Skip Navigation

House mouse or field mouse? A quick guide to types of 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 more common mice, voles and shrews native to the UK.

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

Mouse

  • Very large eyes, long tail, very large ears, pointed snout.
  • The UK is home to six different species of mice. Five of these are native, the sixth, the edible dormouse, was introduced to Hertfordshire as an escapee in 1902.
  • Most mice species have a very short life expectancy in the wild – up to a year – with the exception of the dormouse, which can live for up to five years. This is rivalled only by the edible dormouse that can live for up to nine years!
  • Mice are rodents – a scientific classification which groups animals that have a pair of continuously growing incisors.

Vole

  • Small eyes, short tail, small ears, rounded snout.
  • There are four species of native vole in the UK. The bank vole, field vole and water vole are the only species that occur on mainland Britain. The fourth species is the Orkney vole which is found on five of the Orkney Isles.
  • The average life expectancy for voles is between 3 and 12 months. The larger species like the water vole may live for around 18 months.
  • Voles, like mice, are also rodents.

Shrew

  • Small eyes, short tail, small ears, pointed snout.
  • Four species of shrew are native to the UK. Three of these are found on mainland Britain. The fourth, the lesser white toothed shrew, is a species only found on the Isles of Scilly, Jersey and Sark.
  • Shrews also have a very short life span – around 1 year as an average.
  • Shrews aren't rodents. Instead they're grouped into an order called Eulipotyphla – commonly known as insectivores – which includes hedgehogs and moles.

House mouse (Mus musculus)

If you encounter a mouse there's a good chance it's a house mouse as they tend to live close to us. (Photo: Amy Lewis/WTML)
If you encounter a mouse there's a good chance it's a house mouse as they tend to live close to us. (Photo: Amy Lewis/WTML)

Distinctive features and behaviours

  • Uniformly brown-grey mouse, right down to the tail.
  • Typical mouse profile, small feet with big eyes and ears and a pointed snout.
  • Its almost hairless tail is the same length as its body but is thicker and scalier than the tails of other species of mice.
  • Strong smelling – you will know if they are sharing your house with you!

Diet

House mice need to eat around three grams of food a day. Despite cartoons and the commonly held belief, cheese is not their favourite food – they really favour cereals.

House mice and people

House mice and humans have been closely entwined throughout history, equally horrifying and benefiting each other throughout the ages. They have taken advantage of human settlements to gain easy access to food and shelter. They have even colonised new continents with the movement of people, originally being native to Asia.

Our relationship with house mice has been rocky. They have a poor reputation to say the least since they transmit disease and contaminate food supplies. On the flip side, house mice have been domesticated for pets and fancy mice. And as laboratory mice, they've played a significant role in developing our biological and medical knowledge

Field mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)

The field mouse is a mouse so great it was named twice! It is also referred to as the wood mouse. (Dave Hunt/Alamy Stock Photo)
The field mouse is a mouse so great it was named twice! It is also referred to as the wood mouse. (Dave Hunt/Alamy Stock Photo)

Distinctive features and behaviours

  • A less uniform mouse with a sandy brown fur and a white to grey belly.
  • A cautious mouse which always sniffs anything unfamiliar before approaching.
  • Its back feet are large which give it a good spring for leaping.
  • Its tail is roughly the same length as its head and body.
  • It stores berries and seeds in the autumn in underground burrows or sometimes in old birds' nests.
  • It thrives in woodland, rough grassland and gardens.
  • This species of mouse does not have a very strong smell.

Diet

Wood mice tend to mostly eat seeds from trees, but they also eat snails, insects, fruit, berries, nuts and fungi.

Field mice and people

Field mouse, also known as wood mouse, is the most common and widespread mouse species in the UK. They can be tricky to spot during the day: they're lightning quick and are nocturnal. They sleep in burrows when it's light and venture out to forage during the evenings.

Field mice play an important role in woodland ecology. They help to regenerate woods when their forgotten underground seed stores germinate into new trees. And they are so closely associated with woods and trees, that dips in the availability of tree seeds results in fewer field mice. This has a knock-on effect on owl populations that rely of field mice as prey.

Who's been there? Make it easy to track elusive woodland animals

Get our poos and clues swatch book

Harvest mouse (Micromys minutus)

The harvest mouse is the smallest rodent in Europe, weighing up to just 6g. It's also the only UK mammal to have a prehensile tail. ( Photo: Edo Schmidt/Alamy Stock Photo)
The harvest mouse is the smallest rodent in Europe, weighing up to just 6g. It's also the only UK mammal to have a prehensile tail. ( Photo: Edo Schmidt/Alamy Stock Photo)

Distinctive features and behaviours

  • Nests are spherical and made of tightly woven grass and are elevated from the ground in tall grasses.
  • Lives in long, tussocky grassland, reedbeds, hedgerows and around woodland edges.
  • Blunt nose, short, rounded hairy ears and golden-brown fur. Its tail is almost as long as its body.

