Search This Blog

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Applied Bushcraft (1): Tracking and identifying animal signs. Just for fun or still useful?

'Probably not a bear, maybe a dog?'

Here is Richards first Bushcraft Education article all about tracking and identifying animal signs.

Many a parent could relate to the following exclamation, heard on hundreds of muddy British footpaths frequented by dog walkers:
‘Mummy, Mummy! A BEAR footprint!!’

We all have to start somewhere. For many people today ‘tracking’ is simply a fun distraction to be casually ‘played’ at while out in the countryside, and there is nothing wrong with this. Pointing out animal tracks or signs to youngsters is a great way to engage them with the animal world which they get only rare glimpses into. British mammals are largely nocturnal or at least very secretive and therefore rarely seen (with the possible exceptions of Grey Squirrels and Rabbits), especially by those for whom a trip to the outdoors is a rare occurrence.

If we rewind a few thousand years however, these skills would have been anything but casually taught.  They would have been an essential component of the ‘Hunter-Gatherers Primary Education Curriculum’ (please allow me a modicum of artistic licence here). In this era the ability to interpret tracks and signs would have enabled our forebears to understand what species used an area and to some extent how they used it (for food, water, shelter, as a migration route, etc.). It would have allowed hunting trips to be more targeted, ambushes better placed, and successful kills more common. This literally could have been the difference between life and death for a family group. This ability to interpret signs, along with the ability to make and use weapons, singled out humans as the ultimate predator. Later these same skills misused unfortunately led to less innocent episodes in our history when species were exploited, sometimes to extinction.

To many in ‘developed’ nations it may seem these skills are dead; a historical relic, or at least an unnecessary skill - indigenous tribes around the world would disagree, many still practising the sort of tracking skills which feed families rather than just interest infants. Even in cultures where tracking your food rarely goes beyond a supermarket shelf, these skills are still used and still useful, especially for ecologists and conservationists. In a short blog post it is not my aim to teach anyone to track - there are plenty of books written by people far more expert than me. But the following brief introduction to how the ancient and largely unchanged skill of tracking (and everything that goes with it) is still used in modern day science and conservation I hope will inspire some people to give it a try.

(The following examples are all focussed on UK species, while there will be some overlap with species found elsewhere I’m afraid my experience of these is limited at best).

1) Tracks and signs to indicate the presence of specific species:
Badger track on a muddy path (above)
Mink tracks on a river bank (below)
Using tracks or other signs to establish the presence of a particular species is a hugely useful skill for ecologists, especially those studying or protecting endangered and declining species (e.g. otter, water vole, hedgehog) or monitoring problem species (e.g. high populations of deer, invasive species such as mink, and predators such as foxes). The most useful indicators will be different for different species and generally speaking many of these skills are most relevant to mammals. Books could be and have been written on this subject, below are just some examples:

Tracks - The most commonly thought of element of tracking. For example, Mink tracks on muddy river banks are often the first visual indication of their presence. Deer tracks at the point they cross a ditch or push through a hedge can indicate where they access an area of woodland. In winter searching in fresh snow is often a great way to see what has been out and about recently. At other times of year a simple sand trap or just checking in areas of soft mud can reveal a lot about what animals use the area. Mammals, especially large or medium sized mammals are most likely to leave noticeable tracks of this type, lighter species don’t have the weight to leave tracks except in very soft areas.

Droppings - Water vole and otter surveys among others are heavily reliant on finding latrines (water vole) or 'spraint' (otter) to establish whether the species in present. Many mammal species use droppings as a means of marking their territory, placing them in obvious visual positions on a distinctive feature (e.g. foxes) or in a latrine (e.g. badgers). Droppings under trees or other structures can give away favoured roosting areas for birds. Owl pellets, while not strictly droppings, provide a range of information including their diet if you prise them apart and identify what the owl was eating.

Burrows and Holes - Badger setts provide definitive proof of badger presence (assuming the sett is active) but more importantly give an indication of a territorial midpoint: with wide ranging territories badger footprints or latrines may be some distance from the sett. Once you’ve found a badger sett or maybe a fox earth, or other burrow, it may give you a good opportunity to set up a sand trap or camera trap or some other monitoring tool to see how much activity there is. Holes in old trees may house a bat roost, and a tell-tale dribble of dark liquid (urine) can sometimes give these away. Not only mammals use burrows: Kingfishers dig tunnels into high muddy river banks and again their activity is sometimes given away by a white streak of guano below the hole.

