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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Frontier Bushcraft Tracking and Nature Awareness Course.
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