Activity | Winter wildlife tracking
Snow, mud, dust or sand are perfect for seeking out animal tracks and discovering what sort of wildlife is about. So play close attention on your walks this winter and teach your Scouts how to spot signs of animals as you venture out into the wild.
Telltale signs of wildlife are all around us if you know where and how to look. Spotting animal tracks and signs makes Scouts more observant and appreciative of the natural world. It’s easy to get involved by teaching them these common identifiers.
Tracks or footprints
These are the most obvious signs of animals. Wet mud is a great place to find prints. Look in muddy areas, and around the edges of puddles and pools, where you may find evidence of birds and small mammals. Areas of fine soil, sand or dust often hold tracks, but snow is probably the best medium for spotting prints. Even in urban areas you’re likely to find tracks of cats, dogs, hedgehogs, crows, pigeons, blackbirds and foxes.
Runs and racks
These are the trails used by animals. Rabbits create runs through long grass and hedges, while deer will create trails called racks when crossing ditches.
Teach your Scouts these footprints of common UK mammals
Knowing what different animals eat and when can help you identify feeding signs. Trimmed vegetation often signifies rabbits and deer. Deer only have front teeth in their lower jaw, whereas rabbits have both upper and lower incisors, which leave a cleaner cut. The height of the feeding sign above ground indicates the size of the animal.
Nibbled nuts and seeds are signs of rodents and birds. Markings on the nuts and shells will help you identify what has been feeding on them. If you find immature nuts on the ground, look up – they show that feeding is going on up in the trees.
Many animals strip bark, including deer, hares, rabbits, voles and sheep. How high has the bark been stripped? This gives a clue as to the head height of the animal. Deer tend to strip bark vertically, whereas other animals nibble sideways. Look closely at any scoring left on the wood for impressions of teeth.
Excavations and disturbances are also common. Squirrels dig up nut caches, while badgers dig up roots and excavate bee and wasp nests and anthills. Green woodpeckers also like anthills for the ants and pupae.
The species of prey, as well as where and how it was killed and eaten, will indicate the predator. Damage to the carcass is also a good identifier. For instance, the way a fox eats a wood pigeon differs greatly to a kill made by a bird of prey. Owls and other birds of prey regurgitate the parts of animals they cannot digest. This comes out as a pellet and is typically filled with fur and small bones.
Droppings and discards
The size, shape, consistency and location of droppings will give you a good idea of the species that left it. Fox droppings tend to be pointed at the end and broken into sections. They visibly contain bits of fur as well as other parts of their prey. Foxes also tend to defecate on raised mounds to mark territory.
Discards are the hair, fur, feathers and antlers that are left behind. For instance, when deer moult you’ll find big clumps of hair on the ground. Dropped antlers can also sometimes be found. You may notice that they have been nibbled by other animals; this is because the calcium they contain is nutritious.
Homes and sleeping areas
At ground level you’ll find fox holes, rabbit warrens and badger setts. Smaller still, you may notice the hole of a mouse or vole, or even the entrance to a bumblebee nest. Look up tree trunks for nesting holes. Also look for birds’ nests and squirrel dreys.
A badger emerging from its sett
For younger sections, why not integrate more nature-awareness into the programme with the following?
1. Split your section into supervised groups and head off in different directions, then meet up for a show-and-tell session. Take re-sealable plastic bags to collect specimens. Good hygiene and hand-washing should be practised after handling specimens.
2. Create a nature table at your Scout HQ. Keep non-perishable items that you find throughout the year and build up a collection. Encourage the Scouts to contribute items that they find in their own time.
3. Create a checklist of tracks and signs for each Scout to find throughout the year. Help them tick things off by running nature trails.
Let us know how you get on. Post pics of your finds on our Facebook page.