A Muddy Mammal Meet-up
It was a bright, breezy day. Leaves were being carried away like snowflakes and those that clung steadfast to branches were alight in the morning sunshine. We were on the Suckley Hills, walking along muddy footpaths, trying to chat with metres between us all, and – of course – looking out for signs and tracks of mammals.
The last time the committee had met was back on a dark, cold February night, in the pub! What a different world we were in now, and how did autumn come around so quickly?
During our walk we had a good catch up and talked about the group and the situation we’re all currently in. Having enjoyed a series of winter talks and workshops, unfortunately cut short by Covid, the uncertainty had since left things feeling a little stagnant for WMG. And now with Covid seemingly taking a stronger grip on the world once more, we decided it was time to look at alternative ways to engage with members and sustain the interest, the surveys and the records of Worcestershire’s mammals.
One thing that most of us can do, even during lockdowns, is to go for a walk. Whilst on a walk it needs no equipment, or expert knowledge, to keep an eye out for signs of mammals. And you will almost always see something, no matter where you are – town or country. Autumn is pretty much the perfect time to do so. It is just before some mammals go into hibernation and many can be pretty busy collecting and eating the bounty of food autumn has to offer. And with an increase in wetter weather, comes mud – which can present the perfect canvas for footprints. For me, I also find that in autumn (aside from the fungi and the winter thrushes!) there is little to distract me from thinking ‘mammal’!
On our walk we spotted some well-used mammal paths, which crossed our own. It is not always easy to identify what species may be using the slides, and quite often they’ll be multi-use. As a general rule, fox paths are very narrow, badger paths are typically wider and bare, (most conspicuous near setts or leading into fields used for foraging), and deer paths can become carved into the ground where they regularly scramble up banks.
What we observed on our walk seemed to be a mix of all these. Some scars in the banks that seemed to be deer routes, and some wider trails and slides (some with deer prints in them also), which suggests they were the creation of badger, deer and maybe even fox.
With mammals signs it’s useful not to look at things in isolation but take time to see what else is around, which may help piece together the ‘mammal picture’.
Near to one track we spotted the entrance to a badger sett, with its characteristic flat base and arched top. It was open enough to imply that it wasn’t an abandoned hole, but the lack of fresh prints at the muddy base indicated that it hadn’t been used too recently.
Prints & Poo
We also managed to see some tracks in the abundance of fresh mud. There was the rounded print of dogs here and there, but also the distinctive two-toed prints of deer.
No mammal walk is complete without poo! And we were lucky enough to spot some deer droppings near our path. Deer droppings are fairly easy to identify, being small, round, blunt at one end and pointed at the other. Size is a good way of distinguishing between deer species but without comparisons to hand it can be very difficult!
As well as tracks, droppings and breeding sites, other things to look out for on your walk are clumps of fur (fences are great places to check) and feeding signs (there’s a really useful guide here: https://www.discoverwildlife.com/how-to/identify-wildlife/how-to-identify-wildlife-feeding-signs/, particularly at this time of year. Nibbled nuts will be left by dormice, mice, voles and squirrels, and being able to distinguish between the different styles of nibble marks will help you identify what’s been busy feeding (PTES have a brief guide here: https://ptes.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Help_us_find_hazel_dormice_generic.pdf). A mass of bird feathers can indicate that a larger mammal has had a feast, depending on the species of bird and the condition of the feathers (if the feather pins are broken then it’s likely that they’ve been chomped through by a fox, but if they’re intact then it’s more likely they’ve been plucked by a bird of prey!).
For something to take on your walk, this handy foldout by the Field Studies Council and the Mammal Society covers all the general signs to look out for: ‘A Guide to British Mammal Tracks and Signs’. And if you want a bit more, I can recommend the comprehensive and accessible guidebook: ‘Britain’s Mammals: A Field Guide to the Mammals of Britain and Ireland’ by Dominic Couzens & Co. (no commission!).
If you do decide to head out for a walk and look for mammal signs, please do let us know what you find. You can post photos or ID questions to our Facebook group. And, if you’re feeling particularly inspired, we’re inviting our members to submit guest blogs so you could always put your mammal walk into words.
It was lovely to meet up as a small committee group but we’re all looking to getting back out with our members as soon as possible. Until that time comes, keep safe, keep in touch and keep thinking ‘mammal’!