By Charlotte Owen
It has definitely been welly weather lately and some of the regular walking routes have been churned into quagmire. It’s clear to see where the people have been, often with their four-legged friends, but all this mud offers a useful opportunity for some finer detective work. On the routes less trodden there are traces of more secretive creatures, lighter on their feet but still leaving an impression in the soft, sticky mud.
Some only venture out after dark, while others are so good at moving silently or blending into their surroundings that their footprints are the only sign we see. It takes practice to reliably identify animal tracks, and they’re not always as distinctive in real life as the books would have you believe. But sometimes, with the right kind of mud, they do come pretty close.
Birds leave characteristic long-toed prints. They have three toes facing forward and one to the rear, although not all birds have a hind toe. Depending on the speed of the bird and stickiness of the mud, its toes will sometimes be splayed and sometimes more narrow. This can create a range of arrow-head tracks like a trail of mysterious coded symbols.
Deer are easy to pick out, leaving two-toed cloven hoof prints that are pointed at the front and rounded at the rear. The size can help determine the species, ranging from the huge 9cm prints of the Red Deer to the tiny 2.5cm tracks of the diminutive Muntjac, so small it is easily mistaken for a Fox or Hare.
Paw prints can be trickier to tell apart but the bear-like tracks of the Badger are unmistakeable. Badgers leave hefty five-toed prints with broad pads and heavy claw marks, reflecting their use as powerful soil-excavating shovels. In contrast, Foxes leave dainty, dog-like prints as they trot along well-used commuter routes. Small, star-shaped paw prints could belong to a Stoat, Squirrel, Rat or Vole and further evidence must be gathered to successfully identify the culprit. Habitat, feeding signs, droppings and time of year all come into play but sometimes it’s a guessing game, and despite best efforts the case will remain unsolved.