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Summer sunsetIf you’re looking at this page in the hope of reading about badgers, I’m sorry.  I’m afraid I’ve been very busy lately.  We had Scarlett’s Christening on Sunday, and a very pleasant day it was too, but it did take a certain amount of time in preparation.  I haven’t had a chance to see how the badgers are doing lately.  All I had time for over the weekend was a gentle stroll in the field behind my house.

The field behind my house is in most respects an ordinary field, much as you would find anywhere in lowland Britain.  It is a big field, about a quarter of a mile on each side.  A road runs up the south side, a hedgerow and a footpath on the west, another footpath and a small copse on the north. The hedges are interspersed with grand old oak trees.  My house and garden is on the east.  The hill is on a low rise, the soil on the lower slopes being sand with clay; on the higher slopes it is almost pure sand.  At the moment the field is under oil seed rape, but it was under wheat last year.

It’s an ordinary field – you probably drive past hundreds just like it – but it’s special to me because it is next to where I live.  More than that, though, I’m always surprised by the wildlife that either lives in or passes through it.  I regularly track a badger that walks a beat up the northern path.  The edges of the field are home to numerous rabbits, and the runs and latrines of voles can be found in many places.  Chinese Water Deer are common inhabitants (invisible now that the rape has grown up) as are muntjac near the hedgerows.  A herd of fallow deer passes through every week or two, and we even have the odd roe deer, quite a rare species here in Bedfordshire.

This is what makes it special.  It’s an ordinary field but I’m starting to learn its secrets.  I’d recommend this to anyone.  Find a local patch, even if it’s in a park or a piece of scrub, and keep visiting it.  I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the wildlife it holds.

It’s been gloriously sunny for almost three weeks now.  The ground is parched (as is my vegetable garden) and baked hard.  A better tracker than me, or one with more patience, could maybe track animals in the dust, but I had neither the time nor the skill on Sunday evening.  I think I’ll have to get out one evening and just spend an hour or so lying down and looking at the ground.  I’ve found that when tracking it always takes me a little while to ‘get my eye in’.  It isn’t something you can rush.  The neighbours will think I’m even more mad than usual, but an evening of lying in a field sounds quite enjoyable at the moment.

One thing that I did come across on my stroll was quantities of dung.  I suppose I should use the correct tracker’s term and call it scat.  Usually I only see the scat of rabbits, voles and foxes in this field.  Fox scat is quite distinctive because they tend to leave it in conspicuous places as a territorial marker – on a rock, a molehill or a tuft of grass.  But on Sunday I came across some new scat that I hadn’t seen before.  The scale in the pictures is in cm.

Unknown scat 1

It was from a carnivore.  You tell that by the thin shape and the pointed ‘tail’ at the end.  It was similar in shape to a fox’s, but much smaller.  There were five or six individual droppings spread out over an area of a few square yards at the top of the field.

Unknown scat 2Taking a stick, I teased one apart (first dead polecats, now poo.  I get through so much anti-bacterial handwash you wouldn’t believe it!)  The scat was composed entirely of hair.  It looked like rabbit hair to me.  There were no bones, so whatever made it hadn’t been eating mice or voles.  I’d expect to find bone fragments if they had.

Unknown scat 3Why so much fascination with animal poo?  OK – follow my reasoning here.

The animal that left these was a carnivore.  It was significantly smaller than a fox, and it had been eating rabbit regularly.  I’m familiar with domestic cats, and it didn’t come from one of those.  This narrows it down to one of the small mustelids – weasel, stoat or polecat.  There are no other possible predators it could be from.

Weasels will eat rabbits, but they more commonly prey on mice and voles.  Since there were no mouse or vole bones in the scats I examined, I think we can rule out weasel.  Besides, they were a bit big for a weasel scat.

That leaves polecat or stoat as the only serious candidates.  Both of these will take rabbits regularly, particularly stoats.  The Hamlyn Guide to Animals – Tracks, Trails & Signs has this to say about stoat scat:

‘Dark, irregular and elongated.  They are 4-8cm long and there are characteristic twists of fur at each end of the faeces, which are coiled and twisted within themselves.  They have a strong, musty smell when fresh but weather to an odourless grey with time.  They contain a wide variety of mammal, bird and reptile remains’

And polecats:

‘Slightly coiled, often twisted and with tapering ends.  Up to 7cm long, about 0.5cm in diameter.  Contain bone and fur fragments.  Often in regular latrines’.

Very interesting. Either of these could fit the bill perfectly.  My money would be on the stoat, simply because they are much more common than polecats.  I’ve been fascinated by stoats for ages, and I’ve love to get a good look at one.  Based on the evidence, it seems that I’ve at least one stoat resident in the field behind my house.

