Mammal Tracking

Mammal skull © Emily Dodd

Cumbria Wildlife Trust hosted a day’s course with Stuart Colgate from Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre to introduce people to the field tracks and signs of British mammals. Emily Dodd, a wildlife media student from the University of Cumbria, went along to learn more...

After kicking off our mucky footwear, we entered Mungrisdale Village Hall to warm up with hot drinks. Once settled into the lovely little venue, the group was introduced to Stuart Colgate, a recording officer from Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre.

We started with a task of classifying various mammals of Britain, discussing our thoughts with each other. At this point, some of us began muttering about unfamiliar terms… “What’s an ungulate?”. Stuart jumped to a comprehensive explanation of Britain’s mammalian fauna, describing the difference between the various species.

Mammals are not the easiest class of species to observe, which explains why they are also some of the most under-recorded species across Britain. With key tips for spotting wildlife, Stuart guided us through the process of tracking mammals; encouraging us all to log our findings and send over recorded data to Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre and Cumbria Wildlife Trust. We then studied a variety of mammal droppings – something that we were all grateful to have done before lunchtime!

Once filled up with food, we ventured outside to check a few live traps that were placed earlier that morning. Although there was nothing caught, we learnt about the various traps available to use in the field, and the legislation behind their use. Later in the afternoon, we analysed the skulls of roe deer, foxes, badgers, and rabbits to better understand their skeletal structures.

The final task got the group to look at a range of nibbled nuts to identify the forager, followed by the dissection of barn owl pellets to discover bones of digested species. From the skeletal remains, we could consider the population of prey present within an area to understand the local biodiversity.

Oh, and if you were still wondering, ungulates are hooved mammals!

Mammal tracking infographic

Common Field Signs

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

Feeding:

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.

Dwelling:

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.

Tracks:

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.

Trapping:

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 licenses 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 http://www.cbdc.org.uk/recording-wildlife/

To input data from Eycott Hill Nature Reserve, you can visit https://www.brc.ac.uk/irecord/join/eycott-hill-nature-reserve-records - but please don’t send your records more than once, or to more than one place.

Emily Dodd, University of Cumbria

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Work at Eycott Hill Nature Reserve is possible thanks to National Lottery Players, and support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.