Incessant rain. Muddy ground. Diminishing hours of daylight. With the headlong plunge into inclement weather almost upon us, staying in might seem the only sensible course of action at the moment. But get outside and you can find the traces of a hidden world almost everywhere you look.
The ability to track wild animals – the ultimate huntsman’s hack – is akin to learning a new language. It’s simply a process of familiarising yourself with patterns. Once learned, this endlessly rewarding skill is never forgotten; instead it stays with you, deepening your connection to the landscape and the creatures we share this earth with.
Recent rain and the mud it creates provides a good canvas, especially if you find a stretch of it before any dog walkers arrive. Get up early enough even in the heart of a city and you can find easy-to-follow records. I’ve discovered roe deer slots on Hampstead Heath before, as well as (inexplicably) a single badger print on the edge of a muddy puddle by Regents Canal. But for obvious reasons, rural areas are the most productive, having the highest density of animals and being less disturbed by humans. Head for the intersections between habitats: the field and forest, the forest and stream, the stream and the field.
Areas of loam soil receive clearest impressions. Look for prints around walls, hedges, gateposts and at the edges of woods. Investigate any ‘runs’, paths cut by regular animal use, leading to and from feeding and breeding grounds. Telltale signs are flattened grass, holes pushed through thicker vegetation and clumps of hair trapped in low fencing wire.
The best times to be out are at sunrise and just before sunset, when the height of the sun shows up prints better. Record any you might find so you identify them properly at home. Familiarity is the key to learning this language. Photograph it alongside something that adds scale, such as a coin.
A good starting point in both town and country is to look for the fox. At first you may take them for a dog’s print, but a fox’s will be longer and more slender, 5cm long and 4cm wide. There will also be a separation between the front two pads and the two outer pair; a matchstick placed between them will touch neither. In a dog’s print, it would bisect them all. As winter approaches you may even see the traces of hair pressed in between pads as their coats thicken for the colder months.
|A fox's print|
Once you have your eye in, it becomes addictive. There is a sense of excitement in following the prints as far as you can, recreating the movements and mindset of wild animals. It’s exactly what our ancestors did when hunting: reading the ground, understanding how prey or predator moved. Nowadays we may be hunting with a camera rather than a spear, but its no less rewarding to lift yourself from the worries and stresses of our human world for an hour or two.
Soon you find yourself on the lookout for other British mammals – the bear-like print of the badger; red, fallow, muntjac and roe deer; squirrels and stoats; wild boar; rabbits and hares. In Wales once, while chancing to look over the bank of a river, I found the clearest imprints of an otter. You could even see where it had stopped and listened to my approach, the point it turned its head recorded an arc of water droplets in the sand.
|A fresh otter print|
More edgy was a night I spent in a wood in Scotland. Over breakfast the next day the landowner delighted in showing me photographs of big cat prints that he said he’d taken close to where I’d pitched up camp.
Autumn is a time of industry in the outside world so there’s no better time to pick up this language. Have a go at learning some of the prints below and set out to see what you can find.