Diet

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

The yellow-necked mouse has a complete band of yellow around the neck area. (Photo: Avalon/Photoshot License/Alamy Stock Photo)
The yellow-necked mouse has a complete band of yellow around the neck area. (Photo: Avalon/Photoshot License/Alamy Stock Photo)

Distinctive features and behaviours

  • 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 (but this only helps if you've got them side by side!).
  • You're only likely to come across this mouse in southern England, parts of the Midlands and south Wales.

Diet

It feeds on buds, seeds, nuts and small insects.

See more facts and photos about yellow-necked mouse.

Bank vole (Myodes glareolus)

The smallest of the UK voles, the bank vole is active during the day and night. (Photo: Lisa Geoghegan/Alamy Stock Photo)
The smallest of the UK voles, the bank vole is active during the day and night. (Photo: Lisa Geoghegan/Alamy Stock Photo)

Distinctive features and behaviours

  • It’s the smallest UK vole with a reddish-chestnut coat and an off-white underside.
  • Like all voles, it's a stocky little animal with 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 in search of food.

Diet

  • Fruits, nuts and small insects.

Field vole (Microtus agrestis)

The field vole is one of the UK's most common mammals. (Photo: Andrew Darrington/Alamy Stock Photo)
The field vole is one of the UK's most common mammals. (Photo: Andrew Darrington/Alamy Stock Photo)

Distinctive features and behaviours

  • 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. It can be aggressive to other trespassing voles.

Diet

It eats grass, seeds, roots and leaves.

Water vole (Arvicola amphibious)

The water vole is the largest vole in the UK. (Photo: Alamy Stock Photo)
The water vole is the largest vole in the UK. (Photo: Alamy Stock Photo)

Distinctive features and behaviours

  • The water vole has suffered a serious decline in the UK with numbers dropping by 90%.
  • Also 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.

Diet

It eats vegetation including grasses, reeds and sedges that grow near the water's edge and nearby bulbs, roots, buds, twigs and fruits. It's been documented that water voles will also go for frogs and tadpoles presumably to make up for a lack of protein. 

Common shrew (Sorex araneus)

Another of Britain's most abundant mammals, the common shrew has a voracious appetite. (Photo: David Hosking/Alamy Stock Photo)
Another of Britain's most abundant mammals, the common shrew has a voracious appetite. (Photo: David Hosking/Alamy Stock Photo)

Distinctive features and behaviours

  • The common shrew has 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. 
  • Shrews don’t hibernate, but they do become less active in winter, living in burrows that may have been made by other species.
  • One of the most endearing habits of shrews is the shrew caravan. They may do this when moving from nest to nest – babies follow their mother forming a furry train by holding on to the base of the tail of the shrew in front.

Diet

It scurries though the undergrowth in woodland and grassland searching for insects, worms, slugs, spiders and larvae.

Pygmy shrew (Sorex minutus)

Pygmy shrew have a distinctively pointy snout and tiny eyes. (Photo:   Andrew Darrington/Alamy Stock Photo)
Pygmy shrew have a distinctively pointy snout and tiny eyes. (Photo: Andrew Darrington/Alamy Stock Photo)

Distinctive features and behaviours

  • 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 lightning quick and active.
  • Its a territorial little creature and is apparently quite aggressive to fellow shrews. Its known to swipe its tail from side to side if it encounters another pygmy shrew.

Diet

It's a voracious feeder, eating eating more than its body weight each day in insects, spiders, worms, woodlice and other invertebrates.

Water shrew (Neomys fodiens)

The venomous saliva from water shrews can paralyse small prey. (Photo: Survivalphotos/Alamy Stock Photo)
The venomous saliva from water shrews can paralyse small prey. (Photo: Survivalphotos/Alamy Stock Photo)

Distinctive features and behaviours

  • This is an elusive animal and is rarely seen, but it's the largest species of shrew in the UK and can grow up to 10cm in length.
  • 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.
  • It's found throughout mainland Britain (and only parts of Scotland) and on some of the larger islands including the Isle of Wight, Anglesey, Arran, Skye and Mull. 

Diet

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

Make it easy to track elusive woodland animals

Get our poos and clues swatch book