Ray Mears: How to track wildlife

How do you become at one with the landscape and follow the animals that live there? BBC Wildlife spent a day in the woods with Ray Mears to find out. 

 

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Ray Mears tracking article spread from BBC Wildlife

How do you become at one with the landscape and follow the animals that live there? BBC Wildlife spent a day in the woods with Ray Mears to find out.

I’ve been tracking wildlife since I first followed a fox’s prints in the snow one winter. More than 30 years later, I still consider myself to be a student of this fascinating art.

Tracking is a profound, life-affirming activity: I feel more at home in the woods than in my own front room. And, though I have been lucky enough to track many of the planet’s most exciting animals, my passion for British wildlife is undimmed. Tracking can be just as rewarding here as in the African savannah or the American Rockies.

Begin at home

​If you want to learn how to track our foxes, deer, badgers and other native animals, where on Earth do you start? First things first: it’s vital to understand what this ancient craft actually involves. Spotting the prints of a dog fox on a muddy path is a far cry from being able to interpret the animal’s intentions, let alone being able to follow it.

Real tracking (as opposed to the fake version you so often read about and see on tv) is not a glamorous activity. In fact, it’s quite dull to watch. A tracker hardly speaks, must think deeply and use his or her senses to their fullest in order to read the mood of the landscape and pick up the tiniest of traces.

The most important attribute of a tracker is honesty. I never bluff. Well-meaning game guides sometimes try to impress their guests by inventing false interpretations of the spoor in front of them, but when this happens they become mere actors and their tracking skills are unlikely to improve.

It is the difficult signs and traces that have the most to teach us. All bluffing does is generate unnecessary scepticism about this ancient art.

Above all, tracking is a fascinating way to study animals – it gets you under their skin. It is a particularly useful skill in Britain, where so many mammals are nocturnal.

Reading the signs

When tracking, my aim is to find, interpret and follow a trail of clues that record the passing of an animal through the landscape. In places, there will be clear footprints that can identify the species – and sometimes even its sex and age.

The creature’s speed and gait will also be recorded, revealing its mood and intention. Where the trail is located within the landscape – along the brow of a hill or beside a stream hidden within a valley, for example – may indicate purpose, confidence, fear or even status.

Most of the time, I will be following only partial tracks or the tiniest hints of the animal’s passing: a bent grass stem, a strand of hair, subtle disturbances in the leaves on the forest floor or minute changes in the colour of the soil (good trackers know their ground – how hard it is, and how it responds to rain and the pressure of a hoof or paw).

These traces are seldom left in a neat line. Moreover, often a mark or sign can only be linked to a particular trail if I am able to establish the precise time at which it was made.

Read the tracks

To me, a trail is rather like music. Its rhythm and tempo can tell me a lot about the animal’s state of mind. For instance, the fine details in a footprint can tell me how tired or fresh the animal I’m following is.

When I examine a track, I don’t just see a footprint; in my mind’s eye, I have an image of the animal that made it. The longer I follow the trail, the more layers of detail I can add to my mental picture.

To do this, you must first spend as much time as possible watching wildlife, and watching it closely. If you see a fox or deer, don’t just stop there – scrutinise how it moves its hips and haunches. How does it respond to the various objects around it?

An animal moving through a landscape has to contend with all manner of obstacles, from fallen branches to ditches and steep slopes, and this can be seen in its trail.

Fantastic faeces

One of the tracker’s most vital skills is to be able to interpret any droppings that you find. There are many practical guides full of delightful illustrations of scats, spraint and dung, but looking at pictures and reading descriptions should be just your starting point.

As well as considering a dropping’s shape, colour, texture, smell and location, you need to think about how these characteristics might have changed over time, and why the dropping was deposited there in the first place.

With practice, it’s possible to age and sex a deer from its droppings alone. Not only that, a hind’s faeces can look different at different times of year. It’s amazing how much information is stored in poo.

 Inner calm

By now, it should hopefully be clear that tracking doesn’t involve dashing around – it’s a sober activity that demands a deep inner calm. You need an almost meditative state of mind to piece together the jigsaw of clues. If I actively hunt for signs, my focus of attention narrows and I’m more likely to miss something. Instead, I prefer to let the trail reveal itself to me.

I sometimes imagine that I’m holding a Geiger counter that’s taking readings from my surroundings. If the ‘signal’ from the landscape gets stronger, I know that I’m heading in the right direction.

It is essential to look at the landscape itself, seeing it as the animal that made the trail would have seen it. Ultimately, my goal is to get into the mind of my quarry. This was particularly important when tracking leopards in Namibia last year, during the filming of my new tv series, because it enabled me to differentiate cats and even predict their future whereabouts.

It can be difficult to achieve this kind of intense mental connection to a trail (particularly when you have a film crew in tow). But, given time, you can train yourself to do it. When you’ve got the knack, it’s incredibly useful.

You must always have the utmost respect for potentially dangerous species such as leopards, of course, but I never underestimate any animal I follow. One of the trickiest moments during the filming was a close encounter with a grizzly bear in British Columbia. Everything seemed to be fine – the bear knew that I was there, and that I was not a threat – but then I noticed the faintest hint of stress in its demeanour.

Something was clearly distracting the bear, but what? I was puzzled. Then I glanced behind me and saw a production assistant waving his arms around, trying to take a souvenir snapshot on his compact camera.

