Tracking: The 6 Key Characteristics of Sign

by Paul Kirtley

Grass displaying general disturbance, mud and water transferred onto leaves, creases in several blades of grass, colour change and flattening.

There is no footprint here but there is sign in abundance. Photo: Paul Kirtley

A tracker doesn't follow footprints. She follows sign.

In its broadest definition, sign is any change from an environment's natural state inflicted upon it by the passage of animal, man or machinery.

Sign can be obvious or it can be the most subtle change to the environment.

There are six key characteristics of sign that we look for. Particular sign can display one or more of these characteristics, in any combination.

Regularity

There is a certain order and distribution to the natural world. Much material in nature is distributed in such a way as to create an even-ness; for example the distribution of leaves after they have fallen from a tree. This is an order that someone familiar with their environment will consider "normal".

Human Footprints in Wet Sand

Animals leave regular patterns on the material upon which they walk. Photo: Paul Kirtley

When there is a disturbance to that normality it can be noticed by the observant. An animal walking or running has a certain tempo and this creates a pattern on the ground over which it moves. This pattern is easy to spot on ground such as sand but harder to spot in less uniform materials. Nevertheless, regularity is a key attribute to look out for.

Regularity also appears within the impressions left by the passing of an animal, person or machine. For example, a boot will leave an imprint of its tread containing a pattern of geometric shapes that is not normal.

Partial boot print in clay soil

Regularity: A pattern in soil created by the geometric shapes present in the tread of a boot. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

The human brain is very adept at detecting patterns (sometimes where there are none). This allows us to pick out regularity imposed on the environment by the passing of an animal or person.

Edges as straight as a ruler don't tend to present themselves very often in nature; you will certainly spot them when they have been imposed where they don't normally occur. For example, creases in leaves or blades of grass are something easy to pick up on to the attuned.

Flattening

Downward pressure from the foot placement of people or animals will flatten or even depress material on the ground.

Earth and leaves flattened by the passing of deer

Dead leaves flattened/crushed and earth flattened/depressed by the passing of deer. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Other behaviour such as lying or sitting will also flatten vegetation in a way that is detectable by the tracker. Flattening is easily detected by comparison with the surrounding area.

An area of grass flatttened by deer sitting

Fallow deer couches or beds, clearly indicated by areas of flattening (the shape of deer). Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Transfer

An easily understood example of transfer is the school child running off the football or rugby pitch into changing rooms and depositing clods of mud from between the boot studs onto the floor. This is transfer of material from the pitch to the changing room floor tiles.

More generally, transfer is any deposit of material carried forward from one medium to another. For example, sand onto rock; mud onto grass; water onto dry ground; vegetation onto a road; and so on.

Mud on blades of grass

Mud and water transferred onto grass. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Descriptive examples of transfer are generally quite bold. It is a bold concept. Yet, in practice, transfer can be incredibly subtle. A tiny amount of material can have been carried forward yet still be detected.

Mud on the stem of a bracken plant

Mud transferred in passing onto a stem of bracken. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Colour Change

When natural materials are disturbed there can be a colour change. Colour change can be at the micro level, for example where a leaf has been bruised by a hoof or the edge of a boot.

Bluebell leaves bruised by a boot

Bruised leaves indicate the passing of a person. You can see the pattern of the boot tread imprinted (regularity) as well. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Colour change can also occur at a more macro level; for example, where someone has walked through leaf litter that had previously been rained upon yet dried on the surface. The passing of a person will have turned over, or up, certain areas of leaves which will show up as dark (damp) patches amongst the generally dry top surface of leaves.

Similarly, someone walking or driving over grass will depress certain areas. Hence, the angle at which the grass lays to incident sunlight will be different to the surrounding foliage. This presents itself as a change in colour/shine.

quad bike tracks in grass = colour change

Colour change in grass from the passing of a quad bike. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Also, some leaves are darker on their top side than their underside. If the light underside of leaves are showing, then something has disturbed them.

Discards

Discards are any materials that have been left behind. This can be intentional or unintentional. A deer that is shedding its winter coat will be discarding hairs.

Fallow deer hairs

Fallow deer hairs. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

A cigarette butt is a discard. A chewed apple core or banana skin is a discard. A chewed hazelnut left by a squirrel is a discard. An antler shed by a deer is a discard. Fur or threads from clothing on a fence are discards. A shotgun cartridge is a discard. Faeces are discarded naturally.

Fox droppings.

Droppings are a discard. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Disturbance

Disturbance is any other change to the environment that you recognise as abnormal but doesn't directly fit into the categories above. Leaves or grass or bracken, for example, have been moved around in an area so they lay in an unnatural way. A puddle is full of suspended sediment. Insects have been agitated. Roots have been bruised. These are all disturbances to the natural order of things.

