How to identify kills

Predators are feeding young in June, and remains of kills can be seen outside dens, on plucking posts and under trees. Here's how to identify the killers from prey remains.

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How to indentify wildlife signs

Predators are feeding their young in June, and remains of kills can be seen outside dens, on plucking posts and under trees.

It is often possible to identify the predator from the situation – foxes carry food back to the den, for instance, but badgers rarely do – and many predators leave other tell-tale signs.

However, not all prey may be ‘kills’ – some may be scavenged, and it is often hard to tell them apart.

 
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR: 
 
Tooth marks
 
  • It is difficult to tell dog and fox kills apart – both have small puncture marks on either the leg or chest (the initial ‘grasp’), and the neck is then usually crushed with the carnassials.
  • Identifying tooth marks is not easy. Typically, the distances between the upper and lower canines of a fox are 30mm–26mm (respectively), a badger 26mm–25mm and a German shepherd dog 55mm–46mm.
  • The marks are often jagged or torn by the action of the victim struggling, making identification even more difficult.
 
Stillborn young
 
  • Young sheep and deer are born with protective waxy hoof coverings that wear off within 24 hours. If these are still present, the animal was stillborn or died soon after birth.
  • Matted fur shows the kid has not been licked clean by its mother, again indicating it was probably stillborn.
 
Snail kills
 
  • Song thrushes typically break open snails on stones or a favourite ‘anvil’. Piles of snail fragments accumulate here.
  • In gardens, song thrushes also often take snails out of ponds; ramshorn snails are preferred over other species.
 
Fox dens
 
  • Foxes often chew the head off first – headless (or tail-less) carcasses are typical of foxes.
  • Foxes often turn rabbit skins inside-out and then pick them completely clean of flesh.
  • Both badgers and foxes pick hedgehog skins clean. But while badgers kill hedgehogs, many of those found at fox dens are likely to be road deaths.
  • Foxes take food back to breeding dens. Cubs have difficulty opening carcasses and these are often pulled apart in a ‘tug-of-war’.
 
Dead birds
 
  • Foxes shear feathers off large bird carcasses (such as mallards), with characteristic neat cut marks near the base of the feathers. They often leave a few feathers on the ends of the wings.
  • Foxes show surplus killing at sites such as gull colonies. Carcasses are left lying in the colony.
  • Sparrowhawks pluck large birds where they kill them, leaving piles of feathers. The flesh is torn off the breast in strips; beak marks are often visible.
  • Sparrowhawks take smaller birds to plucking posts, where piles of feet, beaks and feathers accumulate.
 
Fish kills
 
  • It is unusual to find remains of fish kills on rivers, but any you do find are likely to be an otter kill. An otter will take a fish to a bank or rock.
  • The fish is generally eaten from the head end and all that remains is the tail and a few large bones.
  • It’s easy to tell if it’s a mink kill if the tooth marks are visible – the gap between the upper and lower canines is 13 and 11mm (respectively) in mink and 29 and 27mm in otters. 

 

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