Animal Tracks and Sign: Vole or Mouse?

Hawthorn pips gnawed by a rodent
What gnawed these Hawthorn pips? Photo: Paul Kirtley.

While the snow we’ve had over the past few weeks is a great medium on which animal tracks are readily recorded, it’s also a very easy medium on which to track.

For much of the year we don’t have the luxury of snow to make our lives as trackers easy. Even so there are many opportunities for the keen-eyed to spot animal tracks and sign.

There is much more left behind by animals than merely footprints. Indeed, when we consider small mammals, it’s often other sign that we are able to notice more readily. Sign such as droppings and feeding sign are amongst the most common giveaways of a small animal’s activity.

Recently I’ve spent some time up in the Cumbria, where some of the Frontier Bushcraft team are based. Besides getting up into the snow on the hills, we were also out an about on the lower moors, which are often completely devoid of people (who are all scaling the peaks) and a great place to see wildlife.

On such a walk we stopped near to a lone, wind-blown hawthorn tree. We admired its strength and resilience, having survived years of punishing westerly winds.

Lone Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, in Cumbria
A lone Hawthorn tree, Crataegus monogyna, in Cumbria. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Glancing down I noticed a dark patch amongst the tussocks and small lumps around the roots of the tree. On slightly closer inspection I saw there was an area containing a concentration of hawthorn fruit and their seed.

Dark patch that caught my eye under hawthorn tree
The dark patch (bottom right) that caught my eye under the hawthorn tree. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

There’s nothing unusual about haws being found under a hawthorn tree. But the fruit and seed were not evenly distributed. In fact those that were visible were almost exclusively within a small opening.

Sheltered spot with a concentration of hawhthorn fruit or haws and pips with a tunnel behind
On closer inspection, the 'dark patch' was filled with a concentration of hawthorn fruit and pips. And was there an opening behind? Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Looking closer still, it was apparent that many of the solid pips from the centre of the fruits had neat holes nibbled into them and the contents had been removed from within their hard shell. Also, rather than having been eaten, many of the fruits’ flesh had been stripped off and discarded.

Small rodents such as mice and voles typically gnaw their way into nuts and seeds this way and the evidence gnawing can be seen on hazlenuts, cherry seeds and hawthorn seeds amongst others.

Mice and voles typically eat at special feeding spots that are sheltered. At such sites you can find much evidence of feeding. Some species also cache food over winter and the debris can be seen outside of their tunnel systems. It certainly looked like there was an entrance beyond this pile of hawthorn detritus.

A pile of nibbled Hawthorn haws and pips. Mouse or Vole feeding sign?
Mouse or vole feeding sign - a pile of Hawthorn haws and pips. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Until the rodent gets through the shell it is gnawing, however, it is nigh on impossible to tell which of the small rodents made the marks on it. Once inside there are two distinct modes of working used by different rodents to remove the contents. Looking for evidence of which method has been employed can help us identify the species that has been feeding.

The first type, known as the wood mouse type, is characterised by a row of marks around the outside of the shell just below the opening. This is created by the rodent placing its upper incisors on the outside edge of the hole in the shell furthest away from its body. It then gnaws from the inside out with its lower incisors. The row of marks on the outside of the shell is created as the animal rotates the nut, working its way around the edge. It can be so distinct as to look like a tiny groove.

The second type, known as the bank vole type, is created by the rodent placing its upper incisors on the inside of the nearest edge of the hole and gnawing at the edge of the hole that is nearest its body using its lower incisors. This means it gnaws from the outside in. Therefore, the row of marks that characterises the wood mouse type of gnawing is absent.

On close inspection of the hawthorn seeds, there were a few marks on the outside but no row of marks as per the wood mouse type of gnawing. The few marks on the outside are likely from the animal first getting into these small but hard seeds. Mostly the edges of the holes were clean as per the bank vole type.

Hawthorn pips gnawed by a Bank Vole, Clethrionomys glareolus
On close inspection the edges of the holes were clean as per the bank vole type of gnawing. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

My conclusion was that this was the feeding sign of the bank vole type.

So was it bank voles that left the feeding sign?

There were no obvious droppings in amongst the feeding sign, which might have been able to help us differentiate between species.

Looking at the habitat might be able to narrow it down; deducing which species was most likely to live in this habitat could indicate which species most likely left this feeding sign.

