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Following Footprints

Ben Dolphin

Ben Dolphin gains a glimpse into hidden lives through studying the trails and tracks left in the snow.

I spend a disproportionately huge amount of time staring out the kitchen window. Partly because, like everyone else, I’m spending a lot of time at home just now and I can’t help myself. And partly because there’s always the chance that something of interest will come ambling through the garden while I’m watching. But in recent weeks I’ve seen very little. The snow and cold have driven migratory species off the hill, snooze-prone species into slumber, and the remainder into networks of tunnels beneath the snowpack.

The natural world outside my window has therefore been eerily quiet and motionless of late, and in lockdown I find I’m missing those more conspicuous wildlife interactions more than usual. I know it can’t be as quiet and motionless as it looks of course, especially at night, and to that end I’ve been toying with the idea of buying a wildlife camera trap. Some day in the not so distant future I might just make that leap into the 21st century but, until then, Mother Nature has kindly provided the next best thing.

Hare outriders! I do enjoy company on a walk.

I was reminded of this fact the other week when, being the snow-mad loon that I am, I got up at 1:30am, a full 90 minutes AFTER going to sleep, just to see if an arriving weather front was falling as rain or snow. And no, I couldn’t wait till morning.

I groggily turned the outside light on and was greeted by a swirling mass of snowflakes on the breeze. Yes! I could go back to bed, happy. But then I noticed a fresh set of animal tracks by the car, clearly those of a large mammal.

Ooo! A fox perhaps?

I was seriously tempted to go outside to take a closer look, as I have only ever seen two foxes in this neck of the woods in over ten years! But it was 1:35am, I was half asleep and basically standing there in my pants. Snow and nature might be my two favourite things but even I have my limits, so I skulked back upstairs to bed.

The tracks were gone next morning, buried under six inches of snow and I instantly regretted not going to take a look when I had the chance. Regret is a great motivator, and so ever since then I’ve been consciously making the most of every opportunity I get. And thankfully, with the winter we’re having, there have been many!

Snow makes an impressive canvas, recording in three dimensions not just the lone passage of an individual creature on a given day, but also the cumulative movements of all the creatures that have passed through since the last snowfall. Of course, the main question any of us ask ourselves when we encounter footprints is what animal made them? I’m in awe of those people who, upon encountering tracks, can not only instantly declare what animal it is and what time it passed through, but also what sex it is, what it had for dinner, whether it has a sunny disposition and even what star sign it is.

I’m certainly not like that. I can recognise the more common tracks but I’m not an ecologist and I’m certainly no animal tracker. I’m just an enthusiastic amateur with a memory like a sieve, so I don’t get too hung up on ID because it’s also okay to appreciate them for what they are – the footprints of something else, other than yourself, with whom you are sharing this space. Nevertheless, it’s fun to play detective and try to piece together the clues through a process of elimination.

I found myself doing this two weeks ago when I was walking through a very quiet glen close to home. As I reached the bottom of the glen I encountered what can only be described as a frenzy of footprints in the snow.

There’s something fishy going on here.

They obviously weren’t hoofed but the owner was also quite large. No human had been through this remote spot since the snow fell, so that ruled out dogs, not that it looked particularly dog like. Each print was generally longer than it was wide, whereas I tend to think of dog prints as being as wide as they are long, or at least not far off. That probably ruled out fox too, but what else is that kind of size?

Badger? Are there even badgers in Kinross? I didn’t actually know. It looked big enough to be badgery perhaps, but this was at the bottom of a soggy, waterlogged, tree-less glen so that seemed unlikely. Plus, in the depths of a colder than average winter, any badgers are likely to be tucked up underground, slumbering in their setts. It didn’t look ‘bearish’ either, which is how I often picture badger paws. Nope, not a badger.

Pine marten maybe? Hmm, I wouldn’t recognise a pine marten print if I saw one, so I’d have to take my cues from both the habitat and the behaviour on display. Not all pine martens live in woodlands, but that does tend to be their preference so, with no forest nearby, it seemed unlikely.

The key in this instance was the proximity of the burn. I walked 10m further upstream and could clearly see prints going in and out of the water. At this point I had more than an inkling, but even so, looking around for additional clues can help put it beyond doubt. In this case I found a few fish scales and some bloodied innards. All very fishy, so I concluded that an otter (or otters) had been dining here.

I’ve said that in a very matter of fact way, but I was genuinely thrilled. I’d never seen otter prints in the snow before and indeed have never been lucky enough to see an otter anywhere other than on the west coast. It’s not for lack of trying, mind, but for me it’s always been one of those things where, so long as I keep consciously looking, I’ll never see them. And I certainly haven’t. Not on an inland river and certainly not over here in the east.

So yep, in this instance I was pretty confident but there are times when, even by the end of my detective work I am none the wiser. I really don’t think that matters though, because while I don’t berate myself for not knowing, I also can’t resist the lure of following tracks in case I find out.

It’s easy to assume that whatever made the tracks passed through five hours previously and that they’re long gone, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t have been laid down just five minutes ago either. And so off I go, far away from paths, being periodically ambushed by hidden tussocks or squelchy unfrozen mud under the snow.

I walk slow, taking my time, relishing the cold and the crunch, and enjoying the strange satisfaction of being guided by someone else for a change. I follow the tracks exactly but I’m careful never to step on top of them. I always walk beside them. I’m not sure why that is, it just feels disrespectful to my guide if I trample them. I never seriously expect to catch up with whatever it is, of course, but I love the idea that I might.

