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“You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.”

Sherlock Holmes

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Here’s another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of my tracking the stoats in my neighbourhood.  I took a stroll through the field behind my house this evening.  I didn’t see any stoats, and my carefully smoothed patches of loose sand showed no clear tracks.  But I did find something very interesting indeed.  It goes to prove my maxim – ‘there’s always something to see, even when there’s nothing to see’.

What I found was a patch of black feathers, evidently from a crow.

Crow feathers - feeding signThe crow had obviously met a sudden end to have lost this many feathers, presumably from a predator of some sort.  Nothing too unusual there – we have a lot of crows around here.  But can we tell what predator was responsible?

A close look at the feathers gives us a clue.  The quills of many have been bitten off cleanly near the bottom.

Feathers with bitten-off quillsA look through the guidebooks when I got home confirmed my suspicions.  A bird of prey will remove the feathers from a bird that it has killed, but it does so by grasping them in its beak and pulling them out.  The feather gets mangled, but otherwise stays in one piece.  These feathers were bitten off so it was no bird of prey that did this.

Stoat feeding sign on feathersNo, the guidebooks were clear on this point.  Both the Hamlyn Guide and Bang and Dahlstrom agree that bitten-off feathers are the work of a mammal.  According to the Hamlyn Guide ‘Small carnivorous mammals, such as mustelids, bite the feather off so that most of the quill is missing. Larger carnivores pull out mouthfuls of feathers.’  Bang and Dahlstrom go one stage further and have an illustration of a feather that has been bitten off by a stoat (page 159), and it is identical to the ones that I found.  I’m pretty confident based on the guidebooks that a stoat was the culprit here.

Alongside the scats I found the other day, this is more evidence that a stoat  is in residence in this corner of the field.  Sooner or later I’ll catch sight of it.  In the meantime I’m having great fun finding these little signs of its presence.

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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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More Stoats

I have a fascination with stoats.  They are cute, lethal, little predators.  Last Saturday I drove the long way home from the library in town, along the little country lanes rather than the main road.  I’m glad I did, because I came across a stoat on the roadside verge.  It was dancing around in true stoat style, and I got a good, if brief view as I passed.  This was a couple of miles away from my house, but it shows that stoats are active in the area.

This morning, my wife came across a dead stoat at the end of our road – another road casualty.  Being a good wife, she took a picture on her phone and showed it to me (we obviously share an unhealthy interest in roadkill…) and it was definitely a stoat, right down to the black tip on its tail.  Weasels lack this black tip.

It’s a shame, as this is the second stoat killed on the road in this spot that I know about.  On the plus side, it does mean that we have a population in the area.  Despite wandering around here regularly on my Sunday walks I have yet to come across a stoat in it’s natural habitat.  This has to be a definite goal for this year – to find and observe a stoat – even if it means sitting out all day.  Sooner or later I’ll spot one.

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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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Only in silence the word
Only in dark the light
Only in dying life
Bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky

Ursula Le Guin

Regular readers will know that there are two species (apart from badgers) that I have been trying to see in my local area: the Red Kite and the stoat.

Since my wife saw a kite a few weeks ago I’ve been looking out for it, and my failed attempts to find and watch stoats are legendary (see A total absence of stoats).

Today was a beautiful, bright, warm spring day.  I drove out the DIY shop in the afternoon, and as I came back into the village I looked across the fields and there, gliding effortlessly across the sky, was a Red Kite.

It was unmistakeable.   Its primary feathers were splayed out and its forked tail stood out clearly against the blue of the sky as it soared on the warm air.  A magnificent bird.  I allowed myself to feel a little satisfaction at having caught sight of it at last.

Another 500 yards further down the road, and there was a stoat, lying dead in the middle of the road.

Nature can be cruel sometimes.

I parked the car and walked back.  The stoat was in the same place that I had seen one almost a year ago.  It was probably the same stoat.  I suppose I had a hope that it was just stunned.  The body was still warm and there wasn’t a mark on it, but it was quite dead.  It must have been killed no more than minutes before.

I’ve never seen a stoat close up before, and it was a beautiful creature.  Sleek and lithe and every inch the predator.  I somehow felt unwilling to leave it there by the road for the carrion birds – the crows and magpies and yes, the kites – and I took it away and buried it.

I guess this is the great game of nature being played out.  Still, where there’s one stoat there must be more.  I still want to see one, but under happier circumstances.

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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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