Animal Tracks and Sign – Deer, Badgers and Owls

by Paul Kirtley

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Tracking is a passion of mine.  One of the things I love doing, even when I’m out for a leisurely walk in the woods, is looking for tracks and sign left by animals. Even if you don’t see the animal, looking at the sign they have left behind can provide a fascinating insight into their behaviour. This is the first of what will be a series of short, informal articles on animal tracks and sign that I’ll post as and when I see things I think other people will find interesting.

Roe Deer

I’ve seen roe deer in these woods before. A few years back, while I was sitting quietly, a doe and her two almost full-grown youngsters almost walked into me. It was a wonderful experience. Today I wasn’t so lucky to have even a glimpse of deer but there were signs of their presence. There was a faint deer trail through the leaves and I found some droppings on it but they weren’t so fresh. Roe deer droppings are quite small, cylindrical, often with one end pointed and one end indented. When they are fresh they are black and shiny, later becoming brown and matt.

Roe deer droppings

Roe deer droppings - typically small, cylindrical, with a point at one end.

Further along I found a laying-up area where an animal had rested. Roe are a little unusual amongst deer as they tend to scrape away leaves and vegetation, preferring to lay on bare earth. The resting places of other species such as fallow are often observed as just a deer-shaped flattening of leaves or vegetation.

Deer bed

There is a disturbance to the leaves under the bush. You can spot this from a distance as a dark patch compared to the overall shade of the ground cover in the area.

Roe deer bed

Roe deer like to scrape away leaves and vegetation, preferring to lie on bare earth.

Further on still I found fresh disturbance on some steep ground which an animal had traversed and here there were also some droppings that were quite fresh. Shortly after this point, the trail disappeared into a dense thicket of rhododendron.

Roe deer fresh droppings

Fresh roe deer droppings - shiny and black.

 

Barking

Several species of animal will take bark off trees for food, particularly in winter. When trying to work out which species of animal has removed the bark, think about what the height of the damage suggests about the size of the animal. For example a deer can reach higher than a rabbit. As well as an animal’s stature, also consider abilities of various animals – for example squirrels will climb up and bark trees high up. Look for other sign of animals nearby – for example rabbit runs, deer racks, droppings, fur or hair, other feeding sign or anything else that corroborates your suspicions.

Rabbit barking

Rabbits have nibbled the bark from this exposed tree root. There were rabbit runs under a nearby fence and evidence of their digging in the immediate area.

As you learn more about animal behaviour this knowledge will also help differentiate between similar damage made by different species. For example, deer and sheep are both ruminants and both have two incisor teeth at the front of their lower jaw and a hard pallet replacing their upper incisors; when deer bark trees they tend to insert their (lower) incisors and then strip the bark by running their teeth vertically up the trunk of the tree, whereas sheep tend to work more across the axis of the trunk, giving the appearance of nibbling rather than stripping.

Sheep barking

Sheep have taken bark from this hawthorn tree. Note the gnawing across the axis of the trunk rather than in line with it. Also note the wool caught on nearby low branches.

 

Badgers

The other day we came across a badger sett under a hawthorn hedge halfway up a hillside of moderate slope – classic positioning for a badger’s home. Later on in the woods, down near a stream, we found fresh evidence of badgers feeding from a rotten tree stump. The mossy turf had been pulled back, the earth dug and the stump raided for grubs.

Badger feeding stump

Badgers have excavated here to get at grubs in the rotten tree stump.

 

Owl Pellets

Not long before dusk we were walking through a mature conifer plantation. We came into an area populated by mature larches, lofty and well spaced with a mossy understorey. We stopped for a brew and nearby there were a couple of owl pellets. Owl pellets are a mass of regurgitated indigestible material that does not pass through the owl’s gut. The contents of the pellet give you a very good idea of what the owl has been feeding on.

Owl pellet

Owl pellets. You can clearly see bones amongst their contents.

The size, shape and contents of the pellet also gives a good indication of which species of owl might have produced it. This is something I’m by no means an expert in but my deduction, based on the uneven nature of the surface of the pellet and the number of bones showing and protruding, is that these pellets were produced by a tawny owl. They were quite long though so I also considered whether they might have been produced by a long-eared owl based on descriptions in my field guide. If any ornithologist reading can shed more light on this, then I’d be most appreciative.

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Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.

 

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Pierre

I did a tracking course in summer 2009. It was an extraordinary experience.

It goes much beyond telling the track of one animal from the track of another, or aging the track. It is about:

– zoning in: slow down and be receptive to your environment
– blend in: not as in camouflage but as in having a non threatening presence
– accepting your senses
– energy; I know when my energy is too low I will not be able to follow a track or stalk animals; I might spot a few tracks but not be “in”
– empathy
– being amazed by the small things

Before doing that course I was frustrated that between family and work there was very little option for me to experience the real “wild”. I live in an urban setting and the fauna is scarce and shy. Doing the course revealed the richness of signs everywhere: teeth marks on nuts, squirrel tracks … It awoke my interest for even common birds like blue tit. I watch them now with great interest. How they feed, how they protect their territory.

