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Archive for the ‘Tracking’ Category

Last night – Saturday night – a small herd of fallow deer does crossed the road in front of my car.  Fallow deer are easy to recognise from the car because of their obvious tails and rump patches as they disappear into the hedgerows.  It happened just a few hundred yards from my house, and close to the field where I usually go for my Sunday morning dawn walks.  Knowing that they were in the vicinity gave me a great opportunity to see if I could track them.

Winter field - no tracks here!

Winter field - no tracks here!

On the face of it, it didn’t seem promising for any tracking on Sunday morning.  It rained heavily all night, so much so that severe weather warnings were in force for much of the UK.  Nevertheless, with an effort I got out of bed to find a cold but clear dawn.  The rain had stopped at some point in the early hours.

Much of the field was too wet for clear tracks.  The lower half of the hill is on clay, and was almost underwater, although a few isolated fallow deer tracks were visible, alongside those of the ubiquitous muntjac and Chinese Water Deer.

On the better drained sandy part of the hill it was a different story.  There, spread out before me was the full story of the morning.  A clear line of tracks showed where the deer had crossed the field from the northwest.

The trail of the fallow deer herd

The trail of the fallow deer herd

The deer were walking calmly, as the tracks had a perfect register.  In other words, the rear foot had come down exactly on top of the track of the front foot.  Measuring the stride of the deer gave me a distance of 50cm on average.  This is shorter than the 60cm that the guidebooks suggest, but maybe it’s because my deer were does, or maybe they were not yet fully grown.

The trail of the deer led across the sandy soil and into a pasture field.  Unlike the deer, I respected this as private property, and I walked around to the next arable field where there was a convenient footpath.  I was able to pick up the trail in this field.  The deer had crossed it at an angle, still heading southeast, before crossing the main road and disappearing into the pathless woods beyond.

Fallow deer track - note the perfect register

Fallow deer track - note the perfect register

Fallow deer are not uncommon in the area, but it was quite exciting to be on the trail of a herd, and particularly satisfying as I had seen them the previous night.  If I was a more experienced tracker I’m sure that I could tell a lot from trail like this – how the individuals are spaced out, which one takes the lead, which ones follow behind and so on.  It was quite confusing to have a mass of tracks all together.  As always, there’s so much still to learn, and I’m enjoying every moment of it.

To end on a happy note, there were badger tracks in the field too.  I hadn’t seen any definite badger tracks here since September, and I was beginning to fear that the badger that was making them (I’ve only ever seen one set of tracks at a time) was the road casualty of early October.  Happily though, it seems not, and the badger is back to it’s regular haunts again.  I’ve only ever seen it’s tracks, but it’s kind of an old friend to me now.

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Muntjac

Muntjac

Once again, things are busy at work, and I’ve been all over the country in the last couple of weeks, bringing business psychology to the masses and having little time for wildlife at home.

Today being Sunday though, I had time to get up early and go on my regular ‘dawn patrol’ walk around the fields and woods just as it is getting light.  It’s a great time to be out watching wildlife, and as long as you don’t mind getting out of bed it gives you a whole extra part of the day.

7.00am found me sitting with my back to a tree, looking over a ploughed field.  The usual gaggle of rabbits were out and about, a muntjac peered at me from the hedge, and a large flock of rooks was circling over the woods.  As the light grew though, the main object of interest was a trio of Chinese Water Deer meandering around the field.  Their tawny coats were surprisingly well camouflaged against the sandy soil.

Chinese Water Deer seem to be figuring in my thoughts a lot at the moment.  They seem to be more numerous in the local area than I imagined.  I think some of this has to do with my familiarity with them – a few years ago I would have classed all small deer as ‘muntjac’ and thought no more about it.  Now I can recognise the CWD for what they are and distinguish them easily, and I smile at my past foolishness.

Unfortunately, when it comes to tracking, I’m still quite naive.  I still tend to class all small deer tracks as ‘muntjac’ and think no more about it.  In fact, I’m doing exactly what I used to do with visual sightings.

The problem is, the tracks of muntjac and CWD do look very similar. I could be looking at a field full of what I think are muntjac tracks, and they may actually be CWD.  Or vice versa.  For someone like me, who likes to be accurate, even on meaningless things, this is an important point.

Chinese Water Deer Tracks

Chinese Water Deer Tracks

The classic reference book of tracks, Animal Tracks and Signs, by Bang and Dahlstrom, doesn’t even mention CWD – I suppose they aren’t really common outside the Southeast of England (and China, of course).