And this is the point of this post really.  It shows what can be discovered if you’re patient and prepared to look.  I had a gentle stroll on a summer evening and by the end of it I had strong evidence of stoats in the neighbourhood.  OK – I had to sift through a certain amount of animal poo to find it, but it was there.  Now I have a spot I can focus on and hopefully get to see the stoat properly one day.  As I always say, the wildlife is out there.  It’s just a question of finding enough pieces of the jigsaw.

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After I described my roadkill polecat (I’ve had it confirmed as a ‘pure’ polecat by the County Mammal Recorder, by the way) Pablo took the time to comment, saying “I suppose you didn’t take its pawprints before you disposed of it?

Pablo – I like the way you think!

As a tracker you get used to seeing partial or distorted prints, and for many of the rarer ones you’re never quite sure what made them.  The chance to get perfect prints from a known species is too good to pass up.  Well, I didn’t take pawprints but I was on the same wavelength as Pablo.  I took pictures instead.

Here, for the record, is what a polecat’s paws look like.  Here’s the fore paw:

Polecat fore (front) paw

Polecat fore (front) paw

Here’s the hind paw:

Polecat hind (rear) paw

Polecat hind (rear) paw

Note the five toes on each foot.  Polecats are members of the mustelid family, just like badgers, and they share the same basic foot structure.

Here’s a badger foot for comparison:

Badger fore paw

Badger fore paw

So, now we know what we’re looking for, it’s time for us all to go out and start looking out for polecat tracks.  That’s the beauty of tracking – it allows you to find out about the local wildlife without needing to see the animals yourself.  It’s a great tool for the naturalist to have.

I’ll keep you posted on my results.

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The weekend before last I went out into the snow, and amongst the tracks were a set that puzzled me.  The gait was very like a rabbit or a squirrel – a bounding gait with all four paws together in a group.  The size as very small though – bigger than a mouse (and a mouse wouldn’t bound) and yet much smaller than a rabbit or even a squirrel.

I have been consulting the guidebooks and I think I have a suspect.  Bang and Dahlstrom’s Animal Tracks and Signs has this to say about stoat tracks “Walking prints are very rare, as they move exclusively by jumping.  On reasonably hard ground, such as solid snow, the tracks in jump groups may be four and four, often similar to a small hare.”   The Hamlyn Guide to Animal Tracks, Trails and Signs, adds that the stride length for a bounding stoat is typically 30cm.  Weasel tracks are smaller with a stride of 25-30cm.

Tentative stoat tracks in snow

Tentative stoat tracks in snow

The stride length of my tracks is about 20cm, so a little short, but otherwise the size and gait fits a stoat or weasel.  I can’t find anything else that fits the tracks, so at the moment I’m settling for stoat or weasel as a tentative i.d.

This is exciting stuff.  I have a thing about stoats (and weasels).  I’ve only ever seen these secretive little mustelids a few times, and any evidence that they’re at large in the area is good news for me.

I must be the only person in Britain at the moment wishing for more snow so that I can go and look for more tracks…

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I’ve been away for a while with work, so I’m late catching up with my correspondence.  Sheila, Rick and Mrs B – thank you for your comments and apologies for being so slow in replying.  I always enjoy hearing about other people’s experiences, so please keep them coming.

Somewhat accidentally, I now have an international perspective to the blog.  Steve has been kind enough to send pictures from the New York/New Jersey border.  He found the tracks after sighting a fox near his house.

Mystery Snow Tracks

Mystery Snow Tracks

The problem is, they don’t look like fox tracks to me, at least not the familiar British fox tracks.   Fox tracks are small and neat and diamond-shaped.  These are hand-shaped.

I’m not an expert on North American wildlife, but the closest match I can find in the guidebooks is Raccoon tracks.  Does this make sense?  Do you get Raccoons in northern New Jersey?  Do they walk around people’s houses?

This is just my best guess.  If anyone has any other ideas, please do let me know.

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For the past week the country has been gripped in a little ice age.  An area of high pressure has settled over Britain, trapping cold air and snow, blocking out the prevailing warm south-westerly winds.  Temperatures as low as -20c have been recorded (my family in Cheshire experienced -14c) coupled with up to a foot of snow.  Predictably, the whole country has ground to a frozen halt.

Personally, the only problem I have with the snow is that I haven’t had enough time to go out and play in it.  Unlike this time last year (see Fieldnotes: 4th-10th January 2009), I’m limited by work and family commitments.  It’s one thing to go out and freeze myself following badger tracks in the snow.  It’s another thing entirely to do it while carrying a five month old baby!  Back in the old days I’d have packed up a tent and sleeping bag and headed out into the woods, just for the challenge of it.  Can’t really justify that now.

Nevertheless, today I drew upon Mid-Bedfordshire’s tradition of polar exploration (there is one, honestly) and went out into the snow to see what is happening.

