While the snow we’ve had over the past few weeks is a great medium on which animal tracks are readily recorded, it’s also a very easy medium on which to track.
For much of the year we don’t have the luxury of snow to make our lives as trackers easy. Even so there are many opportunities for the keen-eyed to spot animal tracks and sign.
There is much more left behind by animals than merely footprints. Indeed, when we consider small mammals, it’s often other sign that we are able to notice more readily. Sign such as droppings and feeding sign are amongst the most common giveaways of a small animal’s activity.
Recently I’ve spent some time up in the Cumbria, where some of the Frontier Bushcraft team are based. Besides getting up into the snow on the hills, we were also out an about on the lower moors, which are often completely devoid of people (who are all scaling the peaks) and a great place to see wildlife.
On such a walk we stopped near to a lone, wind-blown hawthorn tree. We admired its strength and resilience, having survived years of punishing westerly winds.
Glancing down I noticed a dark patch amongst the tussocks and small lumps around the roots of the tree. On slightly closer inspection I saw there was an area containing a concentration of hawthorn fruit and their seed.
There’s nothing unusual about haws being found under a hawthorn tree. But the fruit and seed were not evenly distributed. In fact those that were visible were almost exclusively within a small opening.
Looking closer still, it was apparent that many of the solid pips from the centre of the fruits had neat holes nibbled into them and the contents had been removed from within their hard shell. Also, rather than having been eaten, many of the fruits’ flesh had been stripped off and discarded.
Small rodents such as mice and voles typically gnaw their way into nuts and seeds this way and the evidence gnawing can be seen on hazlenuts, cherry seeds and hawthorn seeds amongst others.
Mice and voles typically eat at special feeding spots that are sheltered. At such sites you can find much evidence of feeding. Some species also cache food over winter and the debris can be seen outside of their tunnel systems. It certainly looked like there was an entrance beyond this pile of hawthorn detritus.
Until the rodent gets through the shell it is gnawing, however, it is nigh on impossible to tell which of the small rodents made the marks on it. Once inside there are two distinct modes of working used by different rodents to remove the contents. Looking for evidence of which method has been employed can help us identify the species that has been feeding.
The first type, known as the wood mouse type, is characterised by a row of marks around the outside of the shell just below the opening. This is created by the rodent placing its upper incisors on the outside edge of the hole in the shell furthest away from its body. It then gnaws from the inside out with its lower incisors. The row of marks on the outside of the shell is created as the animal rotates the nut, working its way around the edge. It can be so distinct as to look like a tiny groove.
The second type, known as the bank vole type, is created by the rodent placing its upper incisors on the inside of the nearest edge of the hole and gnawing at the edge of the hole that is nearest its body using its lower incisors. This means it gnaws from the outside in. Therefore, the row of marks that characterises the wood mouse type of gnawing is absent.
On close inspection of the hawthorn seeds, there were a few marks on the outside but no row of marks as per the wood mouse type of gnawing. The few marks on the outside are likely from the animal first getting into these small but hard seeds. Mostly the edges of the holes were clean as per the bank vole type.
My conclusion was that this was the feeding sign of the bank vole type.
So was it bank voles that left the feeding sign?
There were no obvious droppings in amongst the feeding sign, which might have been able to help us differentiate between species.
Looking at the habitat might be able to narrow it down; deducing which species was most likely to live in this habitat could indicate which species most likely left this feeding sign.
We were walking at about 180m above sea level in open moorland (except for the occasional lone hawthorn tree) but in a relatively sheltered re-entrant.
While bank voles, Clethrionomys glareolus, have been recorded to 800m in Britain, it is said they generally prefer more wooded habitats. The field vole, Microtus agrestis, likes more open country.
Field voles are recorded as having a diet that is almost exclusively grass-based, whereas the bank vole has a more omnivorous diet of nuts, berries, seads, leaves, insects and snails.
Hence, if I had to put money on it, I’d bet on the feeding sign we found to have been left by a bank vole.
But remember this is a logical conclusion based on educated deduction; what we really should do is go back at some stage and stake out the feeding area with binoculars, or better still a spotting scope, to see if we can spot any actual animals: Yet another reason to head back to Cumbria before too long!
I find this kind of natural detective work fascinating. My lifelong love of nature led me down this path of interest.
Tracking skills and the awareness of nature that comes with detailed observation gives you a whole new level of insight. This allows a deeper understanding of the natural environments you visit.
To this end, I think tracking and nature awareness is a core skill-set for anyone interested in taking their bushcraft skills beyond the basics.
I hope this article has also provided some new insight for you. I’d love to hear any thoughts or additional information in the comments below.