Other Mammal Species – Insectivores

Five species of terrestrial insectivore occur in Dorset, the familiar hedgehog and mole, and the less familiar common, pygmy and water shrews. With the exception of hedgehogs none are particularly easy to see.

Shrews are more likely to be heard than seen their high-pitched calls being most obvious in spring although sadly many people have difficulty hearing the calls as they grow older and lose the ability to hear higher frequency calls. Bat detectors can be used to good effect to overcome this difficulty.

Although shrews can be readily caught in small mammal traps a licence is required to do so and particular care must be taken when trapping rodents to ensure that a dead shrew does not become the unfortunate bi-product of the trapping session. Please see our page on mammals and the law for more details.

However conversely records of dead animals help build up a picture of a species’ distribution so even records of dead animals brought in by the family cat are worth reporting. The following identification summary will hopefully help you identify any unfortunate shrew brought in by the cat although if you are unsure a photograph, even taken on an IPhone, will help confirm the record.

Shrew identification

  • Common shrew: Tricoloured, dark upperparts, buff flanks and pale underparts. 72-144mm including tail.
  • Pygmy shrew: 72-106mm including tail with tail proportionately longer, hairier and thicker than common shrew. Bicoloured with no distinct difference between flanks and rest of underparts. Normally paler above than common shrew.
  • Water shrew: Larger than other species with black dorsal fur contrasting sharply with paler underparts. Often seen swimming and diving as the name suggests.

Hedgehog Erinaceus europaeus

One of Britain’s best-known and best-loved mammals and the logo of the Dorset Mammal Group but sadly as with many species often encountered as a roadside casualty. Occurs throughout Britain in a variety of habitats including commonly in gardens although the population in much of the country appears to have declined in recent years with many reasons including predation by badgers having been identified as causes for the decline. Although seemingly harmless to many hedgehogs can do serious damage to populations of ground-nesting birds as has been the case in some of the Western Isles of Scotland. See www.britishhedgehogs.co.uk for more information on hedgehogs in Britain.


Photo: Colin Varndell

Status in Dorset:

Reasonably widespread although the majority of reported records come from the more heavily populated south east of the county. Most likely to be encountered by putting out food in gardens at night, particularly in the autumn.

Mole Talpa europaea

Widespread and common in mainland Britain and on many offshore islands but considered a pest by many farmers and gardeners due to the ‘damage’ caused by their familiar molehills and runs and consequently heavily persecuted in some areas.

Photo: Colin Varndell

Status in Dorset:

Widespread but most records relate to molehills and rarely seen on the surface. Most likely to be seen above ground in May when young disperse or after rain showers when they are sometimes attracted to the surface.

Common shrew Sorex araneus

Occurs throughout Britain particularly in thick grass, bushy areas, hedgerows and deciduous woodlands. When seen well relatively easy to identify but as most views tend to be of individuals scuttling across paths or through undergrowth many sightings cannot be safely attributed to species.


Photo: Colin Varndell

Status in Dorset:

The most commonly reported shrew in Dorset and likely to be encountered anywhere in the county.

Pygmy shrew Sorex minutus

Britain’s smallest and most widespread shrew occurring throughout mainland Britain and on more off the offshore islands than common shrew although absent from the Shetland Islands like its larger cousin. Occurs in most habitats but more common in grasslands than woodlands. However frequently found in nest boxes in woodland in winter.


Status in Dorset:

Sparsely distributed throughout the county.

Water shrew Neomys fodiens

Widely distributed throughout Britain but probably the least common of the three more widespread species in Britain. As the name suggests most often found close to water including rivers, canals, fast flowing streams, reed beds, drainage ditches etc. but also found well away from water and elsewhere in its range commonly found in temperate forests and coniferous taiga. The largest of the three species in Dorset with contrasting black upper parts and silvery grey under parts. Most easily located by its particularly strident call.


Status in Dorset:

The least commonly reported shrew in Dorset and mainly found near waterways. Seeing water shrews is often a case of luck but in favoured areas family parties can sometimes be encountered in spring and if so are normally extremely obliging.