The Hamlyn Guide to Animals – Tracks, Trails and Signs, my other preferred guidebook, says that CWD prints are very wide and splayed.  The problem with this is, it’s wrong.  The prints are actually quite small and neat.  I know.  I’ve spent the morning watching the deer and then walking up and looking at their tracks.

So, I’ve got a problem.  It is difficult to tell the deer apart from their tracks alone.

The answer, I think, is to look at the trail as a whole, not at individual tracks.  The trail of an animal is as characteristic as the shape of its feet.  This is the approach recommended by Paul Rezendes in his book Tracking & The Art of Seeing.

This is where my tracking stick starts to come into its own.  A tracking stick is a walking stick used in tracking.  The main use of a tracking stick is to establish the stride length of a given animal, and knowing this, predict where the next track should be.  The tracking stick helps you to narrow down the search area so you can find every single track. I tend to use my tracking stick as more of a simple measuring tool.  I have marked it in 10cm intervals and it has a 10x1cm scale attached.  This allows me to make rough and ready (but reasonably accurate) measurements in the field.

Measuring deer tracks with my tracking stick

Measuring deer tracks with my tracking stick

Here’s the clever part.  Having come across a new set of tracks, I can measure the stride length.  I did this for one trail, and found the strides to be 32cm to 38cm long, with most around the 36cm mark.

Looking at the guidebooks, they give a typical stride length for muntjac as 25-30cm, and for CWD as 30-40cm.   This means that my deer, with a stride length of about 36cm, falls outside the range for muntjac, but well within the range for CWD.  Based on stride length alone, we can say with some confidence that the trail has been made by a CWD rather than by a muntjac.

This is exciting stuff.  Although I would struggle to differentiate between the two deer based only on the shape of their footprints, measuring and comparing stride length makes it quite easy to do.

As with anything, there are complications to using stride lengths and gait patterns to identify a species.  Is the deer running or walking?  Is it full size or half-grown?  And so on.  But I like it as a technique.

An awful lot of the information available about tracking today seems very ‘spiritual’ and mystical.  I have no problem with this, and I respect anyone who can use it in this way, but it is not for me.  I earn my bread and butter as a scientist, and although I like to get away from work as often as I can, I can never quite turn off my scientific reasoning.

This is why I like this measurement approach – it is scientific and can easily be applied and tested (unlike many ideas connected to tracking) and it appeals to my use of data and facts.  I’ll see if I can make more use of it over the coming months.

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It is definitely autumn.  It hasn’t felt like we’ve had much of a summer this year, but the seasons are definitely turning.  The blackberries are in full flow, the leaves are starting to turn on the horse chestnut trees (always the first to get leaves and the first to lose them) and the evenings are drawing in.

Sadly, the badger watching season is coming to an end for me.  Badgers don’t hibernate, so they’ll be out and about all winter, but it is now pretty well dark when they emerge from the sett.  Fine for the badgers, not so fine for badger watching.  I may try and see if I can watch them using an artificial light – red light is not supposed to bother them very much – but I’m always wary of disturbing them.

Today I’ve been for a wander around the woods and fields.  All the summer crops have now been harvested, so everything is looking a bit bare.  No doubt the badgers are hard at work getting in their harvest, eating as much as they can and putting on as much weight as possible for the leaner months ahead.

Badger dung with elderberries

Badger dung with elderberries

The badger dung in one of the latrine sites was dark red and a mass of pips, a sign that at least one badger has been gorging itself on elderberries.  Apparently elderberries are edible for humans, but I’ve tried them and they aren’t very nice.  I’m happy to leave them to the badgers.

I visited the far end of the wood today in search of the neighboring badger setts that I am sure are there, based on my mapping of latrine sites and territories.  Sure enough, about 700m from the main sett I came across what looks very like a badger hole.  This fits in very nicely with my estimate of 350m for the radius of a badger territory.

Unfortunately the rain had washed out any tracks from the vicinity, but the hole looked badger-ish to me.  There were old dung pits nearby, and some fairly well-used paths.  Of course, the only proof would be to go there one evening and see if a badger comes out of it.

The interesting thing is that this is a single hole, compared to the dozen or so holes at the main sett.  There has been a fair amount written about subsidiary setts – setts connected by kinship to a main sett, so I wonder if this is an example.  To be honest, I’ve always found the literature on main, outlying and subsidiary setts a trifle confusing, but I’ve got a reason to go back and re-read it now.  I’ll also try and get down here one evening and see what happens.

