Tracking and trailing the vole and the magic of sit spots

Vole track in ink trap

A family of voles and some golden eyed frogs (the common frog, Rana temporaria) were the first animals that set me on my bushcraft journey.

My first encounter of voles was in our back garden. I used to sit for hours at the window waiting for them to come out and run back again. I used to look over where they had run and see what they had been up to. They would run back and forwards over our patio looking for food and back into the long grass again. Little did I know that I was learning about track and sign of the vole and how to spot it’s trails.

I found it very interesting watching what they did and then once they had gone, going and looking at what they had left. I didn’t think of it as tracking. It was more like being a detective. I figured that if I looked at what clues they left then I would be able to work out what I had missed in my absence at the window and play it through in my minds eye so as not to miss any of their outings. I don’t remember when they stopped coming as they didn’t come everyday, but eventually my attention turned to golden eyed frogs.

I would sit by our tiny pond and lie on my belly watching them come up and down for hours.

Common Frog - Rana temporaria - note the eye colour
Common Frog – Rana temporaria – note the eye colour

My next encounter with voles didn’t come until years later. I was in the Orkney’s camping in the tent. Unusually I had placed my tent entrance a foot or so from a small stone wall. Mostly I go for the view, but it was so windy that the stone wall protection seemed enticing. A couple of mornings later I opened the tent door and was just lying there contemplating the day, the wind, the sky and suddenly I saw an Orkney Vole (Microtus arvalis orcadensis) going back and forth along the bottom of the stone wall. I watched it for quite a while. Even when it spotted me it seemed unconcerned. I was enchanted.

When I lived in Scotland, I found a family of voles who had all be killed by the cat except for one that had a hole in it’s head. I took it in not expecting it to survive the night but somehow it pulled through. (See below for information on what to do if you find an injured wild animal). It took some weeks to fully recover, and it only lived 6 months, but it taught me a lot about voles. It was a male, at the beginning it would let me hold it and pick it up out of it’s cage to check it’s health. After several days I decided it should be released and just as I went to it’s cage I saw the cat at the cage. The vole was still alive, but it was not frightened of the cat at all and was investigating the smell and going right up to the bars. I figured something was wrong and it had become over tame, or maybe it was the hole in it’s head that had caused it to loose it’s natural instincts. It wasn’t until my next vole encounter that I concluded, that voles are just naturally fearless.

As the vole matured it became territorial of it’s cage and would shout, jump and try to give a warning bite over and over again. At first I was a little put off, but I discovered if I was quick enough in grabbing him and removing him from the cage he would become very affectionate. With a little trial and error I discovered that from about 10 inches away from his cage he would stop being territorial. They are a little like hamsters in that they have short tails so to give him some exercise other than just running over me, I got him a hamster ball which he loved. My delightful vole sadly died about 6 months after being rescued most likely due to surviving such severe injuries.

I was living in a pretty wild place at that time with barn owls living and nesting in the garden and tawny owls in the near by wood. Wild cat footprints in the snow. A deer highway through the garden.

I wanted to learn more about my little vole and so took to studying the networks of runs through the long grass which was fascinating, like little green tunnels with the odd little clearing. I thought about how difficult it would be for the owl to get at them in their grass tunnels. Later discovering that the urine trail that voles leave reflects UV light differently so they can see the trials glowing, the fresh urine trails show up more brightly to an owl. As time progressed I had more and more respect for both the owls and voles.

Bank Vole Trail through long grass
Trail through long grass

My next encounter with a vole was one that was caught in a humane trap. I didn’t take it far away, I didn’t mind it coming back to the area, but I didn’t want it freely running around the house, chewing my clothes. I walked about a third of a mile away, knelt down and opened the trap. Surprisingly the vole didn’t run into the grass but ran up my arm to my shoulder and over my body. It ran around stopping and sniffing from time to time, in a leisurely way (for a vole) before hopping off and into the grass. Had I not cared for the other vole I would probably have read the situation differently and been a tad freaked out that a ‘wild’ animal was running over me. But I could tell by it’s body language that it was just curious and fearless.

I still wonder about how these tiny inquisitive, territorial and fearless animals, that are the main prey for many owls, continue to survive with their larger than life personalities.

My later encounters included getting to know a shrew. For a week or two up in the ceiling above the bed sounded like a lot of very noisy movement. I wondered what it was. It sounded quite big. With the wires for lights up there, it needed catching. So up went a humane trap which was checked very regularly. And fairly soon afterward found I had caught a shrew. It was bitterly cold outside, and in the winter all the flies come and roost in the loft where it is warmer.

I didn’t feel that we could let the shrew out as it was so cold that night so I looked up how much they needed to eat compared to their body weight, and I went off catching the few flies that had come through the loft hatch. I discovered that the shrew wouldn’t eat the already dead fly so I set about like a wild woman stalking flies around the house and trying to catch them live with my bare hands. I was somewhat successful. First fly in and within a split second it was caught and eaten. The flies were sluggish to start with having been colder in the loft and were relatively easy to catch. The first 3 were easy for me and instantaneous for the shrew. The next ones were harder for me as the flies warmed up, but just as easy for the shrew. By the 8th one I knew I couldn’t keep this up. A shrew has to eat 80-90% of it’s own body weight every day. Well I knew that I couldn’t keep that up. I was going to end up running around the loft trying to catch enough flies and what about at night when I needed to sleep.

