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Tracking

 

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Tracking

" A person skilled in tracking can consider himself as having reached the pinnacle of bushcraft "

 (Lt.Col. Ron Reid-Daly CO Selous Scouts)

The skills, the courses, and workshops ... and a word about the discipline needed

Introduction

If you are an outdoorsman, or woman, and you genuinely spend time observing, and want to find out more about your environment, you will, sooner or later, start tracking - without even realising you are doing it. And 'waking up' one day suddenly aware that you're an interpreter of animal movements by looking at sign and spoor etc, is a revelationary thing. Becoming a tracker naturally as opposed to forcing oneself to 'get into it' is the better way to start. Being one who moves freely, contentedly, and aware through the natural world, tracking is just another way to find out about the life around you - it allows you to see the landscape through the eyes of the animal....the fox or the badger, or the roe deer. But be certain of this: once you start you'll never stop looking at the ground !

I wouldn't call myself a Master Tracker although I've been tracking - and teaching tracking for nigh on 25 years, mainly in deciduous woodland, boreal forest, mountain environments, and in the sub-Arctic. I look, and get satisfaction out of piecing together who's been here, what's been here, what they've been doing, and which way they went....  I originally learnt from Eddie McGee, but more from friendly demonstration rather than classroom 'this is how to do it'. I find I can 'see' a lot in a view / landscape, however small scale it is.

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Shawnee First Nation Americans check: Friend or Foe?

Circa 1754

(Painting:  © Robert Griffing)

Tracking is one of the oldest skills of mankind, necessary, critical, and essential to his well-being, in that he followed food; later he also followed the tracks of his enemies - a skill that has been needed in various parts of the world up until the 21st century. We tend to think of only animals when tracking is mentioned - but a skilled tracker in say the French-Indian Wars of North America in the mid 18th century was a prized possession.

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We need to consider our powers of observation, where we would start to learn tracking, and what our motivation is. This may be for hobby, for trapping, for science, or even for law enforcement. If you are starting out - then take your time to learn.....it will be worth it.

Once you can 'see', the habits of animals need to be learnt, but don't 'run before you can walk' - there's a lot to learn! Find an area that you can move through and get to know intimately, and finally then choose a specific aspect of sign to concentrate on to the exclusion of all others. My area was a wood of about 30 acres in which I spent two or three days out of every week walking around learning about the terrain, flora, history, footpaths, etc and so built up a picture of the wilder parts of the place.

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'My' deciduous woodland, some of which is ancient-woodland (dated at pre 1300 AD) with woodbank boundaries and a remarkable variety of terrain from scarps, to meadow, from ponds, to bog, 'rides', young coppiced wood, and pollarded areas. The geology is sand on clay. All this encourages an unusually rich animal life. This wood has been my 'tracking workshop' for 17 years.
 

Tracks made by animals on the ground, when read correctly, show the pattern of the animal's habits. This calls for continuous and careful observation; it's important to realise that animals - and all living creatures - are as much creatures of habit as human beings. A particular animal will follow the same track, say to and from water everyday, day after day. It will hunt in the same area continually and only leave that area if driven out by fire or dought or man. Even then the move is only temporary, and it will return when the conditions are favourable.

When we see on the ground a 'run' or series of tracks impressed upon one-another it is because this animal has used this route for the duration of its life - as did its parents, and theirs, and theirs etc, going back for generations. By analysing this route - by observation of the number and newness of the tracks and droppings on these trails you can gauge the extent of animal traffic. If you put an obstacle across one of these animal trails, the animals will make a detour around the obstacle always following the line of least resistance, and come back to the route again beyond the obstacle.

To start to - attempt to - understand the way animals move around their range we must remember that they use not just our type of senses but a much wider, tuned, honed, learnt, innate, and practised repertoire of senses or 'sensitivities':

light - sound - taste - touch - scent - temperature - vibration - supersonic - telepathetic/group - directional

Thus we are at an obvious disadvantage when trying to build a picture of the 'living' of the animal but we have a technique for finding out which is thousands of years old - one of the few sets of skills handed down generation to generation amongst indigenous aborginal peoples.