Here’s some new tracks to have a look at.  These are squirrel tracks.  I watched the squirrel as it bobbed around in our garden and then went out to look at the tracks.  The pattern is similar to that of a rabbit – the same bounding gait – but smaller.

Squirrel Tracks in Snow

Squirrel Tracks in Snow

I walked on up to the pasture field to look for evidence of the badgers.  The snow last year was a priceless help in deepening my understanding of badger habits and how the local territories interacted.  This year the picture was much more confused.  There was almost a weeks worth of tracks, of animals and humans, and recent falls of snow have complicated matters still further.  Nevertheless, it was possible to trace the movements of individual badgers.  Clearly visible were the patches where they had dug through the snow into the soil.  I couldn’t see any dung, so I assume it was for food.  Badgers don’t hibernate, but they do slow down.  It’s a useful thing to know that badgers will still come out and forage, even in these extreme weather conditions.

Badger Snuffle Hole in Snow

Badger Snuffle Hole in Snow

Inside the wood there was more evidence of badger activity.  I didn’t get to visit the sett itself (like I said, there is a limit to how far I’ll take my daughter in these conditions – sturdy girl though she is) but I did add a few more snippets to my badger map of the area.  The wood is criss-crossed by paths, but it is difficult to know for sure that they are badger paths. Very often the only tracks you’ll find on them are for deer.  Today, however, there were clear badger tracks, showing that these are indeed badger paths.  I’ve tried to follow them in the past, as I suspect they lead to the almost mythical ‘third sett’ in the area, but I’ve always lost the paths among the trees.  If the snow persists I’ll have the perfect chance to follow them to their source.

Badger Tracks in Snow

Badger Tracks in Snow

The snow told other stories too.  There were plenty of fox tracks in the field.  They all converged on a post where the foxes had obviously scent-marked.  Just like dogs, I guess.  It’s all part of the territory marking.  Foxes will tend to leave dung in exposed places such as tufts of grass for the same reason.  It’s a nice little insight into fox behaviour.

Fox Tracks and Scent-Marking Post

Fox Tracks and Scent-Marking Post

Lastly, here’s a bit of a mystery.  These tracks were in the middle of the field.  It’s a bounding gait again, with the tracks in groups of four like a rabbit or squirrel, but only a few centimetres across.  The individual prints were not visible in the snow, but the gait can be more revealing.  Something the size of a mouse would surely have burrowed under the snow, not bounded over it.  I’ll need to look this one up, but in the meantime any ideas are welcome.

Unidentified Tracks in Snow

Unidentified Tracks in Snow

Hope you’re making the most of the snow too!

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Snowy landscape in BedfordshireLast year I had the opportunity to visit Toronto, in Canada, on a fleeting business trip.  I must say, it’s a very nice city and the people were wonderful.  But one thing puzzled me.  The whole downtown area was connected by miles of subways.  It was possible to walk from one side of the city to other, to shop, to eat, to sit and drink coffee – all underground. It’s a strange subterranean world.  When I commented on this architectural oddity to a local resident she just gave me a knowing look. “When you have six feet of snow for six months of the year, why would you want to walk outside?”

This seems to me to be a very sensible way of dealing with a harsh climate. Unfortunately in Britain we have neither the common sense nor the fortitude of the people of Toronto.  The South East of England received 10-20cm of snow this week and, predictably, everything ground to a halt.  I don’t know whether all the stressed-out workers are looking for any excuse to take a day off or whether we’ve lost any sort of self-reliance,  but either way it’s a pretty poor show.

And me? I love snow.  I like nothing better than getting out and exploring after a decent fall of snow, and since I became interested in tracking I like it even more.  Tracks in the snow offer a real window into what’s been happening, what animals have been out and what they have been doing.  Naturalists have used all sorts of techniques to record the movements of wild animals, from radio transmitters to long pieces of string.  A couple of inches of snow will do the same job in a much more interesting way.

On Saturday I wrapped Scarlett in her warmest clothes and headed out.  I couldn’t take her too far, but we had a nice walk around the fields.  Long enough for me to show her the common tracks in the area.

Here’s the most common – rabbit tracks.  Every now and then I come across someone who says they’ve found strange and enormous paw prints, but what they’ve seen is not the marks of giant toes but the tracks of all four feet of a rabbit.

Rabbit tracks in snowRabbit tracks

Which way was the rabbit travelling?  That’s right – left to right.

There seemed to be a lot of fox tracks around.  We live in an area where there is a lot of rearing (and shooting) of game birds, so foxes are not exactly popular.  We used to see far more of them when we lived in London.

Fox tracks are small, neat and diamond-shaped, with four toes and a heel pad.  Notice how the small heel pad forms a straight line at the back of the track, almost like a straight bar.

Fox track in snow

Fox track

It can be easy to confuse fox tracks with those of dogs.  Most dog tracks are broader than fox’s, with the toes more widely-spread.  The heel pad is usually larger too.

