Tracks and Signs
|Many animals are active during the night, and most of them leave tracks and signs from which they can be identified, especially in damp conditions during autumn and winter. Along a muddy lane while on a country walk, you may spot badger or fox tracks, or in the woods, scars on tree trunks where bark has been peeled off by a feeding deer. Some signs may be easy to spot, such as mole hills, woodpecker holes and birds nests - whilst others, like a thrushs anvil or a badgers sett are more difficult. Droppings are also a good way to identify what animal has passed through a particular area, as are nibbled pieces of food left by certain species. Observing these clues and building up information from these signs can add a great deal of enjoyment of the natural world around us. Recording signs in a nature diary can be used towards your Gold Awards!|
The presence of owls, night-time hunters, can be found by looking for their pellets. These are undigested remains of small birds or mammals that the owl has regurgitated. If you find a pile of them under a tree, you can be fairly sure that an owl has been roosting above. From these pellets it is possible to find out about the birds diet, and also what types of small animal or bird are living in that area.
A song thrushs main diet is snails. To get to the snail inside the shell, the bird has to crack them open. It does this by taking the shell in its beak and hammering it onto a hard surface, usually a stone. This is known as a thrushs anvil and you will be able to recognise it as a stone surrounded by cracked, empty snail shells.
The badger has poor eyesight, but very good hearing and a powerful sense of smell. It uses its tough snout as a shovel for digging up food lying close to the surface. Disturbed grass and soil are therefore a good sign of badger feeding activity.
Another sign of badger activity is the chance find of a sett, the badgers home. If it is in woodland, tree roots will be exposed at the entrance and the shape of the hole takes on the curved shape of the badgers back. Signs that the sett is in use will be fresh trodden earth around the entrance and the absence of spider-webs across the hole. A well-worn pathway leading from the sett is also a good indicator that badgers are using the sett. Remember that both badgers and their setts are protected by law. Find out more about badgers on the fact page
Latrines are another sign of badger activity. Badgers are very clean creatures and so they dig out small pits, away from the sett, where they leave their dung and urine. If you want to know what a badger has been eating, have a close look at the dung that has been left. Soft dung may indicate a meal of earthworms, whereas jelly-like droppings, usually found in the autumn, show a meal of berries and fruit.
Footprints also show where a badger has been. They have five toe pads and a bar-shaped main pad. Their hind feet often step into the forefeet tracks or are very close. To make sure that the prints you are looking at are those of a badger, have a look for other signs near to the prints. Long grey hairs may be caught on bushes or fences or old cowpats may have been turned over where the badger has been looking for beetle larvae.
Hedgehogs are common garden visitors and most people will know if they are coming into their garden as they usually feed them. But if you are not sure whether you have them in your garden or you are trying to spot them in the countryside, there are various which may help. Sound is a good sense to use when observing hedgehogs. When it is dark and you suspect that a hedgehog may be in the area, you may hear it feeding. Loud crunching noises may indicate that a beetle is being devoured, or slobbery, lip smacking may mean that something soft like a slug or worm is being eaten.
Droppings are another indicator of hedgehog activity. They often leave behind finger-sized black droppings, on lawns. These glisten which shows that the hedgehog has fed on beetles.
Footprints of hedgehogs in mud or soft soil also indicate activity. You will need to look very carefully, as they are rather small. Hedgehog paws have five toes on each foot, with the hind feet being narrower than the forefeet. The tracks will show the forefoot just in front of the hind foot and both feet are roughly the same length. Find out more on the hedgehog fact page.
Snow is also an ideal way of seeing animal tracks. The best time to see tracks is after a moderate snowfall that has slightly frozen. Cold weather is also a time when many animals are hungry, so activity will be increased and there will be plenty of tracks to spot and identify. Foxes leave tracks during the winter, their footprints are the first thing you may spot. Foxes have four toes on each foot and a slightly curved pad and their tracks are in a straight line. To make sure that the print you are looking at is that of a fox, you could use a book to check, or look for other signs in the area. Brown/red hairs caught on bushes or fences can indicate a fox, as can scent. Foxes are territorial and mark these territories with a very strong, pungent smell, which is distinctive and is a good indicator of fox activity. Click here to go to the fox fact page.
Use of English Nature copyright line drawings gratefully acknowledged. Text taken from Leicestershire County Council's Environment and Heritage Services Fact sheet with thanks.