Was there a badger in my garden? Learn to read animal tracks

Footprints, tracks and signs show you don’t have to go to a wilderness to find wildlife

We tend to read landscapes through filters, formed by the interplay between our interests and our knowledge. Someone passionate about early history might see a ringfort where I see only a field. But they might not notice the winter thrushes in the nearby hedgerow delighting my birder’s eye, nor be able to distinguish the redwings from the fieldfares among them.

Even allowing for that, it’s a humbling and instructive surprise to learn that I have long been filtering out whole layers of information, in a very familiar landscape. One of my favourite places, seen through other eyes, proves to be inscribed with scripts I was barely aware of. Each tells stories directly related to my interests in nature. But until now I only noticed occasional individual letters. I could not really read any of the texts.

For the second time in a few weeks, Lucy O’Hagan has invited me to the Furry Glen in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. The last time she was leading a forest school for children. This time, I’m the pupil, here to learn about animal tracks and signs, and the lesson starts right beside the tarmac road.

A patch of bare earth has been churned into mud by rain, footfall, and turning cars. Much of it is covered by sticky layers of leaf litter. Surely there cannot be any coherent messages in such chaos?


In a few seconds, however, O’Hagan has picked out a dog print, and then, close by, a narrower print that she says was made by a fox. It’s a tough call, as these are closely related animals from the same family, and dogs are very variable. But the similar size of the palm pad to the toe pads – any dog’s palm pad would be relatively bigger – and the faint evidence of abundant hairs between the pads, decides it for the fox.

The simple knowledge that a fox has been here, very recently, changes even this banal and “empty” roadside into a more richly populated place. And as O’Hagan picks out more and more prints, and fragments of prints, I begin to get my eye in.

It reminds me of my first mushroom hunt. First, you can’t see a single fungus. Then one mushroom pops up, then another. Finally there may be so many that you can’t believe you couldn’t see any of them a few minutes earlier.

Picking out tracks at all is a good start, but reading them halfway accurately is much trickier, and not learned in a few minutes, nor even in a day.

We move down the glen, and O’Hagan pauses at a western red cedar. Again, I notice nothing, but her eye has picked out lighter patches on its spongy bark where the fine outer layer of fibres has been stripped away. She speculates that this may have been done by squirrels, but then she delves into tiny crevices a little lower down, and pulls out, as if by magic, a single hair.

Birds of prey, including owls, 'don't poo, they just pee'.

Its salt-and-pepper tones, and its tough wiriness, tells her it’s probably from a badger. It was sharpening its digging claws by hauling itself up on its hind legs and, she says, dragging its front paws down the bark. However, some of the marks are too high, and are horizontal, not vertical, so she still reckons squirrels were here as well, marking territory with scent glands in their cheeks as they gnawed.

She also considers a stag as a possible maker of some of the marks. They do rub their antlers against trees, quite aggressively, to remove the “velvet” that covers their early growth. But it’s the wrong season for such fresh marks, and besides, the tree is mature, a rigid pillar. Stags prefer younger, more supple, trunks to rub against, she says.

Obvious signs

There are more obvious signs scattered on the leafy forest floor, where bird droppings stand out even in the poor light. But O’Hagan doesn’t just see droppings; she sees signs of particular birds. A miniature “Danish pastry”, creamy white with dark “currents”, indicates a wood pigeon.

But she is also on the lookout for droppings that are pure white, uric acid with no solid matter. Birds of prey, including owls, “don’t poo, they just pee”. So lots of white streaking down a tree may indicate the daytime roost of a long-eared owl, completely hidden high above in the ivy.

These birds cope with indigestible solid matter by regurgitating it in pellet form, and if O’Hagan can find the roost she can find a scattering of pellets, and show fascinated children how they contain the tiny bones, even the skulls, of small birds and rodents.

It’s becoming clear that reading tracks and signs in nature is intimately bound up with understanding animal behaviour. It has also become clear that a good tracker will not draw hasty conclusions, but will test several hypotheses regarding each sign.

Indeed, she suggests that the origins of science itself can be traced back to our evolution as hunter-gatherers. “You see a print, a mark, a sign,” says O’Hagan, “and you ask questions about what made it, and you compare the possible answers with the evidence.”

O’Hagan’s mentor, John Rhyder, argues that knowing tracks and signs is a powerful and economical tool for advancing the sciences of biology and ecology. Trackers can serve nature conservation, adding to the advances made by digital cameras and electronic tracking devices in collecting information on populations, migration, and behaviour.

“A good tracker,” he told me in a telephone interview from England, “can record a great deal of what is going on in a wood in just a couple of days’ work. Whereas putting in trail cams would cost thousands, and would not capture everything, only where the cameras were pointing.”

Both Rhyder and O’Hagan also stress the value of tracking for reconnecting both children and adults to the natural world.

“Tracks and signs show that you don’t have to go to a wilderness to find wildlife,” says Rhyder. “You can go to a city park and find a nut on the ground with a hole in it, and start to work out whether it was chewed by a mouse or a vole, or pecked open by a bird.”

“There are all these stories, all around us,” says O’Hagan as we leave the wood, after showing me that a nondescript pile of twigs on the ground, now half hidden by leaves, is actually a collapsed sparrow hawk’s nest, full of information about the diet of its former occupants. “You just need to learn how to read them.”

Learn landscape literacy

There is an internationally recognised system for certifying qualified trackers, known as CyberTracking accreditation. This was originally developed by Louis Liebenberg, working with the !Nate Bush people in South Africa, whose skills in are legendary but were in danger of being lost, see cybertracker.org.

This system is used by John Rhyder at his Woodcraft School in England, and he will run the first course in Ireland next September, in partnership with Tipi Adventures in Co Wicklow, see tipiadventures.ie. Absolute beginners are welcome, Rhyder says, because "though they are most unlikely to qualify, it's a good way to learn a lot".

For a softer start, you could try Lucy O’Hagan’s February Rewild in the City class, see facebook.com/events/260005891401962/

Rhyder and O'Hagan both recommend The Nature Tracker's Handbook (RSPB) by Nick Baker, and Rhyder is bringing out his own book later this year.