Well, we’re ten days into 2009, and so far the only way to describe the year is ‘cold’.
The temperatures have not been much above freezing for two weeks, with night-time temperatures as low as -10 degrees Celsius.
I spent the New Year on the North Wales coast. Normally this part of the country is quite mild, as the sea acts as a huge storage heater and keeps the temperatures up. This year, however, the sand on the beach was frozen solid, and even the rock pools had a thick layer of ice. It was really cold.
Back in Bedfordshire, the weather has been even colder. Since most of our house has no heating we’re regularly having to scrape the ice from the inside of the windows in the morning. We go out each day with a kettle of hot water to defrost the water in the chicken’s drinker, as it freezes solid overnight.
I’m not complaining,
mind you. It’s quite fun to dress up in warm clothes and get outside, and I’d much rather have this sort of cold, clear weather than the murky drizzle we get so often.
Tracking is almost impossible at the moment, as the ground is like stone. I came across a fresh fox track on December 27th, just before the frost started. It is still there today, and looking almost as fresh, fossilised in the hard, icy ground.
The best thing that happened this week was on Monday, when it snowed. It was only a couple of inches or so, but it got me more excited than you can imagine. This is the first snow since I started learning tracking, and I was itching for the opportunity to go out and look at the tracks. I had visions of being able to follow perfect crisp tracks for mile after mile, and to see the full pattern of animal movements written across the snowy ground.
I was working for a long day on Monday, but on Tuesday I managed to get out for an hour or so in the early morning before work. There were already thousands of tracks from the previous 24 hours.
Here’s an easy one to start with. Here’s the tracks of our cat, Mayfield. She was originally a farm cat, and she’s not at all put off by cold weather. Here you can see the print of her back legs as she sat in the snow.
Our local fox has been quite active lately. As long as he keeps away from my chickens then I’m happy to have him around. Since the chickens have a de-luxe high security run (which they still escape from every now and then), there isn’t much danger to them.
Here’s the fox’s tracks. Note that the fox, unlike the dog, has an almost perfect register. This means that the rear feet go into the tracks left by the front feet, so the track looks like they have two feet rather than four. You can see here that there is only slight overlap to show that there are two prints on top of each other.
The vast majority of tracks were from rabbits. In fact, there were so many rabbit tracks that they obscured almost all the others. Here is a classic rabbit track.
The direction of travel in this case is from left to right. The two small prints close together on the left are the front paws, and the larger tracks on the right are the rear paws. When hopping, the rear paws ‘overtake’ the front paws, leaving a track that seems backwards.
Some of these rabbit tracks are quite impressive. Look at the tracks immediately above the stick. There are two sets of rabbit tracks – one at either end of the stick – representing a single bound. Ignore the trail going from bottom left to top left, and the one across the top of the picture.
The direction of travel is from right to left, with the rear paws quite far ahead of the front ones. This rabbit was obviously bounding along at a fast pace. The stride length was 120cm, which is a big distance for a rabbit to travel in mid-air. Actually, the guidebooks give a stride length of 80cm for a rabbit, so this one must have been really sprinting. It may even have been a hare, as hares have strides of up to 250cm, but the tracks themselves looked like the other rabbit tracks, so perhaps I’ve got a record-breaking rabbit on my hands.
Frustratingly, there were no badger tracks in the area. I was longing for the chance to trail a badger through the snow, and to try and build up a picture of it’s nightly movements, but it was not to be. Perhaps badgers don’t like snow. The hard frost would mean that even a badger would find it difficult to dig up food.
I decided to have one last try at finding badger tracks before the snow melted, and after work I set off for the wood where the main badger sett is. I had an idea that I might be able to find tracks in the pasture field, as I know they forage there and I’ve seen them in that area before.
I walked up to the wood at about 10.00pm (I worked late!). The half-moon and the snow on the ground made it quite possible to wander around without a torch. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived, the pasture field had been trodden over by the resident sheep, countless rabbits, and a solitary human. Finding individual tracks was almost impossible.
On the borders of the wood though, I came across a trail that looked right for a badger, and I was able to follow it into the wood itself. There, on the undisturbed snow, were two lines of badger tracks – one going away from the wood and one going back into it.
And there they were – a little distorted, but unmistakeably badger tracks. It seems that only a single badger had been out foraging – the others probably had more sense and stayed warm underground.
I didn’t get the chance to follow badger trails as they wandered across a pristine field of snow, but it was fun to go out and look for them. I hope that we get more snow this winter – ideally at the weekend – so I can go out and spend hours literally following in the footsteps of the wildlife. In the meantime, may the Protector of All Small Beasts look after the animals and birds and see them safely through the cold spell.