There is no terrain too small for tracking. It was not the wild around me that was not large enough, it was my senses that were too small.

I’m still a mere beginner in tracking but it is tremendously enjoyable and enriching. It tops when you feel the track and manage to follow it up to the animal. But even just to feel the environment in its relation with the animal that was there is a very acute impression.

It might sound all a bit weird. But I’m really no a “new age” or “sixth sense” guy. Rather the typical cartesian instead. But I cannot encourage anyone too much to take such a course.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Great comment Pierre!

Reply

Joep

Hi Paul,

I share your passion of tracking. I really love to go outside, slow down, be quite and start tracking , especially when rewarded with seeing the actual animal!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Jeop

Good to hear from you. Yes, that is the best – when you see the animal that left the trail you followed!

All the best

Paul

Reply

Steve Bayley

This is a great new angle for your blog Paul. I hope you’ll share more on this subject with us. Sally & I are booked on a Woodlore tracking course in May this year and we’re both really looking forwards to it. I often see deer sign in local woodland where I spend quite a lot of time either chilling out, practicing bushcraft skills or as a volunteer ‘Wood Warden’ coppicing, hedging and generally looking after the woods. Last week I had a nice encounter with a Muntjac, we rather surprised each other and had one of those magical ‘frozen moments’ as we looked each other in the eye from just a few feet apart before the spell broke and the deer ran off. I’m sure there’s much more going on that I’m missing and I hope that our course will open some of it up to us. More on this subject please!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hey Steve

You’ll get a lot out of doing a tracking course. It will open your eyes to all sorts of goings on in nature that you might have previously missed. I’ll do my best to write more on this subject. It’s certainly not difficult for me to find a reason!

All the best

Paul

Reply

Rody Klop

This is great, hope te see more of this. Keep up the good work

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hey Rody

Welcome back. Good to hear from you. I’ll be posting this type of article from time to time. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

All the best

Paul

Reply

Sam Smith

Hi Paul,

Thanks for this article. I too love to look for animal tracks when I’m out in the woods, not an expert by any means but I do enjoy it no end!

I found some of the things you included here fascinating! Thank you very much!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Paul

Welcome and thanks for commenting. Don’t worry about being an expert. Too many people call themselves experts. The important thing is getting out there and enjoying your natural surroundings. There’s always more to learn….

All the best

Paul

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Mark Hotson

I was fortunate enough to do an Awareness /Tracking Course a few years ago.Probably the most enlightening week spent in the British countryside – I have ever experienced.Dare I say..the author was my ‘guide’ !

I impart some of ‘that weeks ‘knowledge to school children and those who would listen ……. I break tracking down in to various sections;

Conceptions & Misconceptions
Awareness-Zoning in and The ‘Six’ Senses
Tracking Terminology
Tracker Attributes
Sign/Spoor
Target and Environment Knowledge

I think the analogy of being able to’ read the countryside like the pages in a book’ , made by far more knowledgeable folk than I is so true. For me this is what tracking is all about……
Thanks.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Mark

I always thoroughly enjoy teaching tracking courses and yours was no exception. It was a really good week. These courses seem to have such a profound effect on people, which continues long after the course is over. It’s good to hear you are passing some of this on…

All the best

Paul

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David Southey

Managed to follow a Roe trail from feeding on a soft branch to it’s scrape on an embankment by the dual carriage way during the winter snow, no trying to the same in spring with out the aid of clear defined tracks and the the contrast of disturbance in the snow is tough learning, but fantastic fun, Cheers!

Reply

Marcus Hackney

Another subject that I am lacking in. need to get myself on a tracking course what books do you recommend I read before going on a course..??
Thanks Paul

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Marcus

You can’t learn tracking from a book. But good field guides can help you identify and interpret tracks and sign that you may see. The list in my resources pages is a good place to start. Scroll down to the second list…

http://paulkirtley.co.uk/resources/recommended-field-guides-uk-europe/

Top of my list would be Animal Tracks & Signs by Dahlstrom and Bang.

All the best

Paul

Reply

kharled

I do love tracking. I honestly believe, that the attributes you gain in tracking, patience, awareness perception. Trying to think like the animal. Can have so many benefits in other aspects of life.
As always great stuff .
Paul thanks.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi again Khalred,

Tracking is indeed an under-rated skill, even amongst those who enjoy the broader aspects of bushcraft. I’m happy that you can see it’s value.

Thanks for your comment.

Warm regards,

Paul

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Mark Jackson

Evening Paul

Great blog – you mentioned roe deer scraping away the leaves to bare ground in their lairs and that this is unusual for deer – a question for you – I have been wondering why they do this for years now and have tried to discover why ! – Have you any thoughts on this ?

Cheers Mark

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Mark,

Good question. And one I don’t know the answer to. I don’t know why roe like doing this, only that they do. I guess we’ll never fully get into the mind of an animal but I’ll ask some of my deer management friends if they have any insight.

Warm regards,

Paul

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mark jickells

Hi Paul and team, I keep coming back to your site and appreciate more and more what a resource it is. I am of course looking at tracks and trails today and this is proving helpful and interesting as ever. Have a great day. Mark

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