It can seem a bit gloomy in midwinter, when there is not a lot to attract us outdoors. However, one interesting pursuit is animal tracking. While the wet weather has made the footpaths slippery and in places very water logged, the soft, muddy ground captures the footprints of animals. Careful investigation of animal tracks can help you identify what wildlife is active in our countryside. Animal tracks indicate their regular travel corridors, and you can also sometimes see deer tracks where they have slid down a slippery slope, just like we do.
There are several websites which provide information on animal tracks. The RSPB has some pdf pictures of animal tracks, which if printed onto A4 will also help you assess the size of the footprint, helping you decide whether it is muntjac or fallow deer, or which type of wildfowl. See rspb.org.uk and their diagrams “Wildsquare animal tracks”.
It’s also possible to identify what mammals have been around by their poo, or scat as it’s also known. If you do spot some droppings take a good look and poke them with a stick but don’t pick them up. Here are a few descriptions of mammal droppings you might come across locally.
Rabbits and Hares
Droppings are left in clusters of little, round, hard balls. They are usually yellowy-brown or green in colour, and full of grass. Hare droppings tend to be slightly bigger and flatter than rabbit droppings.
Foxes produce dark dog-like droppings with a pointy twist at one end and full of fur, bones, seeds and berries. They have a musky smell.
Badgers are tidy animals that use a pit or latrine for their droppings usually situated near to their sett or on territory boundaries. The droppings can vary from firm sausage-shaped, to softer, slimier darker shapes especially if they have eaten lots of worms.
There are two species of deer in our neighbourhood, the Muntjac and the Fallow deer. Both produce smooth, shiny, dark pellets often stuck together in clusters. The Fallow deer, being much larger than the Muntjac, produces larger pellets.
Hedgehog droppings are small, black and shiny with the wing cases of insects. They will only be evident once the Hedgehog emerges from hibernation.
For those of you living adjacent to the River Mimram look out for water vole droppings. These threatened native mammals are found in low numbers along some of our waterways in Hertfordshire, and have been seen in other stretches of the River Mimram. They are similar looking to the brown rat but have a blunt nose, small ears and furry tail. The Water vole’s droppings are similar to rat droppings but smaller and rounded at both ends. Rat droppings are flattened at one end and pointed at the other. More can be found about our Hertfordshire Water voles at www.hertswildlifetrust.org.uk
Animal tracks are best seen early in the morning after snow, so if the weather forecast looks really cold, don’t despair, just wrap up warm and see what footprints of scat can be seen in the snow. Go out early, before the footprints of people and dogs have covered over the traces of wildlife.
Julie Wise and Frances Harris