‘The Outdoor Pocket Bible’

Extract from The Outdoor Pocket Bible, published by White Ladder, 2007. (Written together with Christine Smith.)

Identifying What You See


Here we’ve selected some of nature’s most confusable animals and given hints on how to tell them apart.

Rabbit or Hare?

  • If it has extremely long back legs and is bounding then it’s a hare.
  • If it’s moving in small hops then it’s probably a rabbit.
  • If there’s more than one of them then they’re rabbits; hares tend to be solitary except at mating time.
  • Seen side by side hares are larger with longer ears than rabbits.

Mole, Vole or Shrew?

Actually you’ll be lucky to actually lay eyes on any of these chaps as they’re highly secretive.

  • Highly visible surface tunnels mean voles. They’re so shallow you can sometimes see the occupant moving along under a thin layer of soil. But shrews sometimes inhabit vole (and mole) burrows.
  • Voles also create motorways – visible paths about two inches wide caused by their constant traffic.
  • Moles tend to construct much deeper then voles (although their access tunnels can be quite close to the surface) and create their distinctive molehills.
  • Voles resemble mice; shrews have extremely pointed noses; moles have spade-shaped front feet and dense, short velvet-like fur.

Weasel , Stoat, Ermine, Polecat, American Mink, Pine Marten or Ferret?

These long, thin creatures are easily confused. In fact, all of them, with the exception of the pine marten (Martes Martes) are members of Mustela family.

  • The pine marten (upland Scotland, Northern England and Wales) is the largest of the group at 900g – 2000g. If you see something that resembles a small fox up a tree then it’s a pine marten. Chestnut-coloured it has a cream or yellow chin and chest patch and an extremely bushy tail. An excellent tree climber.
  • Next in size is the polecat at 600g – 1,500g. At the beginning of the 20th century it was extinct in Britain except Wales but numbers are now slowly increasing. At a glance it’s easily told from the pine marten and the others in this section by a ‘face mask’ of white around the nose, above the eyes and on the tips of the ears against a background of dark brown or black fur. On the body the yellowish underfur sometimes shows through the dark brown. Generally active at dusk, dawn and during the night.
  • The American mink, third in size at 600g -1000g, is quickly distinguished by being the only animal in the group that, at a glance, seems to be a uniform dark brown all over. Only close up is it possible to see a little white on the chin. The British population stems from escaped farmed animals and is now widespread except in the mountains. Almost always seen close to water, usually a river, and active day and night.
  • The stoat (150g-300g) is roughly the size of a squirrel but with a slender stretched-out body and a shorter, far less bushy tail. In its summer coat of brown above and yellowish-white below it could be confused with the weasel but the black tip to the tail is always distinctive. In winter it can be white (but still with the black-tipped tail) when it’s known as the ermine and could then be confused with feral ferrets.
  • The weasel (40g – 170g) resembles the summer-coated stoat but is generally smaller and, unlike the stoat, has only a short tail without a black tip. Widespread all over Great Britain.
  • The ferret is the domesticated polecat but is white, cream or light brown and therefore without the black and white ‘face mask.’ However, there are some feral populations as well as ferret/polecat hybrids.

Mouse or Shrew?

You’re most likely to see these when the cat makes you a present of them. The shrew is the one the cat doesn’t eat (because there’s a scent glad which puts Felix off).

  • Colour – the house mouse is greyish brown; the wood/field mouse is a warm rust; the water shrew is charcoal grey above and silver under; the common shrew is ochre above and paler under; the pygmy shrew is grey-brown above and paler under.
  • Ears – mice have large ears, shrews have small ears.
  • Eyes – mice have large eyes, shrews have small eyes.
  • Nose – mice have relatively rounded noses, shrews’ faces all draw out into a long point.
  • Size – shrews are typically half the weight and size of mice.

Frog or Toad?

You wouldn’t probably choose to kiss either but so you don’t get it wrong:

  • Skin – frogs are slimy and smooth; toads are dry and warty.
  • Legs – frogs have long back legs, toads have short ones.
  • Eggs – frogs lay in clusters, toads lay in chains.

Lizard or Newt?

