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Types of mice: a quick guide to mice, voles and shrews in the UK

Are you curious about what mouse you saw in your garden or out on a walk? Or did your cat bring one in and you wondered what it was?

Mice, voles and shrews can easily be mistaken for each other. So here’s a quick guide to the main mice, voles and shrews native to the UK.

Harvest mice have blunt noses, short, rounded hairy ears and golden-brown fur. (Photo: Janette Hill/Alamy)
Harvest mice have blunt noses, short, rounded hairy ears and golden-brown fur. (Photo: Janette Hill/Alamy)

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What’s the difference between a mouse, vole and shrew?

  • Mouse: very large eyes, long tail, very large ears, pointed snout.
  • Vole: small eyes, short tail, small ears, rounded snout.
  • Shrew: small eyes, short tail, small ears, pointed snout.
The harvest mouse is the smallest rodent in Europe, weighing up to just 6g
The harvest mouse is the smallest rodent in Europe, weighing up to just 6g

Harvest mouse (Micromys minutus)

Identify it by its blunt nose, short, rounded hairy ears and golden-brown fur. Its tail is almost as long as its body.

It lives in long, tussocky grassland, reedbeds, hedgerows and around woodland edges.

Nests are spherical and made of tightly woven grass and are elevated from the ground in tall grasses.

It's mainly vegetarian, eating seeds and fruits, but it also eats invertebrates.

House mice thrive wherever there are people and found almost everywhere
House mice thrive wherever there are people and found almost everywhere

House mouse (Mus musculus)

The house mouse is one of the most successful mammals in the world and is found almost everywhere.

It's been domesticated for pets and fancy mice, and as laboratory mice.

Identify it by the dull greyish-brown fur, a pointed snout, rounded ears and a long naked or almost hairless tail.

Its tail is the same length as its body but it’s thicker and scalier than the tails of other species of mice.

Also known as field mouse, it's the most common rodent in the UK
Also known as field mouse, it's the most common rodent in the UK

Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)

The wood mouse thrives in woodland, rough grassland and gardens.

Its fur is brown with a reddish tinge and a white or greyish underside. Its tail is roughly the same length as its head and body.

Distinguish it from the similar yellow-necked mouse as it lacks a yellow collar that forms a bib on the chest.

It stores berries and seeds in the autumn in underground burrows or sometimes in old birds' nests.

Yellow-necked mice live in extensive burrows, also used to store food
Yellow-necked mice live in extensive burrows, also used to store food

Yellow-necked mouse (Apodemus flavicollis)

Yellow-necked mouse can be easily confused with the more common wood mouse, and the two were only identified as separate species in 1834.

Distinguish it from the wood mouse by its collar of yellowish fur, which forms a bib on the chest that can be quite difficult to see. The yellow-necked mouse may also be larger in general and lighter in colour.

It feeds on buds, seeds or small insects.

Get more facts and photos about yellow-necked mouse.

Bank voles are active day and night
Bank voles are active day and night

Bank vole (Myodes glareolus)

It’s the smallest UK vole with a reddish-chestnut coat and an off-white underside.

Like all voles, it has a blunt snout, small eyes and ears. Its tail is short – just half the length of its body.

At first sight, they can be confused with field voles, which are greyer with a shorter tail, or wood mice, which have a longer tail and move much more quickly.

They can climb bushes to feed on fruit, nuts and small insects.

This species is quite secretive and spends much of its time in runs and burrows
This species is quite secretive and spends much of its time in runs and burrows

Field vole (Microtus agrestis)

Also known as short-tailed vole, field vole is a very common species in grassland, heathland and moorland in the UK.

It’s different from bank vole in having a much shorter tail, shaggier fur and furry ears. It’s usually greyish-or yellowish-brown with a pale grey underside.

This species is less likely to be seen than bank vole as it spends more of its time in runs and burrows and can be aggressive to other trespassing voles.

It eats grass, seeds, roots and leaves

Sometimes mistaken for a rat, water voles are mostly active during the day
Sometimes mistaken for a rat, water voles are mostly active during the day

Water vole (Arvicola amphibious)

Water vole has suffered a serious decline in the UK with numbers dropping by 90%.

Sometimes known as the water rat, it's the largest species of vole in the UK and is sometimes mistaken for the brown rat. It lives around water: rivers, streams, ditches and ponds. When it enters the water it makes a distinctive 'plop' sound.

Look for its glossy brown or black fur and blunt muzzle with small, black eyes. Its ears are rounded and almost hidden, and it has a dark, slightly furry tail.

 

Common shrews are extremely active in summer months
Common shrews are extremely active in summer months

Common shrew (Sorex araneus)

Common shrews have a short tail that is only half the length of its body. Its body is mainly dark brown with chestnut-coloured sides and grey or silver undersides.

It’s a very active and fast-moving species and needs to eat every 2-3 hours. It scurries though the undergrowth in woodland and grassland searching for insects, worms, slugs, spiders and larvae.

Shrews don’t hibernate, but they do become less active in winter, living in burrows that may have been made by other species.

 

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Pygmy shrews are territorial and can get aggressive
Pygmy shrews are territorial and can get aggressive

Pygmy shrew (Sorex minutus)

One of Britain’s smallest mammals (alongside pipistrelle bats).

Pygmy shrew can be distinguished from common by its paler, grey-brown fur and a long, slightly hairy tail.

Like common shrews, they're quick and active and forage grass, roots, fruit, seeds and invertebrates.

Its a territorial species and is apparently quite aggressive. Its known to swipe its tail from side to side if it encounters another pygmy shrew.

The saliva from water shrews can paralyse small prey
The saliva from water shrews can paralyse small prey

Water shrew (Neomys fodiens)

This is an elusive species and is rarely seen, but it's the largest species of shrew in the UK.

Its fur is dense and silky and is dark grey or black with a whitish underside and tufts of white around the eyes and on the ears. It has large hind feet and is the only shrew likely to be seen in water.

Unlike other species in Britain, water shrews have venomous saliva that is capable of paralysing prey such small fish and frogs.