Disturbance to leaves under a bush

The leaves under the bush have been disturbed. The area also catches the eye due to colour change. Other sign in the area indicated it was roe deer. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Disturbed puddle

The water in this puddle is disturbed. And it's recent.... Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Disturbed ground

This ground has been disturbed. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Bruised rhododendron roots

Disturbance: This root has been bruised/damaged. This is also easily spotted due to colour change. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Wood ants nest disturbed by Badger

This wood ants nest displays an excavated volcano-type shape, caused by a badger digging into it for food. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

A Tracker Must Tune In

It is important to remember that trackers do not follow footprints. They follow sign. This sign can be obvious or very faint. A tracker must be able to recognise sign in the environment in which they are tracking. To track well, she must be able to perceive the most subtle indications.

An ability to tune in this way and to recognise sign by the 6 key characteristics of sign is fundamental to being able to track in any environment.

 

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Paul Kirtley is owner and Chief Instructor of Frontier Bushcraft. He has had a lifelong passion for the great outdoors and gains great satisfaction from helping others enjoy it too. Paul writes the UK's leading bushcraft blog as well as for various publications including Bushcraft and Survival Skills Magazine.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Noble

Hi Paul,
Another great article with a very nice selection of photos.
There is something very satisfying about following sign. It’s the hope of seeing an animal up close in it’s natural environment. You start moving in silence, concentrating on the sounds around you, holding your breath, looking ahead yet searching near by. Very calming and the “tuning in” part is essential!
Many Thanks,
Dave.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Dave,

Good to hear from you. Thanks for you comment – I agree there is something very special about tuning in to your environment in this way and the secrets it can uncover 🙂

All the best,

Paul

Reply

sean fagan

Adored your article Paul,

Last year, I spent a few months with my brother at his rural house in Ontario. During that time I would occasionally track a red fox that lived nearby. I endearingly named him seven-eights because his scat was always (and I mean always) seven eights of an inch wide. When I tracked this fox in June, his scat was mostly composed of mammal fur, feather quills and the odd beetle case (elytra). I could imagine the fox at that time being quite wide ranging in its foraging – more predatory, less omnivorous. Later in August, when his scat was almost entirely composed of a matrix of saskatoon berries and grasshopper legs and heads, I could imagine the fox pouncing (with a certain amount of glee) on grasshoppers, which were abundant in the meadows at the time. I could also see the fox scavenging the broken messy remains of black bears that had fed upon the delicious berries of the saskatoon trees, whereby the fractured, grounded branches – still laden with berries, allowed the fox to access an otherwise difficult-to-reach resource. A simplistic imaginary association? – maybe, but when I was out on my own in the immense, daunting wilds of Canada I felt a reassuring connection with the feeding habits of an animal species that I was somewhat familiar with from home – an unspoken connection, in my perception at least, with a friend of sorts. A deeply gratifying experience.

P.s. Black bears were a different story altogether! If anybody sees a black bear roaming the Ontarian woods wearing a dark green bandanna – its mine! I want it back! I guess it was my fault for leaving my bandanna at an unattended camp for a few days! I know it was a black bear that took the bandanna because there was bloody big bear sign all over the camp including a large, undignified deposit of bear scat!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Sean,

Welcome back and thanks for such a great comment. I really enjoyed reading your tale of fox tracking. Fox scat I’ve seen recently in Sussex has contained both a lot of rabbit fur as well as beetle wing cases.

It definitely pays to imagine the behaviour of an animal as you look at its tracks. I’d recommend to anyone interested in furthering their tracking to spend time watching animals (remember to take your binoculars). This builds a reference against which you can interpret sign you see on the ground.

Thanks again for a great comment 🙂

Paul

Reply

Mark.h

Superb article Paul..

Very original perspective on tracking ; giving us all an even better insight in to this amazing subject.

It is a subject that everyone who participates in any countryside activity should look at in greater detail.. ‘a true eye opening experience’.
Many people refer to ‘Bow drill’as being corner stone to Bushcraft..I however beg to differ. Surely Tracking and Natural Awareness open up and allow us to afford all the bounties that nature has to offer.
Many instructors , especially you , enjoy teaching this subject above others in the Bushcraft Spectrum because when taught well it is…. so enlightening. It draws all of the skills together and makes being outdoors very complete.

The blog goes from strength to strength..more videos please and a book ?

Go well
Mark

Reply

Vee

Hi Paul, very interesting article and yet another area I am interested to learn more about. I have done basic tracking in terms of seeing signs of wildlife by discards, disturbance etc and have also used it when running a farm to find missing sheep and lambs! However, I have more to learn for sure so will look forward to zoning in next time I’m out. Thanks Paul

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Glad you found it interesting Vee. Hope this framework serves you well.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

christophe manea

I really liked your article. I enjoy nature photography and you have given me some different ideas on what to look for when I’m out an about. Thank you

Reply

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