It’s probably going too far to say you become the animal when you’re following its tracks, but even when you don’t know what animal you’re following, you’re interacting with the landscape on the animal’s terms and that in itself is a unique insight, giving you a chance to experience a familiar environment in a slightly different way.

A rare blemish in a pristine landscape. Roe deer digging down for blaeberry.

Still, there’s no denying it brings an encounter to life once you do know what animal it is. It means that when you follow the prints you can visualise the animal alongside you in real time – stopping, digging, jumping, fishing. It’s an oddly immersive experience, and that was certainly the case with the otter.

I was following the course of the burn that day anyway, but I allowed for some minor diversions in order to fully follow the otter prints upstream. My invisible companion was impressively capable of scrambling, being able to negotiate precipitous and slippy banks where I instead had to cross to the opposite side to avoid them and thus got cold waterlogged boots in the process. As I say, an immersive experience. Unconsciously, I found I was creeping along those footprints too. Stalking, even, in hopeful anticipation of catching up with the owner.

Suffice to say I saw no otters that day. The prints disappeared back into the burn and that was the last I saw of them as I walked upstream. Nevertheless, that afternoon I’d paused more, listened more, looked more. My senses were heightened and I was completely tuned in to the landscape’s frequencies, rather than merely passing through at speed as I might otherwise have done and hearing only static.

I especially enjoy following hare tracks in this manner. They’re so dynamic, with so much variety of movement and activity, their every dig and nibble writ large as they move erratically across the snowscape. One moment their prints are evenly spaced out like they’re slowly walking along on all fours, and the next they’re bounding along at speed and leaving that distinctive Y-shaped ‘group of four’ print in their wake. I think that shape is probably my favourite of all the snowy sights in the hills, if only for the way it messes with your head when you first encounter it.

Each group of four consists of two larger hind footprints, side by side, and two smaller front footprints, one behind the other in an almost straight line. But which direction are the three hares in the photo above travelling? Away from the camera? Or towards the camera?

Well the two on the right are moving away from the camera, and the one on the left is moving towards it. That’s because when hares run they place their front feet down first, one behind the other, before bringing both their hind feet forwards and around their front feet in order to push off with power on the next bound.

Roe deer are another favourite to follow, mainly because they’re so fleet of foot. Following one of those and arriving at a fence is always a treat, as there’s rarely any sign of panic or confusion in those hoof prints. They vanish cleanly in front of the fence, and then reappear with the minimum of fuss or disturbance on the other side as though the whole animal has simply been picked up and gently put down again like a clockwork toy. They’re such graceful high jumpers that even the inch or two of snow on the fence rail usually lies undisturbed, which is something I always enjoy checking for.

Effortless

I sometimes even follow red grouse tracks, enjoying how one track becomes two when another bird joins the walk. But my favourite moment with grouse is when their tracks simply end with a beautiful wing-beat in the snow. It records the moment they departed for somewhere else on the hillside, at which point the trail goes irretrievably cold and you can’t help looking upwards and outwards, as if you’ll actually see them flying away.

Red grouse departure lounge

This type of wandering, and indeed this kind of wondering, isn’t something I necessarily do when I’m on a big hill day as I tend not to have the time. On big days I still love it when my route crosses that of another creature, or better still runs alongside it for a short time because it’s like having company, like having animal outriders, but wandering is definitely something I’m prone to doing when I’ve no particular goal in mind. Those wonderful days when simply being out in the snow is enough, when it doesn’t’ matter where I go so long as it’s snowy. And unsurprisingly I’ve found myself doing a lot more of this kind of thing in the peculiar lockdown winter we’re experiencing, now that I’m largely confined to Fife and any big hill days are beyond reach.

I’ve actually had longer hill days on my local ‘wee’ hills than I would otherwise have done on big hills farther north. Pretty much every snowy stravaig I’ve had on my doorstep this winter has either started with a sunrise or ended with a headtorch, chiefly because I’ve allowed myself to be distracted by the details. Or, most recently, because I’ve deliberately gone looking for them.

The day after my bleary-eyed fox hallucination I deliberately went snowshoeing in the adjacent field after dark, hoping to find evidence of life. Hares in particular are a conspicuous feature of my Fife summer, but in winter they’re rarely seen. As the most charismatic visitors to my garden I really miss them when they’re not there.

Kicking through seven inches of soft powdery snow, under a full moon, was an absolute joy in itself but I was genuinely surprised at quite how many hare tracks there were in that field. I hadn’t seen a hare for months, but numerous tracks converged on any piece of vegetation that was exposed, like spokes radiating out from the centre of a wheel. I spent ages following them around the field, hoar frost kicking up behind me, until such time as the tracks disappeared through improbably small holes in the stone dykes, away into the darkness.

Today, the view out my kitchen window doesn’t look very different to what it did a few weeks ago, but I can genuinely say that it FEELS different. It still looks quiet and motionless out there, but clearly it isn’t and it’s oddly comforting to know that the hares are still out there, somewhere. Footprints like theirs have been an unlikely source of solace these past few weeks, and I thank the snow for reminding me of that fact when I really needed it most. So for as long as this lockdown continues, may the snow continue to fall.

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