Track and Sign Training & Assessment – CyberTracking

Foot Morphology

We can all agree 2020 was a year that tested us all in lots of different ways. For many of us that meant little or no time pursuing our interests and hobbies, including time in the woods. I had just started my apprenticeship, there was a plan for over 20 weekends to be spent with the Woodland Ways instructors, building on the skills of the two-year Woodland Wayer course, learning new ones, and simply getting to grips with the bushcraft subject as a whole.

With nearly all of those weekends cancelled, I decided to treat myself to the CyberTracking week long course that Jason had organised with John Rhyder of Woodcraft School. John is a Senior Tracker certified through the CyberTracker system and is the highest qualified wildlife tracker in Northern Europe. A real privilege to be able to attend this course, a quick summary can be found here.

The first thing John did, or should I say tried to do, was to reassure us that although the course was split into three days of training and two days of assessment, that we should not worry about or be overly concerned with the assessment aspect. If you’re anything like me, when it comes to tests, I have a tendency to get flustered and make stupid mistakes. Although, John was right, the assessment was nothing to fear. In fact, a very enjoyable (and challenging) learning process. I think we all did far better than expected, I know I did. Testimony to John’s deep knowledge, passion, experience and ability to share those skills.

One of my goals in doing the apprenticeship is to one day be able to deliver the various courses offered by Woodland Ways. This course, without a shadow of a doubt, raised my knowledge, interpretation skills and confidence in tracking immensely. There is plenty of dirt-time needed to hone those skills, but the thought of one day delivering a tracking course is far less daunting now. On walks in my local woods I am beginning to share tracks and signs (I can confirm using reference material) with my partner, who is starting her Woodland Wayer this year.

The reason for writing this blog is to emphasize how the study of one aspect of bushcraft must be viewed as part of a holistic approach:

  1. Knowing the habitat you are tracking within will provide the basics of what you should and should not expect to find. Species range maps are good indicators of this. Taking this further, knowing the species of plants expected to be found in a given area, narrows down plant identification and therefore aids foraging for food, medicinal plants and craft materials.
  2. Knowing those expected species’ characteristics, length, height, weight, colour etc are also useful.
    From this I have drawn up tables of confusion species (both animals and plants) with their key characteristics and differences.
  3. Animals also have only a few things they could be doing, indicated by their sign – eat / not eaten, presence known / hidden, sleeping or mating. How often do we use the different things a plant is doing to determine the species, e.g. a tree in bud, leaf, flower or fruit? Shade or sun loving?
  4. A key note in tracking is to remember, “common things occur commonly”. Tracking is not just about looking at the track or sign in front of you, but zooming in and out of the area, looking around. If you are in a field of cows, is it a cow hoof print?

As you can imagine a lot of time was spent studying footprints. The shape, make up and pattern of a print is far more telling of the species than size. Size should only be taken as a rough guide to rule in or out certain species. Apparently, all animals have evolved from a shrew-like creature and the same foot characteristics are there if you look closely enough.

Foot Morphology
Foot Morphology

1 = Thumb, if only four toes present, it is the one that is missing.
5 = In birds this is the rear toe, hallux.

In John Ryder’s book Animal Tracks Field Guide, the prints show the multitude of variations that evolution has brought about. It is only when the subtle variations are actually highlighted and shown in the ground that you go from looking at a track to actually seeing it, and thus being able to identifying it. With of course the caveat stating you can’t really be 100% sure, unless you saw the animal make the track!

By the end of the course, we’d also tapped into knowledge of bird’s feathers, their shapes to determine where on the body they came from and marking patterns to determine species. Birds’ eggs, whether hatched or predated, size and colour for species identification. It was also pointed out how important bird song is to identification in a woodland area.

Did you know the difference between a carnivore’s bird kill and that of a bird of prey’s, can be determined by the pattern of feathers left behind? For example, foxes leave a random scattering of feathers, some with V-shape plucked from the end of the feather, some showing signs that the feather’s quill has been sheared, as if by a pair of scissors. A study of various skulls and teeth showed the fox’s tooth arrangement indicates how their incisors work like shears. Whereas the buzzard kill will be characterised by a missing head, a semi-circle of downy breast feathers, the quills with a crease dentation and the wings left alone. The breast bone may show peck marks.

Feather Predation Marks
Feather Predation Marks

Who’d have thought the tiny scratches on a hazelnut could tell you whether it was a squirrel, common dormouse, wood mouse or bank vole that had been feasting.

The course also covered sign left by animals scenting and marking territory, entry holes to burrows, gait patterns, scat, and a whole lot more. My notes took over 40 hours to put together with further research, reading and internet searches. To date they extend to some 56 pages and nearly 7000 words. And that’s just a start, so much to learn!

Gait Patterns
Gait Patterns

Studying bushcraft is amazing, learning something new enhances your existing knowledge of many different areas of the environment, the flora and fauna, and the interactions within a habitat.

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