The shrew wasn’t possible to handle at all. They are truly aggressive, incredibly fast and very focused on food. It impressed me even more than a weasel hunting.

After some deliberation about the cold weather and the lack of insects around at that time of year. The shrew was released back into the loft to diminish some of the fly population there.

I started tracking in the opposite way to many people. I didn’t start with looking at different tracks and signs left behind. I didn’t own a book with all the footprints in and try and compare what I saw to a picture. I have since used these and they can come in very useful, especially when it is an elusive animal like the Scottish Wild Cat or an Otter and you are cross checking for differentiation between tracks. It is a very different experience getting to know an animal through it’s tracks first. My journey into tracking came from a childlike desire to connect with nature and being willing to keep very still to make that happen. It is what is now called a sit spot in bushcraft and I still find myself naturally doing them to this day. I love those moments when you spot something so close that hasn’t spotted you and focussing on keeping your breathing calm and quiet as the excitement rushes around your body. I love seeing how each individual animal has it’s own personality even within the same species.

I love learning to see the stories they have left behind after I have seen with my own eyes how they left those trails. I still find it exciting to track other animals but the vole still holds that special place of magic I felt as a child when I see one or see its trails. It is this sense of wonder that I carry with me when I am out in nature that brings true contentment, joy and peace.

A trail observed to have been used by a Bank Vole

What to do if you find an injured animal? It is important before you rescue wildlife to consider several factors. First, does it actually need rescuing sometimes this is obvious at other times a watch and wait approach is needed. And then you also need to consider is it a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 ( (At the bottom of the web page there are schedules with lists of protected birds and animals). If it is a protected species, then you need to make sure that you contact the local wildlife services to find out what to do and not intervene unless the animal is in a life threatening situation if you do not take action. Do consider your own safety especially with animals like adders (a type of snake) and bats that can on rare occasion carry diseases that are life threatening to humans. If you have found an injured or non flying bat, the first action you should take is to call the National Bat Helpline on 0345 1300 228. It is illegal to keep a protected species in captivity unless it has been properly authorised and has the correct documentation. It is always important to seek veterinary help, or a local wildlife hospital so the animal can receive the best care it can. This may be medication which is especially important in some situations such as cat bites or scratches, which can harbour bacteria, or it maybe that the animal is needing surgical care. In the case of the vole, it is not a protected species, it had such a severe injury and was extremely young that it was not expected to survive, and nothing could be done for it, so I learnt about the best way to care for them and then nature helped it live the next 6 months healthily. Considering the severity of it’s injuries it was extraordinary that it lived that long.

That said once you have established that an animal does need help the general public play a huge role in getting wildlife to animal sanctuaries, like Tiggywinkles, for nursing and reintroducing wild animals back into the wild.

My journey in the last few years caused me to rescue a underweight hedgehog who was too light to hibernate but it was too cold to find food. I contacted Little Foxes who rescue and rehabilitate wildlife and that year I became a hedgehog fosterer with the hedgehog being released later in the year. It is possible to contact centres to volunteer or to foster animals. It is important to know that you are caring for a wild animal and though it is a very rewarding experience it is not like having a pet, unless for some exceptional reason it is decided that the animal will not be re-released it is important to respect that they are a wild animal and keep contact to an absolute minimum however cute they seem to be. And that the way you care for them can really impact their chances when they return to the wild. But the reward of seeing the hedgehog a solid weight, head off in the spring was so heartwarming.

Over my lifetime, I have been witness to many animal rescues… Blackbird baby whose mother has been killed, a seagull covered in oil after the oil spills, a starling with a broken wing, a lost seal pup after a storm, 4 hedgehogs, a vole. Of those rescues as far as I am aware only 2 didn’t recover. One hedgehog didn’t make it to the hospital, another which had been dropped from a great height by a seagull onto a road was put to sleep as it’s internal injuries were too great. All the others as far as I am aware with the exception of the vole were released back into the wild.

A list of wildlife sanctuaries can be found at where you type in your postcode and find your nearest wildlife centre. In some areas especially where there is no centre there is usually a local vet who will receive wildlife. The RSPCA can also be very helpful as they are trained and equipped to help transport injured animals to a place they can receive help. It is always paramount to consider the welfare of the wildlife and your own personal safety before attempting to handle or catch wildlife and seeking advice before action is always the best thing to do unless immediate action is required to protect the animal’s life and health.

If you want to learn more about Tracking skills and animal behaviours, take a look at our range of Tracking books, courses and expeditions, click here!

Trails through long grass
Vole tracks in fine mud
Vole tracks in fine mud

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