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Posts Tagged ‘snow’

Snowy woodsI’ve mentioned this before, but the village I live in has a connection to some of the most courageous polar expeditions in history.  The frozen ends of the earth are a long way from our green fields and woods and hedgerows, but I like to think I’m keeping the polar tradition alive by going outside every time it snows.

It snowed a couple of weeks ago and I was looking forward to going out tracking, but unfortunately it all melted by the weekend and I didn’t get the chance.  Today, however, we’ve had another good fall of snow – four inches or so in the space of the afternoon.  The whole of the UK has once again ground to a halt (it took Mrs BWM three and half hours to drive home from London today, on what is normally a one hour journey) but I’m happy.  It’s snowed, it’s Saturday, it’s time to go out tracking.

It’s been a while since I’ve been outdoors, so it felt good to take out my camouflage jacket, put on my walking boots and pick up my tracking stick from its place behind the back door.  It sounds odd, but I always enjoy walking in winter.  There is a satisfaction in getting dressed up and going out into the cold, meeting the challenge of the conditions.  As luck would have it, I bought myself a new piece of kit on Thursday – a windproof fleece balaclava.  I suspect it makes me look even more scary than usual, but it really does keep my ears and neck warm.

The temperature tonight was minus 3 or so, which meant that the snow was still fresh and powdery, the snow-covered fields eerily bright in the moonlight, almost as clear as day. I  headed up to the pasture field in the hope of tracking the badgers there.  I’ve had some fascinating times following the badger trails here – following the tracks of badgers for hundreds of yards and seeing how the trails interact with each other.  The snow provides a wonderful record of badger behaviour that would normally be invisible.

BWM in heroic 'Polar Explorer' pose.  Note the smart new balaclava.

BWM in heroic 'Polar Explorer' pose. Note the smart new balaclava.

Alas, tonight did not reveal anything about badger behaviour.  In fact, there were no badger tracks at all.

A few rabbit tracks, and the fresh trail of a fox trotting across the footpath, but no badgers.  I was out at 9.00 to 10.00pm, so perhaps the badgers had not come out yet.  It might be the case that they are staying underground at the moment – I know that badgers will venture out and forage in snow, but this snow comes after a few days of hard frost.  A hard frost makes it much harder for the badgers to dig for worms, so it may be that the frozen ground has had more of an effect on them than the snow.  I’ll go out again tomorrow and see if there have been any new tracks overnight.

Even without badger tracks it was still a fine night to be out.  Despite the chaos that it brings, I hope we get more snow.  If it carries on into next week I’d like to build an igloo in the garden and really make the most of it.

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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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