Animal Tracks and Sign: Nature Awareness in The British Countryside

by Paul Kirtley

A well-defined deer trail through the woods.

What can you find in the British Countryside once you start looking? Photo: Paul Kirtley?

If you know where and how to look, there is evidence of wildlife activity all around you. In the woods, in the fields and in the hedgerows there are tell-tale signs of creatures going about their daily lives. Some of these creatures, for example grey squirrels, are quite bold and we often see them when we are out and about in the countryside. Many other relatively common species, however, are shy or only active at night. This makes them quite elusive. They are there though. When you start looking for signs of their activity, you may well find they are often closer than you might have expected. Besides, looking at the details in nature, in particular animal tracks and sign, makes you more observant and appreciative of the natural world around you. So, it’s a great thing to incorporate into your days in the countryside. So, what are we looking for?

Tracks

Tracks or footprints are probably the first thing most people think of when considering the signs left behind by passing animals. Depending on the surface that has been walked over, the prints can be very clear, well-defined or detailed. Or, they can be really quite hard to make out. When we find a full footprint that is clearly defined, it is called a clear print. When only part of the footprint is clearly defined, it’s called a partial print. The easiest tracks to spot and identify are clear prints. These are the tracks I would look for first. What determines whether a print is clearly defined is the medium that has been walked upon as well as the weight and foot-size of the animal. Large deer leave more of an impression than mice, for example.

Clear Prints – Where To Look?

Wet mud: Mud is one of the best places to look for animal tracks. The prints left are usually very clear. Look in muddy areas on footpaths and tracks as well as in muddy ruts. Animals make use of these trails too. Also, look around the edges of puddles and small pools, particularly if they have started to dry out a little. There is likely to be some soft, fine mud around the perimeter and you’ll often find footprints of birds as well as smaller, lighter mammals that wouldn’t show up clearly elsewhere.
Grey squirrel tracks in soft mud.

Grey squirrel tracks in soft mud. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Sand: Walking over sand leaves an impression. Dry sand, particularly if it’s quite coarse, doesn’t hold very detailed prints. Tracks in wet sand, however, are much more clearly defined. Anywhere sandy is a good place to look for prints. Fine soil: Similar to sand, fine soil and dusty areas can hold prints well. Look for exposed areas of earth to check for footmarks. Areas where there is clay or sandstone often have good soils for finding tracks.
A deer footmark or “slot” in fine soil.

A deer footmark or “slot” in fine soil. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Snow: Snow is probably the best medium for easily finding tracks. When it snows, everything is blanketed. Animals going about their daily lives can’t help but leave tracks. The tracks will be clearly defined too. So the next time it snows where you are – get out and find some tracks! Even if you are in town, you’ll likely find tracks of cats, dogs, crows, pigeons, blackbirds and foxes.
Even close to habitation, you should find good tracks in snow such as this clear print of a domestic cat.

Even close to habitation, you should find good tracks in snow such as this clear print of a domestic cat. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Clear Prints – What To Look Out For?

Deer, foxes, badgers, rabbits, squirrels and birds are all common and easily identified. There are a couple of basic pitfalls to avoid. The first is confusing deer prints with those of sheep and goats. The hoof shapes are somewhat different but they all have cloven hooves. Fox footprints are similar in structure to domestic dogs, with four toe pads and claws visible but a more diamond-shaped overall.

Runs and Racks

Just as we have footpaths and trails we follow repeatedly, so do animals. For example, rabbits have runs, often clearly defined. You can see where they run through long grass and through hedges. You can often see regular hop-spots within the trail too. Badgers have regular trails they take away from their setts as well as towards their latrine sites. Deer also have regular trails. Where these are muddy and well-established, such as descending a bank or crossing a ditch, they are traditionally called racks.
A well-defined deer trail through the woods.

A well-defined deer trail through the woods. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Runs and Racks - Where to Look?

One of the best places to start looking for runs is an obstacle that animals may have to cross. Particular species will often have preferred crossing points of linear features such as fences and hedges, walls, ditches, and streams. Have a walk along one of these features and see what you can find. Keep an eye out for signs of animals going under, over or through obstacles.
Deer cross this fence here

Deer cross this fence here. Note the lack of vegetation growing up in front of the fence, the parted vegetation behind the fence as well flattened areas on the ground either side. There was also mud and a few deer hairs on the fence. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Feeding Signs

Some animals will target specific food sources at certain times of the year, while others will browse widely. Knowing what different animals are likely to be feeding on at a given time can help you locate and identify current feeding sign (as well as find the animals). Also, knowing other feeding habits can help you identify the sign. When feeding on the ground, grey squirrels tend to like to sit on top of a tree stump or other raised platform that gives them a better view of their surrounds. Consequently, you will find lots of stripped cones on or around stumps in coniferous woodland.
Scales stripped from a pine cone at a squirrel feeding site on top of a log.