Feeding Sign - These signs are often far more difficult to identify, and certainly harder to pin to a specific species. Some are obvious; badgers digging up bluebell bulbs or wild boar rooting in fields or under trees, or even beavers gnawing on trees - there are only so many species which could leave that sign! The less obvious signs are more likely to be used as supporting evidence of a species presence, rather than in isolation: looking at water voles again, food stashes consisting of pieces of vegetation, nibbled off at 45o are useful supporting evidence to their presence along with burrows and latrines. Other times feeding sign may just hint at possibilities: in a suitable area of woodland, plucked feathers beneath a high up perch or a post may indicate the presence of a Goshawk (although more commonly Sparrow Hawk). For feeding signs of predators, being able to identify the prey species (from its remains, feathers or fur, broken eggshells or pieces in droppings or pellets) may be able to give you an idea of the likely predator, with indications of a particular feeding style refining your educated guess. An understanding of what species are likely to be encountered in that particular habitat can help to narrow even further the list of potential ‘suspects’.
Harvest Mouse nest.

Nests - Some species nests are very difficult to tell apart, others are very distinctive. Long tailed tits create stunning balls of moss tied together with spiders’ webs and stuffed with feathers! Harvest mice nests, woven carefully from grass leaves in an area of tall grass, crops or reeds can only really mean one resident. Failing being able to identify the nest itself, if you come across a nest with eggs or young already in it these are likely to be recognisable as a certain species, although any unnecessary disturbance should be avoided.

Fur, Feathers etc. - Again a good understanding of which species are likely to be present is useful when using these indications. Hairs caught on barbed wire fences, shed feathers under roosting sites, sloughed reptile skin; all can give useful indicators if not of a specific species, then at least that the area is used, and by what sort of animals. Carcases, whether as a result of predation or road kill or any other reason are brilliant indications of a species presence for ecologists, although require little in the way of tracking knowledge and skill.

In all of these endeavours remember not to be too carried away, especially to begin with, about always wanting to 100% sure, enjoy the fact there is a little mystery sometimes. I found a sloughed snake skin on a heathland last summer and immediately assumed it must be an adder because of the habitat - a few months later when I finally got around to confirming my find with an on-line UK Reptile Skin Guide (Google is a wonderful thing & I’m far from a reptile expert) it turned out to be a grass snake, a species I assumed not to be present because of how dry the site was!

2) Tracks in association with technology:
Technological advances have changed the face of species monitoring. Camera traps, night vision and thermal imaging once the preserve of well-funded researchers  can all be had now by the public (although Thermal Imaging equipment is still very expensive). However, all these technologies are useless if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Recognising tracks, well used animal paths (see the below video of a Chinese Water Deer on a very well defined game trail on farmland in East Anglia), oft used feeding areas or ‘home addresses’ will enable camera traps to be placed where they have the best possible chance of capturing the target species, or indeed any species!

Tracking is also useful with less advanced but equally useful monitoring methods. Low tech but very effective methods of monitoring include ink traps and mink rafts. Both work on a similar principle, comprised of a tunnel into which animals are attracted. With a mink raft a moist clay pad is used to record footprints and the natural curiosity of mink is relied upon to attract them into the tunnel on a floating raft.  An ink trap comprises a plastic tunnel with an ink pad and a piece of paper - as small, and slightly larger, mammals enter to find the bait they walk across the ink and record their tracks on the paper. Good identification of small mammal tracks is essential to accurately identify which species have used the tunnel. That’s where the books come in!

The uses for the ‘ancient art’ (or maybe not) of tracking listed here can be practised by anyone, almost anywhere (inner city pavements aren’t the best for footprints I concede). A basic knowledge of habitats, species and behaviour are all you need to get started in meaningful tracking, spotting the tracks or signs is just the start; the really interesting stuff is in interpreting what you see. Books with good information on these topics, from beginner to expert, are widely available and place this sort of investigative natural history in the realms of any and every one!  And the days when you find that track you just can’t figure out, or that feather you just can’t place, give you an excuse to spend another day in the woods… or maybe to buy a camera trap, to try and figure out the riddle. Enjoy!


Just one word of caution: while these skills are fun as well as real world science, and the opportunity to see oft secretive species is thrilling, it must be remembered that there are many species protected by law which must be observed, including several of the species mentioned (e.g. bats, badgers). The level of protection varies but with some species even disturbing the animals or their resting place is an offence. Stumbling across a badger sett is one thing, returning to clear half an acre of bracken and small trees so your camera trap has a good view is not a great idea, and most likely illegal. Birds have typically even more protection than mammals, indeed all UK birds species are protected by law to some degree. This must always be born in mind before you get too close, or return to often.

For those who would like more information on protected species click on this link to the JNCC (Joint Nature Conservation Committee) webpage on protected species (for the UK).  

Bushcraft Education Videos