Learning the Art of Tracking: The Principles

SIGN : This is your evidence - comprising the list below - and from which if you are a beginner you need to choose one to search for and learn and recognise.

Footprints, ground disturbance, transfer, fall-out, reflections, droppings, feeding evidence, dwellings, debris, dew.

Image Footprints

Image Ground disturbance

Image Transfer

Image Reflection

Image Fall Out

Image Droppings

Image Feeding Signs

Image Dwellings

Image Debris

Footprints:

The most 'obvious' and the most easily misinterpreted - look carefully and they'll reveal a lot. We can tell direction of the animal's journey, size, sex, and whether he/she was walking, cantering, running, or galloping - even if the animal has spent more time in the wild than walking tarmac - eg urban red foxes.

Ground disturbance:

What's on the ground - on their route - that is out of place: fallen leaves over a track? scrapings?

Transfer:

Something[s] taken into an area which is now alien to that area. The picture above shows the feathers of a bird at a killing site. When our Springer Spaniel used to walk sheepishly through the kitchen, with muddy paws, he was leaving 'transfer'. The finest transfer sign is a single hair from the animal - you have to get low!

Fall Out:

The animal has dropped something on the trail - or something has dropped off him - which is alien to the local environment; this could be a feather, some down, or in the case of urban foxes, a piece of kitchen waste, a shoe, or a glove: they love the sweat inside!

Reflection:

As the animal alters angles in grass, or branches at ground level, the light will create a relief - a difference - between what was the original pattern and the new walked on/through surface vegetation. The grass in the picture above is a different shade of green, created by badgers storming through on a night hunt.

Droppings:

Diet, health, origin, species, size, sex.....all can be learned from the droppings. Linked to feedings signs, the general behaviour of for example one fox or wild boar in particular can be learned - which may well be different to another fox or boar. If studying droppings never pick up remains with your bare hands. More information on droppings and pellets later in the pages.

Feeding Evidence:

Many animals eat in widely different locations to their dwelling places, and this adds more layers of investigation to your tracking. Food may be killed on a trail, or cached in a different place; you may identify the same type of food in the same part of the field or forest every time you are tracking - and then you start to construct in your mind a repertoire of different animals' habits. And this is the fascination (obsession?!) of it all. It's a bit like being a homicide detective I guess.

Dwellings:

It's not so often that the tracker gets to see the dwellings of his target animal, because by the very nature of 'wildness' it is something that the, perhaps, scores of generations has had inbuilt into the animal to disguise and hide and conceal. It is therefore for us the trackers to see as one of the two 'end' products: the animal in his den. Alternatively, if you know where a dwelling is - then work out from there - with minimum disturbance as human scent around the dwelling may (quite rightly) disuade the creature to not go back to his place due to human threat - and young may be left to die.

Debris:

Slopes and skids, loose material and damaged natural barriers (eg hedges....and even some fences) create a greater or lesser amount of wreckage that even in the wildness is sort of out of place.  The picture relates to a bank which is a part of a regular 'run' for roe and fallow deer and gradually it is collapsing - with debris collecting by gravity at the base.


Beyond the principles.....

A track in the narrow sense of the word is a single footprint made by an animal in or on the ground; shape varies according to the species and the animal's mode of locomation. Paws, hoofs - and in the case of birds - toes are our business here:

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The toes are of different length and are numbered one to five starting - in the case of the badger's print on the left (Fig. 3) - with the most left hand toe ie the shortest. [The print on the right (Fig. 4 ) is of a red fox]. Now imagine that you had put your right hand down on a sheet of paper and drawn around it thus:

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Fig. 3

....and we then compare them with the fingers on that human hand. The Inner Toe on the badger's paw is the shortest toe and is equivalent to the thumb on our hand. The furthest right on the badger's corresponds to our little finger, and so on. The position of the first toe on the animal's paw is very important in reading tracks. When we come across a track with all five toes clearly impressed and with the track of the shortest toe on the left side, and lower down than the others, this tells us that the track must have been made by the right paw - and that correspondingly in the picture of the human hand [above] - that is a right hand. So the badger's paw above [top, left] is the view looking down on the paw from above. If you were [unlikely though it is] to lift the paw of a badger and look at the pads underneath is would look like Fig 4 [below].