Scales stripped from a pine cone at a squirrel feeding site on top of a log. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Feeding Sign – What to Look Out For?

Trimmed vegetation – on the ground or at head-height of the animal, particularly when there are rabbits and deer around; Deer only have front teeth in their lower, whereas rabbits have both upper and lower incisors, leaving a much cleaner cut on vegetation such as grass. The height of the feeding sign above ground indicates the size of the animal and can help you identify the species involved. Browse lines – there is a maximum height of vegetation animals such as deer can reach. If you stand back and look at a line of trees from a distance, you will often a notice a browse line, defined by this maximum height.
Browse line

The very straight horizontal browse line marking the bottom of the tree’s vegetation is indicative of the fallow deer in the area. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Nibbled nuts and seeds – stripped cones, cracked nuts and parts of shell-casings lying around will indicate feeding, often by rodents but also birds. Nibbled immature nuts on the ground is a sign that feeding is going on up in the trees. Some birds wedge nuts in the bark of trees to work on them. There may be remains still in the bark as well as lying around the base of the tree on the ground. Markings on the nuts and shell casings themselves will help you identify the creature that has been feeding on them.
Decaying hawthorn fruit and pips

A pile of decaying hawthorn fruit with the pips having been nibbled by a bank vole. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Stripped bark – Sometimes animals such as deer, hares, rabbits, voles, (but also sheep) will remove bark from trees and shrubs for food. Examining this bark stripping can tell you a lot about the animal that did it. Again, head height of the animal can be indicated, particularly if damage is above ground level. Deer tend to strip bark vertically upwards (using the teeth in their lower jaw) where some other animals nibble more horizontally. If you look closely at any scoring left on the wood, you can often clearly see impressions of the teeth. Again this will give a good indication of size as well as species.
Stripped bark willow tree

Bark stripped from a willow tree by fallow deer. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Damaged or removed fruit – Some creatures are interested in the flesh of the fruit, while others are interested in the seeds or pips. Sometimes the fruit is still attached to plant, shrub or tree, but gnawed or pecked open, while in other cases you can see where there was fruit attached until recently. Common fruits on which to look out for feeding signs are raspberries, brambles, rosehips, apples, rowan berries, hawthorn, cherries and plums. Excavations and disturbances – Squirrels dig up nut caches. Badgers dig up roots. Badgers will dig into bee and wasp nests as well as excavate ant hills for food. Green woodpeckers will also disturb ant hills to get at the ants and the pupae.
Excavated bumble bee nest

A bumble bee nest site excavated by a badger. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Animal remains – Carnivorous animals leave behind remains of their prey. The species of prey itself, as well as where and how it was killed and eaten, provide useful information as to the predator species. Also, just like markings on a nut can help identify the species that has been feeding, so can the nature of the damage to a carcass. For example, the way a fox plucks and feeds on a wood pigeon is very different to a bird of prey.
Pigeon feather from bird of prey kill site

The sharp crease in the quill of this pigeon’s feather shows it was held in the beak of a bird of prey when it was plucked. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Pellets – Owls in particular regurgitate parts of animals they cannot digest. This comes out as a pellet and is typically filled with fur and small bones. These pellets can be found on the forest floor, sometimes a number of them under a regular roost.
Owl pellets

Owl pellets contain fur and bones. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Droppings and Discards

Droppings are one of the more obvious signs of the presence of an animal in the area. They are also one of the more distinctive signs, with size, shape, consistency and location giving you a very good idea – often a clear indication – of the species that left it. For example, unlike domesticated dog droppings, fox droppings tend to be pointed at the end and broken into sections. They often visibly contain fur of prey species as well as other indigestible parts of their food such as the wing casings of beetles. Foxes also tend to defecate on raised mounds, tree stumps, etc as a territorial marker. Caption “
Fox scat

Pointed at the end, these decomposing fox droppings also clearly contain fur. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Droppings are not the only things that animals leave behind. You should also look out for discarded hairs, fur, feathers and antlers. At certain times of the year some animals – such as deer – are moulting and you’ll find big clumps of hairs on the ground. At any time of the year you can find hairs and fur caught on fences and hedges where animals have passed over, under or through. Multiple feathers along with droppings on the ground in one area can give a clear indication of a nest or regular roosting spot above. Unlike the horns of a cow or sheep, which grow continuously like a finger-nail, antlers on a deer are re-grown every year. At a certain stage of the annual cycle, the old antlers are dropped. These can sometimes be found discarded on the ground. You may find that the antlers have been nibbled as the calcium they contain is a valuable nutrient.
Fallow deer hairs from moulting

These hairs have been left behind by a fallow deer as it moults its winter coat. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Homes and Sleeping Areas

