 2-3cm, with five toes – though, like otters, they often leave a print with just four toes visible. Hedgehog tracks are eerily like the handprints of a very tiny child running amok in your garden. Scary.