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Winter Wildlife: How to Recognise those tracks

Posted on Jan 05, 2015 by Jonathan Willet

Winter Wildlife: How to recognise those tracks

As the snow has come and coated the uplands in a white blanket, it is a great time to see just what is about in the hills.

In fresh snow there are no secrets, you can see all the movements of animals that you may not ordinarily catch a glimpse of, especially if they are active at night. Learn from wildlife expert Jonathan Willet about scottish Winter Wildlife: How to recognise those tracks.

Where to start? Well high up. There are three creatures that you will see tracks of if you are at the very tops of mountains in Scotland.

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The Fox:

It can be found everywhere and in the mountains, a single animal will range a great distance to find food. The paw prints are very similar to a small dog and Foxes are much smaller than you think. Depending how deep the snow and the speed of the Fox the tracks can be paired, singles or triples. This is caused by the Fox moving forward at a slight angle top the direction of its travel, so it travels slightly sideways but in a straight line. This means that some of its paws land in almost the same spot, leading to number of paw prints almost always being less than four.

The Ptarmigan:

Winter Wildlife: How to recognise those tracks

Grouse tracks

This bird’s footprints and those of the Red Grouse are very similar. The Ptarmigan has feathery feet so the prints are a little larger that the Red Grouse but both are unmistakable as they have three regularly spaced toes pointing forward. There can be overlap in the range of these two species, but when it is too high for heather to grow well, then you only find Ptarmigan. Their droppings can be easy to find as they will defecate just after leaving they overnight resting place. They are brown, made up of plant material and about the diameter of a cigarette.

Mountain Hare:

Winter Wildlife: How to recognise those tracks

Mountain Hare tracks

These animals can be hard to spot in the snowfields but their tracks are pretty easy to find in fresh snow. They leave four paw prints with the paired front prints being the hind paws! The fore paws hit the ground one after the other and then the larger hind paws come either side of them and then further forward powering the next jump. The paw prints show four toes with the hind paw prints being almost three times larger than the front paws and have a “pear-shaped” outline. They have hairy hind paws that act like snowshoes.

In the forests you might see paired tracks in the snow 40-100cm apart, these are most likely to be from a Pine Marten bounding along.

Otter: Winter Wildlife: How to recognise those tracks

One other set of animal tracks to look out for are those of an Otter. They have big paw prints 6 x 7 cm and in deep snow you will see the impression of a tail. At lower levels by burns you can often see quite a lot of activity in the snow. They are also the only animal (other than ourselves) that make slides in the snow. So keep your eyes peeled!

Have you seen any interesting tracks in the snow?

If you would rather encounter Scotland’s Wildlife during a warmer time of the year then why not take advantage of our Scottish Wildlife Holidays.

About the author

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Jonathan Willet

Jonathan has a wealth of experience in biodiversity, history and landscape. With degrees in zoology and ecology and 20+ years as a wildlife guide, his regular blogs are always packed full of informational gems.

Read more articles by Jonathan


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