Tracking in the Snow- A game of Fox and Rabbit

With all the recent snow and frost covering the country side (March 2013) you may get the impression that the resulting landscape is bleak, cold and devoid of all its wild life. Bleak and cold it may be but the wild life is still there and going about its daily business. If you educate yourself with even a very basic understanding of certain creatures’ daily needs such as food, water and shelter you have a great opportunity to begin tracking them.

We are not talking here of some mystic art or of the fabled abilities of native American tribes or the San Bushmen in pursuing insects across rock – we are talking about simply reading what signs are left behind by creatures in our surroundings and then playing Sherlock Holmes by piecing together every shred of evidence and observation before coming to the ‘elementary dear Watson’ conclusion. Welcome to the world of tracking!

It is well known that morning and early evening provide ideal tracking conditions due to the angle at which the light strikes the tracks you are following and throws them into relief (creates a shade in the track or behind it). At midday the suns light would be directed straight down into your tracks bleaching them out of view. As a general rule always try and keep the tracks you are following between yourself and the light source; be this artificial, sun or moon.

Above you can see a wonderful if a little eerie sun rise marking a good time to get out and read the tracks. Unfortunately the conditions worsened with a freezing fog descending making for a very ‘flat’ light by which it was difficult to read any track contrast until you were almost on top of them. Those of you that have skied before will likely know these light conditions which can occur in foggy/ cloudy weather in the mountains, making the reading of your route down a slope very difficult indeed as steep and shallow blur into one grey uniformity.

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Once out into the fields and along the hedgerows all manner of tracks were encountered but the two most common had to be those seen above – Fox and Rabbit. There are many signs and techniques by which we can identify animals but one of the easiest is by the foot prints they leave in accommodating areas of sand, mud or in this case snow!

Once you know which characters are involved in the plot you can start to unravel what happened, why it happened and with practice how long ago. Let’s have a brief look at the characteristic features of the Rabbit and Fox prints first.

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Above is the overall shape of a Rabbit track, that is all four feet and where they strike the ground whilst the Rabbit is ambling along going about its daily life. Notice how much longer the rear feet pads are than the front and how the two front feet are almost in line with one another and occupy the horizontal centre line of the overall track which travels between the two larger rear feet.

As the Rabbit travels its powerful hind legs strike the ground first followed by one and then the remaining front feet before the rear legs propel it forwards again. This ‘lolloping’ gait is repeated and can be seen in the following photo as this particular Rabbit made its way away from a meal of soft rush which had not quite been covered by the powdery snow.
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The Fox has very different tracks clearly shown below following a newly planted hedge and appearing in an almost straight line. This is caused when the front leg is lifted for the next step and the rear leg is then placed exactly where the front foot had been – characteristic to Foxes and most Cats this is known as Direct Register or ‘perfect walking’.

The direct register pattern has been responsible for folk tales of the cunning Fox walking on hind legs like people and when you look at a line of Fox prints it is easy to imagine them carefully creeping along on tip toes! Compare the Foxe’s gait to that of the domestic dog and you can easily distinguish them especially if they are right next to one another as below.

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To the left of the photo we see the direct register of the Fox whilst on the right are the larger prints left by a dog along a footpath. The dog prints do not register perfectly atop one another and so are given the term of Indirect Register. Many other animals will leave prints indirectly registered including all our species of deer found in the UK.

Notice also that a domestic dog has a more pronounced straddle – that is the distance of the prints either side of a straight line drawn through the tracks – in Fox prints the straddle is negligible giving the appearance of the straight line as if walking upright.
Okay now you know your Fox prints from your Rabbit prints let us take a look at some other interesting patterns to see if we can determine what was happening and why. Following Mr Fox along a footpath separated from a field by a shallow irrigation ditch the following photo was taken.

The Fox appears to have broken its straight course and approached the ditch (top of photo) before turning back and continuing on its initial bearing. Three more times along the foot path this pattern was observed with no other apparent clues as to why. Finally the answer was revealed:

He was simply looking for a good spot to leap across the ditch and into the field!
The pattern of tracks in this photo has been created by the repeated use of Rabbits over several days as they exited a hedgerow, crossed a foot path and then spread out left and right into the field to forage for any greenery left above the snow. This funnel shape pattern is typical at breaks in hedges where Rabbits and Hare are squeezed together to pass through the easy opening before spreading out again.

Shallow irrigation ditches such as the one pictured below make ideal track traps throughout the year as they stay damp and allow a good print to be left in the muddy conditions. This time however it was frozen solid so the Rabbit crossed the ice. In this instance it is easy to just look to the far side and pick up the tracks but it is well worth the effort spent searching for any sign left ON the ice itself. It is this level of focus, attention to detail and ability to pick out every single clue that ultimately led to the afore-mentioned super human feats of tracking ants on rocks in rain storms!

So, if we look more closely we can see how the Rabbits’ hind feet came to the edge of the ice before hopping out onto it. The all-important detail here is the small amount of snow which has crumbled onto the ice in the direction the Rabbit took. This tell-tale sign is known as transfer and can be any substrate; sand, mud, leaves, hair or snow which sticks to and is carried by the paw of an animal onto a surface where it is out of place.

If you follow your tracks for long enough the inevitable happens! Fox scat pictured here shows the characteristically tapered end often sighted in manuals and is very dark due to the intake of berries through the autumn and early winter.

I’ll leave you with a final photo taken by the side of a frozen puddle which had been visited by a solitary Crow. Following his tracks from left to right his purpose soon becomes clear – pecking a small hole in the ice allowed him a drink (do Crows get brain freeze?).

There are many fantastic books and resources out there which will help you identify your quarry and put terminology to the patterns you observe in the field. Ultimately however it is the amount of time you spend on the trail (What Tom Brown Jr. refers to as ‘Dirt time’), time spent observing, deducing, guessing, pondering and mistaking that will improve your skills the most.
Happy tracking out there and do not forget if you track alone, you will always be right. So buddy up and have fun, or why not join us on our tracking course to learn more skills on this wonderful pastime or visit our homepage for more info on survival course.

Adam Logan- Instructor

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