We were walking at about 180m above sea level in open moorland (except for the occasional lone hawthorn tree) but in a relatively sheltered re-entrant.

While bank voles, Clethrionomys glareolus, have been recorded to 800m in Britain, it is said they generally prefer more wooded habitats. The field vole, Microtus agrestis, likes more open country.

Field voles are recorded as having a diet that is almost exclusively grass-based, whereas the bank vole has a more omnivorous diet of nuts, berries, seads, leaves, insects and snails.

Hence, if I had to put money on it, I’d bet on the feeding sign we found to have been left by a bank vole.

But remember this is a logical conclusion based on educated deduction; what we really should do is go back at some stage and stake out the feeding area with binoculars, or better still a spotting scope, to see if we can spot any actual animals: Yet another reason to head back to Cumbria before too long!

I find this kind of natural detective work fascinating. My lifelong love of nature led me down this path of interest.

Tracking skills and the awareness of nature that comes with detailed observation gives you a whole new level of insight. This allows a deeper understanding of the natural environments you visit.

To this end, I think tracking and nature awareness is a core skill-set for anyone interested in taking their bushcraft skills beyond the basics.

I hope this article has also provided some new insight for you. I’d love to hear any thoughts or additional information in the comments below.

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Paul Kirtley is Founder and Chief Instructor of Frontier Bushcraft. He has had a lifelong passion for the great outdoors and gains great satisfaction from helping others enjoy it too. Paul writes the UK's leading bushcraft blog. He is the author of Wilderness Axe Skills and Campcraft, as well as having contributed to several other books. Paul has been involved in teaching bushcraft since 2003. He is also a Canoe Leader, British Canoeing Level 3 Canoe Coach and UK Summer Mountain Leader.

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10 Responses

  1. Dave
    | Reply

    Great info Paul. Cheers

  2. Ben
    | Reply

    Great blog Paul – you can always use your binoculars in reverse as giant magnifiying glasses to pick up that level of detail!

    • Paul Kirtley
      | Reply

      Hi Ben

      Thanks for visiting and for your comment. That’s always a handy tip re using your binos if you don’t have a hand lens with you.

      All the best,


  3. Steve Bayley
    | Reply

    Great article Paul. This story is a good reminder that ‘tracking’ skills are not just about following animals but provide a fantastic insight into a wider awareness of natural history. Spotting this sort of detail in the outdoors enriches any hike and can engage ones curiosity. I often come back home from a walk with notes, photographs and bits and pieces collected along the way that lead to an evening pouring over field guides and searching the internet until I’ve understood more about what I’ve seen. I often add some of these details to a ‘walking journal’ which is both a good way of helping remember what I’ve learned and pleasant thing to look back on in later years. I wouldn’t want you to think that every walk becomes a rather earnest, classroom exercise, there’s plenty of time for fun too! But the more we learn the more we enhance the time we spend outdoors which makes for more enjoyable trips.

    • Paul Kirtley
      | Reply

      Hi Steve

      Thanks for your comment – it’s good to hear from you.

      I’m glad to read you got something out of my article. Curiosity is something to be encouraged. It’s something we have as children but often loose as adults. If we re-invigorate our curiosity and engage our senses, it brings a much more rewarding experience while outdoors.

      I think keeping notes is important. Personally I have a reasonably good memory but everyone’s memory is fallible. Keeping notes or a journal helps record key data, observations and impressions as well as dates. This serves us well for refreshing knowledge going forwards (which gets it into long-term memory) as well as comparing seasonal differences from one year to the next.

      Great comment Steve. Thanks for posting it!

      All the best,


  4. Jim Mclaughlan
    | Reply

    Hi Paul
    Great article! I have always encouraged my son and daughter from little when out walking or in the woods to look for and try and guess what or who has left the tracks and signs behind.
    It always made for a full day out and tuckered them out at the same time.
    Even now they are a little older and entering their teens the great outdoors is a great distraction from the addictive technology habits a lot of teens find themselves in today.
    Thanks for the article!

    • Paul Kirtley
      | Reply

      Hi Jim

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found my article interesting.

      It sounds like you’ve found a great way of engaging your children with the natural world and have shared some lovely days out as a result.

      All the best,


  5. Elen Sentier
    | Reply

    smashing post, thanks Paul 🙂

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