Where the wolves roam

We also went to the wilds of Idaho to track wolves. These predators are incredibly mobile, so picking up their trail is often far from easy, plus I had to contend with the added complication of the season changing from winter to spring.

The thaw revealed elk droppings from the previous autumn’s rut, which looked beautifully fresh because they’d been preserved by the snow, alongside new elk spoor left only recently. You can differentiate between these because, during the rut, a male elk’s diet is severely disrupted. It virtually stops eating during its efforts to establish a harem of cows, so its droppings have a very different texture.

At one point, the producer gave me a challenge: could I find an inactive wolf denning site that the crew had located prior to my arrival? Since at least two-thirds of each day would be taken up with talking to the camera, I knew that I didn’t have much time.

So I did what any self-respecting tracker would do: I followed the eight-day-old trail of the film crew. Sometimes you have to have a few tricks up your sleeve!

Den secrets

The human trail eventually led to a path crossing an alpine meadow, where I found the fresh tracks of at least four different wolves. This was a clear indication that within the past eight days the den had been reoccupied by an alpha female to give birth and raise her litter.

We had to work secretly, because Idaho’s hunting season would open the day after we finished filming and we didn’t want to give her location away. In the 1990s, 35 wolves were released into the wild here and they thrived; today, there are more than 800 in the state, leading to pressure for their numbers to be controlled.

While in Idaho, we met members from the Nez Perce tribe, which had sponsored the wolf reintroduction programme. To them, the wolf is a brother, from whom they learn hunting skills. It’s an animal to respect – one that has many similarities to humans, living as it does in a close social group.

While I accept the need for wolf populations to be managed, I wish that more of us could learn to respect this beautiful animal like the Nez Perce.

The call of the wild

 Tracking is a life-long pursuit. It has taught me patience, determination and to listen to the song of the wild. It has sharpened my senses. Most important of all, tracking has given me deep respect for the animals I have been able to follow.

Students of tracking often ask me how they will know when they can really track. All I can say is: one day they will know. There will still be room for improvement, but they will have learned to employ one of our oldest skills, which defines the peculiarity of our species.

WOLF DIARIES: Ray recounts his experience of tracking wolves solo

One day during the filming of my new series I got the chance to track a wolf on my own, having shaken off the crew (they were shooting aerial footage from a helicopter). I had found a beautiful set of tracks to cast, but while mixing the plaster I suddenly had a feeling that the wolf wasn’t far away.

The plaster would take 20-30 minutes to set, so I quickly climbed a hill overlooking the area and lay down in the short sagebrush.

Just 15 minutes later, my tracker’s inner ‘alarm bell’ went off again. I scanned the landscape and detected movement: it was a large alpha male. Fortunately, he was upwind. He approached within 20m before moving off.

It was a fantastic moment. I have the cast of his paw print, as big as my hand, in my office. But the memory is the most important thing.

RAY’S TOP TRACKING TIPS

Animal tracks can be found just about anywhere, even on city pavements. Here are some common signs to look out for in Britain.

Deer couches

These depressions in the leaf litter of the forest floor show where deer have slept or been resting. They are often found under trees in places that provide a good view of the surrounding woodland. If you come across a couch, search it carefully for deer hair, especially when the animals are moulting between their winter and summer coats. Deer hair is very brittle and breaks easily when pulled.

Deer droppings

Look carefully at the shape of deer droppings (below), known as ‘fewmets’. For example, in fallow deer the base is rounded in females but indented in males. Don’t be shy: pick up the dung to have a proper look.

Otter spraints

These droppings can be very watery, have a sweet, musky odour and often contain fish bones and scales. Look for them on riverbanks under bridges and on prominent rocks near the water’s edge.

Fox scats

Any slightly raised feature in the landscape, including grass tussocks, molehills and anthills, is a good place to look for fox droppings. Their coloration reflects the animals’ diet: expect to see whitish-grey droppings in summer, when the diet of foxes is rich in calcium from bones. Fox scats also contain rabbit and rodent hair.

Badger hair and prints

The lower rungs of barbed wire fences frequently snag badger hair (above), which is typically long and strong, darker towards the end and with a very light tip. Badgers are like walking brushes: they leave a wide, undulating trail of footprints. These are very distinctive due to the long claws on the animals’ forefeet, used for digging up earthworms.

Wild boar wallows, rootlings prints

Numbers of wild boar are increasing in England and Wales. Two characteristic signs to look for include muddy wallows and disturbed areas of ground where the animals have rootled for buried food.

Boar prints look different to those of deer because boar walk with their weight on the heel; as a result, their dewclaws (the small digits located higher up the legs) touch the ground.

Rabbit fur

Spring and early summer is the peak breeding time for rabbits. You’ll often find the fur and blood shed during fierce battles between rivals, and may even come across injured individuals.

Snake skins

Snakes often shed their skins (below) when they emerge from their period of winter torpor. These treasures of the woods hold all of the detail of the reptiles that left them.

Hedgehog droppings

Often found on garden lawns, these droppings are dark black and beautifully shiny. They measure about 4cm long and are a shade under 1cm thick.

Egg shells

By examining the broken edge of an eggshell, you can often tell whether the nestling hatched successfully or fell victim to squirrels.

To find out more visit Ray Mears's website.

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