The new badger sett

The new badger sett - note the spoil heap and paths

As I was sitting contemplating this new sett, a Chinese Water Deer wandered up.  These are small deer, about the size of a muntjac, but more graceful.  Their most distinctive feature is that they have two long ‘fangs’ or tusks on the upper jaw, which gives them a strange, vampire deer appearance.  My camouflage jacket was obviously working today because this one wandered to within about 15 feet of me.  Chinese Water Deer are less common than the other species around here.  Like so many unusual species they were introduced by the Duke of Bedford in Woburn and subsequently escaped.  Now it’s estimated that the UK has something like 10% of the total world population, so they have obviously become scarce in their native country.

Elsewhere, I’m still practising my tracking.  The field behind my house is great, as the sandy soil is always full of the tracks of rabbit, muntjac and roe deer.  This evening I came across what looked very much like badger tracks.  This in itself is not unusual, but they must have been made this afternoon, as the heavy rain this morning washed out all last night’s tracks.

I'd swear this is the forefoot of a badger - look at the claws - but from the freshness it was made this afternoon

Looks like the forepaw of a badger to me!

Does this mean that my local badger has taken to wandering around in the daytime, or have I misidentified the tracks?  There’s still more work for me to do on my tracking.  If nothing else, it’ll keep me occupied over the winter.

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Just to follow on from the last post, here’s another of the tracks I believe were made by a stoat.

I'm pretty sure it's a stoat track.  Scale in cm.

I'm pretty sure it's a stoat. Scale in cm.

This one was obviously made when the mud was very soft or even under water, as it lacks details of the claws etc. The shape, particularly of the rear pad, is very similar to the stoat tracks in the guidebooks. Of course, if anyone knows more, feel free to leave a comment.

Watch this space. I’ll see if I can get more after the next spell of wet weather. Shouldn’t have to wait too long…!

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As an antidote to my increasingly desparate attempts to watch badgers, I’ve spent the afternoon having a gentle stroll around the area, tracking wildlife and picking blackberries.

Roe Deer track

Roe Deer track

I’m really getting into tracking at the moment. As well as being a fascinating activity in it’s own right, it offers a window into the movements of all sorts of wildlife. I’m still very much a beginner at tracking, but I’m finding it very rewarding. Tracking, I suppose, is a bit like reading. I’m at the stage where I can recognise individual tracks, or words, and I’m just starting to put them together into full sentences. A lot of the skill in tracking comes from looking, really looking, at the little details, and when you start to notice these, the picture starts to come into focus. A walk in the country becomes almost like reading a book of what the animals have been up to.

Let me give you an example. I’ve been able to recognise badger tracks for years, but it’s only in the last couple of weeks that I realised that a badger regularly uses the path down the field behind my house. It walks down the path at the start of the night, and walks back up the path some time later on. It’s an adult badger, and it doesn’t run, it walks at a normal badger pace. I’ve never seen this badger, but I’ve tracked it enough times to know its routine.

Assorted tracks in the mud

Assorted tracks in the mud

The soil in the fields behind my house varies from clay at the bottom of the hill to pure sand at the top, so it’s an excellent place to learn about tracking. The clay soil dries hard, so the animals leave very little trace, but where it is damp it gives very clear prints. Today was dry, but there were pools of mud in the ruts left by a tractor. I spent a happy twenty minutes sitting looking at these.

It may seem like just a patch of mud, but if you spend time really looking, there is a story there waiting to be told – a time capsule of the comings and goings of the wildlife over the last 24 hours. In this one little patch there were the tracks of two Roe deer, several muntjac, a fox, and what I think is a stoat.

Readers of the blog may be aware of my long-standing desire to watch stoats in this area, and my utter lack of success in doing so. One of the reasons that I am so interested in tracking is because it may help me to get closer to these elusive animals, help me to understand the habits better and ultimately to allow me to watch them going about their business.

Like I say, I’m still a beginner. There are lots of unawswered questions still. Where did the stoat go after hopping through the mud? Where does the badger come from before walking down the field? The more I learn, the more I’ll be able to answer these. In the meantime though, tracking makes a walk in the country much more enjoyable, and as the evenings start to close in and it gets too dark for badger watching, I’ll have a new excuse to wander about the field and hedgerows at the weekends.

Possible stoat track

Possible stoat track

For anyone interested in tracking (and I’d recommend it as a pastime to everyone who is interested in wildlife) have a look at Pablo’s tracking pages here. This is what got me started on the whole thing.

I spent a happy couple of hours strolling about, looking at tracks, watching the buzzards soaring overhead and picking blackberries. The blackberries seem very prolific this year, and in a couple of hours yesterday and today I’ve picked about three kilos – enough for another serious jam-making session.

A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon stroll. I just goes to show what there is to be discovered outdoors if you’re willing to go and look for it.

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