The weather was more than ideal on the 7th March 2015 at Highnam Woods on the outskirts of Gloucester, temperatures of around 14oC, dry and sunny with light winds. The weather up to this point had been wet so soft ground made it an ideal first time tracking environment. The group consisted of six people, including myself and my wife, Daniel Days of Black Bear Bushcraft, met us at a good location and led us to the secure parking at the entrance to the woods. The day commenced with introductions and an overview of the day’s events [08/03/15, www.blackbearbushcraft.co.uk]
- The difference between Tracking and Trailing
- Successful stalking techniques
- Camouflage and concealment
- Components of a track (footprints)
- Following a trial
- Feeding sign
- Droppings and scat
- Nest, sets, beds and burrows
- Species recognition from tracks
- Reading the speed of movement
- Reading the size of the animal.
In the words of Black Bear Bushcraft, “being able to find and recognise animal tracks and sign is, to most of us involved in bushcraft, an excellent skill to have. Although its origins of practice are linked to the hunter, it really does broaden the enjoyment of being out amongst nature when you can gather the evidence which tells you the story of what’s been happening around you”. “As well as the UK, Dan has spent time learning to track animals in Norway, India, Sweden, and the African sub-continent, and has been fortunate enough to have learned from some of the best trackers in the world. In his own right, Dan is a level 2 Track and Sign specialist, as awarded by international conservation organisation CyberTracker “Highnam woods is an official RSPB reserve, it is an ancient, 200 acre, broadleaf woodland home to many species of British woodland mammals, and in relatively large number providing a bounty of tracks, signs and trails by which to identify them and to help unravel their actions and behaviour”. Some of the very basic understandings of tracking were explained during the initial 1 ½ hours of introduction in the superb bird hide that doubled as our sheltered training room, for example the difference between dog and fox trails, in that a dog tends to meander whereas a fox would be in a straight line, and that a kill sites surrounded by a round circle of feathers would be by a Bird of prey, whereas a foxes kill site would look more random. Whilst to the expert tracker, this simple, logical information makes understanding the visual data so much easier for the novice. With lots of notes taken down, that were later to become basic knowledge to build onto, Dan produced a collection of 3D printed animal skulls and proceeded to explain the differences. The image shows the visual differences between each, from top to bottom these are:
- Mouse, Rat, Hedgehog, Squirrel, Rabbit, Tawny Owl, Badger & Fox (apologies if I got that wrong!).
What was interesting was the differences between the similar sized Badger and Fox skulls, the Badger have the clearly visible Cranial ‘Fin’ and fixed lower Jaw. Within minutes of moving out onto the trail Dan was pointing out indentations in the mud that previously I would have not even noticed. With the explanation of the ‘negative space’ of tracks you start to build up a visual picture of the animals foot, whether it’s the left or right, front or rear and direction that it was heading. The image shows one our first finds being a badger, the fresh soft mud telling us that this was probably from the night before. A trick explained was observing the colouration of the imprint, a solid colour would identify an old track where time had balanced out the drying of the prints surface, that compared to a fresh print that would tend to be varying colours of dryness level, demonstrated by pressing of your thumb into the ground adjacent the track. I found the experience a bit like putting on a new pair of glasses and suddenly everything starts to look more clear, its took a little while to adjust to what it was I was trying to see, but once you do see, its very difficult not to notice tracks everywhere you look! The trail ahead is then a lot clearer and you can start to identify and follow the direction of travel. Learning to sizing the animal and determining the approximate pace by creating a tracking stick aids measuring and finding prints. It was also interesting to see other signs of animal presence such as scratching’s, dens, scat, proof of browsing, feeding, etc. Witnessing a good example of a Nut Hatch’s activity on a tree. Birch polypore fungus used as a plaster or as a knife strop. It grows horizontally out of the side of the Birch tree. To Identify, it exclusively fruits on birch trees in semi-circular or kidney-shaped form. In-rolled caps ranging from white to tan, and from 2.5cm to 25cm in width Another useful fungus found was ‘coal fungus’ or ‘cramp balls’ or ‘King Alfred’s cakes’ found on dead parts of Ash tree, these black blobs are hard, semi-spherical black lumps around 3-4 cm in diameter. With a few strokes of the Ferrocerium Fire Steel Rod, this fungus is quickly turned into a self-burning coal, this combined with the papery birch bark makes the birch tree a very useful resource for fire-starting. After following a few trails and learning the procedure of closing of trails we took position at a known badger set and settled in and rested up, a quiet time to reflect on the day’s events as the sun slowly started to drop below the tree tops and the presence of dusk started to show. Our hope of the badgers putting in an appearance wasn’t to be and previous monitoring had established that they tend to come out around 6 and 7pm. All in all a fantastic full day of learning, I always find that there is something very spiritual about being among the trees and nature; it clears your mind of everyday stresses and makes you sleep a whole lot easier! For more information speak to Dan at Black Bear Bushcraft – http://blackbearbushcraft.co.uk/courses/wildlife-tracking-course.html