Identifying animal tracks

Identifying animal tracksSpotting some of the wildlife is one of the main attractions for getting out into the British countryside. Whether it’s something as grand and imposing as a stag, or the decidedly smaller squirrel, getting sight of a wild animal can instantly turn a workaday walk into one that’s very special.

Finding animals isn’t as simple as heading to areas where sightings have been reported and hoping for the best, however. Those who want to really maximise their chances of spotting animals should instead doff their deerstalker hat and do some investigating.

One of the best ways to do this is to look at the tracks an animal will have left behind. Not only will it give an indication of the type of animal which recently passed by but also the direction in which it was heading. Armed with this information, would-be David Attenboroughs can start tracking down some of Britain’s diverse wildlife.

Spotting tracks

Of course, the first step to identifying animal tracks is to find them in the first place. Maintained pathways or grassy areas are unlikely to show off imprints clearly – at least to the beginner – so are best avoided.

Instead look at muddy, boggy wetland where even the lightest animal will have left a print. Mud around lakes and rivers is a good place to start. Likewise, well-trodden pathways which may have become boggy in recent downpours could also do the trick.

Whilst obviously not something that can be relied on year-round, snowfall is one of the best tools in an animal-spotter’s arsenal. Fresh, undisturbed snow gives some of the clearest prints around, so give this some thought the next time a flurry is forecast – although remember to be careful!

Cats, dogs and foxes

Whilst domesticated cats and dogs (as well as the common fox) may not be the most exciting animals to track, they provide a great place to start. Would-be identifiers can take to their garden or nearby common ground to try and trace some animals which may have passed by recently, without venturing too far or taking on too much.

This has the added benefit of showing off some more typical, familiar paw prints. The archetypal image of a rear or metacarpal pad (that large one in the middle) with four toe pads coming off it is indicative of both cats and dogs. One way of telling the difference between them is that a cat’s claws are retractable and will indeed be held back when walking around. Dogs, on the other hand, do not have such an ability, so any print with claws is likely to have been left by a canine.

Foxes, meanwhile, have a similar setup on their paws to dogs, but they are more diamond-shaped. As foxes have narrower paws than dogs, the imprint looks squashed together across the horizontal, whilst dogs’ paws are more spread out and rounded. It’s not just the imprint to look at here, though, but also the direction. Foxes stalk around, often with purpose, so a fox track is likely to be straight and true, whilst that of a dog is likely to be much more erratic.

Otters and badgers

Once the more common prints have been identified, it’s time to head out and look for something a little rarer or difficult to spot; prints of the otter or badger.

For those who’ve spotted dog prints, badgers and otters should be the natural successor, as they share a great many traits. For example, the rear pad is still present, as are the toe pads, although there will be five instead of four. Also, the pads should be somewhat larger than those left behind by dogs (although this will depend on the breed, of course).

Badgers also have claws that will leave behind an imprint. In fact, badger claws are much longer than those on dogs so will likely be more noticeable. For added certainty when identifying, badger claws should also be much closer to the toe pads than in dogs, where they can sometimes stretch out a good deal further.

Otters, meanwhile, also have a large rear pad and five toes, although each is much rounder than on dogs, cats or badgers. Whilst otters have claws, they are rarely long enough to make an imprint, so instead just look for the six, round pad imprints. One benefit is that otter tracks are often rather deep, so they should effectively catch the eye. Also, keep an eye on the webs between toes, which aren’t always visible but may be in fresh snow.


Following birds via their tracks may not be the most effective way of spotting them (as they are likely to fly off in any direction at any time), but it should still give an indication as to the exact birds which may have set up a habitat in the area.

Identifying birds through their tracks is no mean feat, however, as many of them look very similar indeed. Despite this, anyone who has revised their prints – and maybe got a few tracking sessions under their belts as well – should still be able to accurately ascertain the birds which passed by maybe just moments ago.

Bird tracks are thin and spindly because they actually walk on their toes, not their feet – making them ‘digitigrade’ creatures. This means the three- or four-pronged tracks that are left behind are from their toes and little else. Identification, then, comes from the different shapes or sizes these take.

Nearly all songbirds have the ‘ansiodactyl’ setup, where there are three toes stretching forward and one pointing back. All three must be largely equidistant, otherwise that encroaches onto ‘syndactyl’ territory. Here, the two innermost toes are joined along most of their length, thereby bringing them closer together. Kingfishers and hornbills are examples of syndactyl birds.

Another setup to look out for is that of ‘zygodactyl’ birds, such as woodpeckers, owls, cuckoos and ospreys. These have ‘X’-shaped toes, of which the outside rear one is reversed.

Then, once the category of bird is ascertained, it’s possible to drill down further using size and important markings as a guide. Wrens, as you’d expect, are rather small and often have a longer than average back toe. The house sparrow, meanwhile, has four largely similar-sized toes but often has gaps present where not all of it presses down upon the ground. This can leave tell-tale intermittent gaps.

Last of all is the duck, which has three toes pointing forward, which are all joined by webs. This webbing provides a much larger surface area upon which to balance (not to mention the extra propulsion qualities when in the water), so there is no need for a rear toe. The same is true for gulls and most other water birds, which will all have webbed prints.

Armed with all this information, you should now be able to get out into the great outdoors and effectively identify animals from the tracks they leave behind. The imprints should also help point you in the right direction to start spotting the animals too!

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2 Responses

    1. Tom

      Hi Stevie,

      Yes, we forgot about the rare wild haggis. It’s been hunted so much that we weren’t sure if there were any left… If you have any photos, please send them in!

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