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Fig. 4 (left) Fig. 5 (right) badger's right fore-paw track. The tracking stick (right) is 12.5 cms from end to the black marker

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Fig . 6 The Sett

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Fig 7. (Left) subtle transfer of sand grains on sand ......Fig. 8 (Right) A: badger track (right rear paw)  B: large dog

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Fig. 9 Sort this out!


Examples of Track Identification

In the recent snow that the south eastern part of the UK experienced in early February 2009, we had fantastic opportunities to identify tracks and trails, teach animal and bird beahaviour, and work at recording as much as we could for the lecture room, and websites - as well the walls of our workshops and offices! We took 112 photos illustrating behaviour of gaits and locomotion mainly of Vulpes vulpes - our British red fox, but also of domestic cat, rabbit, jay, pigeon, rook, and gull....a sure sign that we were all instructing in suburban areas when the snow fell! They were nonetheless an excellent - if also a very necessary - record ...the snow melt came as fast as the fall of the  snow so we had precious little time to find virgin fields of snow deep enough to register definitive prints and trails. I think we succeeded. The photos below are just a few to illustrate some key points....soon to be joined by a substantial database in the Gallery - see Menu on this site.

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Fig. 10 A great example of running tracks formed by a fox. Notice the alternate rhomboid pattern - classic and textbook evidence of reynard at some sort of speed for some reason.

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Fig. 11

Fox trotting, with tracks occurring in pairs with one track placed slightly ahead of the other

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Fig.12 Gull tracks (walking away from the camera) along with trotting fox and walking fox tracks of various ages - over about 12-14 hrs. This was just a 'meet' because the snow is not too disturbed. The gull tracks pre-date the fox's in the main group (top half of photo) but the tracks in the foreground are probably cat - probably another 12 hrs older than the gull's.


Tracking alongside the River Crouch, Essex, UK 

In April 2009 I was with a group of young clients following the route of the tidal Crouch just west of Battlesbridge in Essex. It was a low sun and we were 'on the trail' not too early, but well before 9am. The Environment Agency boys had - unbeknown to me - done a good day's work clearing the reeds and brush right up to the water's edge, though now leaving a rather pasty, grey, alluvium, which once your foot impresses onto it, you've got the perfect print. So it was almost by accident that we had the perfect location.

Fox prints, dog prints, and the remains of the odd industrial boot could be seen.

But I noticed something else; whilst the group were slowly walking west - with the sun behind them, I was behind them too - and just as well because I cut sign for something out of the ordinary; this was no domestic moggy. I counted 14 of the prints - all 12 cms across - covering the whole of the first section of my tracking stick (see photo below). These were big cat prints....puma in fact. The animal may well have forded the river at the shallows by the bridge behind us, but whatever he did, it was now - and I was following (albeit surreptitiously) to see what the cat had done; he'd stopped, looked across (down into?) the river, walked on and repeated the stance. I walked way ahead and cut the trail - the tracks were still there, with me reckoning them about 2-3 hrs old.

 

Site of the tracks...with the Crouch flowing east, away from the camera. The flood-platform, upon which I'm standing, is the area cleared by the Environment Agency and on which were 80 or so tracks from five or six different animals including large paw prints from a big cat.

 

The print can clearly be seen against the left hand end of the Tracking Stick. The distance between the left hand end of the stick and first black marker is 12 cms. Detail below. 

 

Since this tracking I have encountered single or paired tracks identical to these - over the course of nearly four years - all in this area. I have heard reports of there being more than two puma-type big cats seen at any one time. Which leads to a conclusion that perhaps they are breeding? On a few occasions I have seen sign - and cut trails - which indicate substantially tall animals as well as heavy ones displaying tracks of the cat family. Just another day at the office!

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