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Image for article KEEPING TRACK with Alan Gane MBE

Constant and careful observation are vital to the naturalist, while it is of course also essential to be able to interpret what is seen. Animals leave a variety of signs of their presence and, since so many are nocturnal, such indications are invaluable in telling us what species are around.

'Field craft of this nature Is a great skill and the experts succeed in seeing and interpreting a myriad of signs which most of us would never notice'

Footprints, droppings or ‘scats’, food remains, hair, scent and living quarters all play their part. For example, the entrances to badger setts, which can be quite numerous, are at least 12 inches in diameter and the approaches to them are often trampled paths, clearly defined, through constant use. When collecting bedding in the form of grass or other plant material, a badger gathers it up under the chin and waddles backwards to the sett. A good method, but quite a lot is dropped along the way, leaving a distinct and unmistakeable trail.

George Fisher - Alan Gane MBE - Keeping Track

Similarly, badgers make ‘latrines’, in the vicinity of their setts, small pits dug in the ground in which they deposit their faeces. Again, they are creatures of habit, regularly using the same tracks and if a tree happens to fall across such a route the badger will scramble over the trunk, rather than go around it, and is likely to leave distinct clawmarks in the process.

The red squirrel often adopts a favourite spot at which to extricate the kernels from nuts, or the seeds from pinecones, the debris remaining and clearly indicating that there is a drey in the vicinity.

George Fisher - Alan Gane MBE - Keeping Track

'Droppings or ‘scats’ are also clues, when examined in detail'

Size, shape, colour, scent and content are all important. Size obviously reflects the size of the animal, while teasing apart to examine the contents can reveal much about the animal responsible. Some of the mustelids, such as the pine marten, mink and polecat can be difficult to identify for certain in this way, but the introduction of DNA analysis has solved that problem.

Footprints can be a great help too, especially where clearly imprinted on soft ground or snow. In the case of deer for example, there are distinct differences in both size and shape between red, roe, fallow, and muntjac.

Some birds also leave clues such as droppings and pellets. The peregrine falcon often adopts a ‘plucking post’, a site to which it repeatedly returns with prey, in order to pluck it before carrying to the nest site to feed its partner or young. This results in a substantial patch of feathers often noticeable at some distance, indicating that there is an eyrie in the vicinity.

These and many other signs help to tell us what wildlife there is about, and it is surprising how many clues can be discovered with a little practice.

13 November 2018 by AlanGane

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