  • Skin – lizards have scaly skin; newts have velvety skin.
  • Tail – lizards have snake-like tails; newts have flat, rudder-like tails.
  • Breeding – common lizards normally have live young; sand lizards lay eggs in a shallow pit; newts wrap their eggs in pond vegetation.
Butterfly or Moth?
  • Most butterflies fly during the day whereas moths usually fly at night.
  • Butterflies always have little knobs on the ends of their antennae but moths have little feathery tendrils or nothing.
  • Most butterflies rest with their wings held together above their bodies but moths tend to rest with their wings flat out.
  • Most butterflies have slim hairless bodies while most moths have rounder furry abdomens.

Oh Deer! Red, Roe, Fallow, Muntjack, Sitka or Chinese?

There are six species of deer to be found in Britain, the red, roe, fallow, muntjack, sitka and Chinese water deer. Only the first two are true natives and the fallow was reintroduced long ago, possibly by the Romans. In descending order of size:


  • Big. With full antlers can stand as tall as a man.
  • Beefy. The largest mammal in Britain, it can reach up to 400lb (180 kg) in the south but only slightly more than half that in the harsher climes of Scotland.
  • Dark red or brown in summer. More grey-brown in Winter. Cream underbelly and yellowish rump patch bisected by short tail.
  • Antlers can be huge and multi-pointed.
  • Usually in single sex herds.


  • Up to three-feet high.
  • Males about 150lb -300lb (70 kg – 140 kg).
  • Warm-brown summer coat with white spots on back and flanks; dark, grey-brown winter coat without spots.
  • Bright white rump almost inevitably cut through by a dark tail.
  • Antlers are flat ‘palms’ from which tines stick out.
  • Usually found in herds.


  • Up to three-feet high.
  • Can weigh around 200lb (90 kg) in rich food areas, though in the Scottish Highlands they are more normally around 100lb (45 kg).
  • Red-brown with spots, sika are easily confused with fallow deer but there is almost always a pronounced black dorsal stripe and the antlers are different.
  • White rump patch like fallow deer but tail cutting through it is slightly less noticeable.
  • Antlers completely unlike flat ‘palms’ of fallow deer and more like those of red deer.
  • Live in herds.
  • Can emit a quite startling scream during the rut.


  • Not normally much over two feet high.
  • Males slightly heavier than females but only about 55lb (25 kg).
  • Fox-red in summer, grey-brown in winter.
  • Creamy-white rump patch with a hardly noticeable tail. The female has a little tuft of hair at the bottom of the patch.
  • Short antlers with a maximum of six points.
  • Usually in small family groups of solitary.


  • Small. Usually under two-feet tall.
  • Slender. Not normally weighing more than 35lb (16 kg)..
  • Warm-brown in summer, more grey in winter. The long tails are hairy and gingery brown on the upper-side but white underneath. When the Muntjac is alarmed the tail is raised.
  • Short antler spikes, raked back.
  • Mature bucks (males) have small tusks but not as visible as for Chinese Water Deer.
  • Live singly or in small family groups.
  • Known as the ‘barking deer’ because it can bark repeatedly at four to six second intervals.

Chinese Water Deer

  • Small. Usually under two-feet tall.
  • Look chunkier than their average 30lb (14 kg) weight suggests with a head that looks too small for the body.
  • Red-brown and sleek in summer but in winter sandy-brown and shaggy, especially around the head.
  • No antlers but the males have very visible tusks.
  • No rump patch.
  • Will bounce away when startled.
  • Live singly or in pairs

Only male deer have antlers and they cast and regrow them every year, so that for part of the year they can look like large females.

Grey Seal or Common/Harbour Seal?

There are two species of seal living around the UK, the grey seal and the smaller common or harbour seal:

Size. Grey seals are generally 6′ – 9′ long (2m – 3m approx) and weigh up to 650 lb (300 kg). Common seals, on the other hand, are up to 6′ (2m approx) and weigh a maximum of around 220lb (100 kg).

Faces. Grey seals have an elongated muzzle whereas common seals are more ‘pug-like’ with a short snout.

Colour. Grey to brown in both species.

Habitat. Grey seals prefer rocky coasts and common seals prefer sandy coasts.

Behaviour. Grey seals tend to come ashore only for the mating season in October/November; common seals mate ashore in June/July but also like to sunbathe on sandbanks at other times.

Young. Grey Seal pups are born with a white coat, which lasts about two weeks, and stay out of the water for between three and four weeks. Common seal pups get into the water within an hour of birth.