What Was Here and Why?

What does the word ‘tracking’ conjure up in your mind?  Maybe, it is someone following the trail of a person who has got lost on a hike, or maybe a San bushman following the tracks of an antelope while on a hunt through the Kalahari.  Both are very powerful images, and very similar to the one of Aboriginal Australians following goanna or kangaroo tracks through the bush in the hot glare of the sun, that was part of my childhood imagination.  They certainly were the motivation for me to buy a very small waterproof pocket book on tracks when I was in my early teens, and to take it on my wanderings through the farmland and woods near where I lived hoping to find fox, badger and deer tracks in abundance.  Sadly, I now know that the reason I could not differentiate between fox and dog tracks, or sheep and deer tracks, was that the book was not very accurate and lacked information on how to differentiate between them.  I also had no-one to mentor me in what I was really looking at.  It was many years later that I took a weekend tracking course with Woodland Ways and my eyes were opened.  Apart from learning the tracks of a number of animals on that weekend, I was also fortunate enough to observe and get very close to roe and fallow deer by using some of the stalking skills that had been taught.  The weekend also led to my walks becoming slower and I never pass a muddy patch without taking a look to see what tracks had been left.

Here are some examples of some tracks that you might be able to see when out and about on your walks, what would you think left these? (Answers at the end of the blog).

Tracking image 1 Image: Mark Sharwood
Tracking image 2 Image: Mark Sharwood
Tracking image 3 Image: Mark Sharwood
Tracking image 4 Image: Mark Sharwood

It is not just about the tracks left behind by animals. Don’t get me wrong, it is amazing to see the footprints of the animals we inhabit this world alongside, and to be able to know what made them, but there are other signs animals leave that announce their presence too.  These signs are also a vital part of the picture – after all, we do not always get to see the tracks.  Sign can include, scat (poo), nests, eggs, feathers, feeding sign, trails (paths), hair, and bones.  These play an important role in understanding the behaviour of the animals in the area.  For example, in the picture below, the bark from the sapling has been rubbed by a male roe deer.

Bark from the sapling rubbed by a male roe deer, Image: Mark Sharwood

We can see that the bark has been rubbed to the wood and that there are frayed ends at both the top and bottom of the marking.  It is called an antler rub and is thought to have a couple possible behaviours behind it.  Firstly, because we know it’s an antler rub, we know it is caused by a male deer, because females do not have antlers.  When they are growing, the antlers are covered in a velvety material that supplies blood to the growing antler.  When growth has stopped, the velvet is no longer needed and it falls away, and this might be aided by rubbing the antlers against trees.  However, rubbing seems to go on after the velvet has been shed so another possible behaviour behind the rubbing is for scent marking. Deer have scent glands between their antlers so the rubbing might be to distribute their scent and advertise their presence.  We can sometimes see additional evidence that supports this at the base of the tree with scraping from the feet which also have scent glands between their cleats (toes).  The location, height that this occurs at, and the season that it took place, can help us work out which of the 6 deer species in the UK might have caused the damage.

Just to whet your CSI appetite, here is another photo of some sign. Image: Mark Sharwood

This time, we have two hazel nuts that have been eaten by two different creatures.  You can see that the top one looks very clean and tidy, neatly chiselled. While the lower one is a right mess with scratches all around the hole.  The top one was opened by a bank vole while the lower was opened by a mouse (either a wood mouse or yellow necked mouse).  Using your mobile phone to take a photo and then zooming in on the photo is a great way of looking at the detail.

Learning some track and sign can help you have a closer feeling of connection with the world around you.  It is like someone has turned a light on, and suddenly the environment around you can be seen in more detail and colour. There is a lot going on out there that we do not often see, but by learning track and sign, and looking closely enough, we can get a glimpse of the lives of some amazing creatures and their behaviour.  Walks become more interesting as you ‘see’ more and interpret the world in a different way.  I hope you are inspired to start staring at muddy patches to see what has been on the same path as you.

(Track answers: 1) rabbit, 2) roe deer, 3) oystercatcher, and 4) toad, cover photo Fox)

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