Dog track in snow

Dog track - note the wider shape and the spread of the toes

However, dogs come in all shapes and sizes.  Some dogs are bigger than others.  The tracks of small, terrier-like dogs can look very similar in shape to fox tracks.   The way to tell them apart is the spacing between the front and rear toes.  Look at the fox track again.  The front toes are forward of a line drawn across the ends of the rear toes.  In a dog, the front toes overlap with this line.

Fox track - key features

Fox track - front toes forward of rear ones

Another quick way of telling fox and dog tracks apart is to look at the trail – the series of tracks.  Fox trails always seem to be very purposeful.  Foxes seem to walk in a straight line, one track in front of another.  The tracks have a direct register, in other words the fox puts its hind feet into the tracks of its front feet.  To the novice, it can look as if the fox is walking on its hind feet like a human.

Dog tracks, on the other hand, don’t quite register, so you’ll get front and rear tracks close to each other but not quite overlapping.  Dogs don’t seem to have the same sense of purpose as foxes – dog tracks will often meander around as the dog wanders this way and that.  With a bit of practice you can tell dog tracks from fox tracks without having to look closely at the individual prints.

The temperature hasn’t risen much above freezing all weekend, so hopefully the snow will last for a while yet.  That suits me fine.  Tracking in snow is absolutely fascinating.  Put it this way, if I lived in Toronto I’d happily venture above ground to spend months tracking the local wildlife.

Snowy woods

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Things have been a little quiet around here since we’ve got the new addition to the family.  Scarlett and I have been out for a few walks already, but I’ll wait until she’s settled into more of a routine before I get back to any serious badgerology.  In the meantime, here’s a post from the vaults.

This is a short essay on setting up a track trap in my garden.  This is a simple and fun thing that anyone can do to try tracking in any small space.  The originally appeared as a discussion on the Tracking Group of the Woodlife Network, but if you’re not a member of the network (and it’s highly recommended to anyone interested in the subject) hen you may be interested in seeing it here.

I’m quite fond of hedgehogs, but we rarely get them around here. When I found some hedgehog poo in the garden in June this year I was quite pleased. It would be good to get a resident hedgehog around the place.

Hedgehog poo

I bought myself some hedgehog food to try and entice the urchin to stay, but the problem is that it might get eaten by birds (or by my cat – she does things like that). How would I know that the hedgehogs had been eating it and not some other animal?

Hedgehog food

I decided to set up a track trap – in other words I would place the food so that whatever eats it will have to leave their tracks. I’m going to make them work for their supper by leaving me tracks in return.  This is an established technique for unobtrusively identifying and monitoring animals.

First I took an 18″ square plastic tray. We use these trays in the greenhouse to put plants in.

18 inch tray

I added a 2″ deep layer of moist sand. I used silver sand from the garden centre because I’m lazy, but I could have just dug some sand or soil out of the ground. If you want really high definition you could use damp clay, but I was happy with sand. It’s cleaner too.

Add the sand

I smoothed the sand off with a piece of wood.

Smooth the sand

This will make sure that any tracks show up.

Nice and smooth

And finally I placed bowls of food and water in the centre of the tray.

Track trap baited with food and water

And there it was – a completed track trap. Any animal or bird that eats the food would leave its prints in the soft sand. The only drawback of using the tray is that it may prevent very small animals from reaching the food, but that suits me since the aim was to feed the hedgehogs.

The next morning I rushed out to see if there were any hedgehog tracks.  It was actually quite exciting – there was a real sense of anticipation.

The track trap had worked perfectly, but sadly there was no sign of a hedgehog.  The only tracks were from my own cat.

Cat tracks 1

Cat tracks 2

The fact that the cat tracks showed up so clearly did at least demonstrate that the trap was an effective way to identify the animal that had eaten the food.  I consoled myself with the fact that at least the cat hadn’t used it as a litter tray!

There was no sign of the hedgehog the next day either.  Nor the day after that.  In fact, after three weeks, the only tracks I found in the trap were from the cat, blackbirds, slugs and a squirrel.  No hedgehogs.

It seems that the hedgehog had left my garden.  Apparently, hedgehogs can walk for up to two miles in a single night, so it is quite possible that it was covering a large area.

Not discouraged, I continued to put the hedgehog food down.  Eventually, after two months, my patience was rewarded.  I finally got hedgehog tracks in my hedgehog track trap!

Hedgehog Track

Hedgehog Track 2

OK, so it was a long wait to get tracks from what is, after all, quite a common animal.  But that’s not the point.  I set out to deliberately target a particular species based on its tracks, and in the end it worked.  The trap was fun to make, and it gave me the chance to collect and study animal tracks in the comfort of my own garden.  It’s a simple technique that anyone can use, and one that can be applied in the field too.

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