At ground level look out for fox holes, the entrances to rabbit warrens and badger setts. Smaller still, you may notice the hole or a mouse or vole, or even the entrance to a bumble bees’ nest. Look up the trunks of trees for woodpecker and other birds’ nesting holes. Look also for birds nests and squirrel dreys. When you get your eye in, you’ll start to spot things like an area of flattening in grass or leaf litter where a deer has laid down to rest.
Fallow deer couches

Deer couches. The flattened areas of grass clearly show several deer have laid down in this area. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Additional Resources

http://www.field-studies-council.org/publications/pubs/a-guide-to-british-mammal-tracks-and-signs.aspx http://www.amazon.co.uk/Animal-Tracks-Signs-Pocket-Nature/dp/0199299978/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1358879414&sr=8-1

Training

Frontier Bushcraft Tracking and Nature Awareness Course. http://frontierbushcraft.com/courses/tracking-and-nature-awareness/
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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 The Bushcraft Journal and Bushcraft & Survival Skills Magazine.

 

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Austin Lill

Hi Paul, My favourite wood locally is Hatfield Forest and with all the Fallow in there, the browse line is very obvious. One piece of sign that I’ve never managed to bottom out is split Hornbeam seeds, is this a bird or rodent (or neither)?

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Austin,

Can you send me some photos of the split seeds?

Thanks,

Paul

Reply

Roy Henshall

Hello mate How are you.

Tracks and tracking is one of my favourite buchcraft skills. Coming from a pest control, wildlife management and gamekeeping background, tracks and tracking is a skill i really needed to learn, i still use the skills i have gathered over many years on a daily basis to locate Rodents nests, e.g. TRACKS, PATHS, DROPPINGS, SMEAR MARKS and so on, although my favourite past-time is tracking foxes. I have tracked a dog fox well over 12 miles in the snow and i learned a lot about this animal doing so.

All the best
Keep the faith
HEDGEY

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Hedgey,

I’m well thanks mate and I hope you are too.

I’m glad you are very much tuned into tracking. Personally, I think it’s a key bushcraft skill. I wish more people would spend time on acquiring this and related skills. It really opens up a whole new world as well as allowing you to view what you already know with increased detail.

Keep spreading the word! 🙂

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Austin Lill

It has occurred that it could just be a load of split cases caused by germination but I will get some shots as and when…

Reply

Gwyn James

I,m a lucky person I live opposite a small wood that then backs on to a small strip of green belt.
and a small farm. When walking through the wood I have found chickens and the odd racing pigeon showing evidence of predation by birds of prey, buzzards or sparrow hawk. Chatting to the local farmer, who thought his free range flock was being attacked by a fox. I was able to show him the evidence, so he no longer has free range chickens.now they are in a wired run. As for racing pigeons take the details off the leg and pass them on to the Royal Racing Pigeon Society stops some one wondering what happened to their bird. Unexpected bonus’s for others out of bushcraft

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Gwyn,

You are indeed lucky. It sounds lovely.

Good tip regarding racing pigeons. Thanks.

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Irish Bushcraft & Survival

Great info on the tracking issues..I’ve being tracking badger using their snout marks in a local forest..very interesting way of tracking them….I look forward to more of your posts.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi there,

Thanks for your comment.

Badgers are fascinating creatures.

Keep in touch,

Paul

Reply

Destiny

Home run! Great sluiggng with that answer!

Reply

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Niels

Thanks for taking the time to write yet another great article. I only recently discovered that there’s rabbits living near the soccer fields, inside of my village. Animals really are closer than you think. Happy bushcrafting!

Niels

Reply

Paul Kirtley

You’re very welcome Niels 🙂

Reply

sean fagan

nice article Paul,

and nice photos too. Really enjoying your recent video posts as well, and hearty congratulations on your recent Bushcraft awards.

Sean.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Sean,

Many thanks 🙂

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Austin Lill

Re my opening post concerning Hornbeam seeds…have these just split due to germination or have they been split and eaten? [URL=http://s38.photobucket.com/user/Mang1967/media/8f53e177-6aaa-4448-9ff0-9ee1b0ab7c60_zps918b757c.jpg.html][IMG]

Reply

Austin Lill
Paul Kirtley

Hi Austin,

I think it will have been some sort of finch, possibly Greenfinch.

Best,

Paul

Reply

Liam Gadd

Cheers Austin, Paul

This comment was good to follow through.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

No worries 🙂

Reply

Alex

Hi Paul, great article. I agree, tracking is a great pastime and really connects us to the past. I have no real instruction in it, but last winter managed to track a fox for some considerable time, only to find by total surprise that it was 10m in front of me, oblivious to my presence! The feeling was indescribable, and cost me nothing other than a few hours of in the cold!

Reply

Aaron Light

Nice article. Inspired me to write about the wildlife in my country …

Reply

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