Woodland mammals can be notoriously shy of human contact, but spring offers the perfect opportunity to look for the tell-tale signs that they have been wandering the highways and byways of the forest, and the biggest clue to search for is simple – it’s their poo!
As the weather warms and the winter rains that can wash away animal droppings become less frequent, the observant wanderer can uncover a whole host of evidence of animal activity. Birds, too, leave a multitude of traces for the eagle-eyed woodland detective to spot. Here are a few handy hints about the droppings (sometimes known as ‘scats’) that species, some more common than others, leave for you to spot as you roam the Heart of England Forest. A word of warning, you may not want to read this over your breakfast, lunch or evening meal!
Among the most commonly found droppings in the Heart of England Forest will be those of our resident deer. Usually pellet or pill-shaped, they are easily confused with rabbit droppings. Deer often leave behind solid ‘scats’ of clumped pellets along with smaller droppings. These are usually over an inch in length and dark in colour.
Mr Brock is a little more sanitary than some of his woodland colleagues, often preferring to use shallow pits, called latrines, at the edge of their territory, to poo in. The black droppings are usually firm and sausage-shaped, and can show signs of carrion or berries. If it’s sloppy it means that they’ve been feasting on lots of worms!
A real stinker, anyone with a dog knows how attractive it is for our four-legged friends to roll in fox poo – it’s a throwback to their ancestry, when wild dogs did this to mask their scent. Fox poo is treacly and black and can often be pointed or twisted at one end. It will contain fur, feathers, tiny bones, seeds and berries, and is left to mark its own territory.
Naturally enough, you’ll be most likely to find otter poo on a riverbank, under bridges or on rocks nearby. Coarse and black, it is called spraint and usually contains shell fragments, fish bones, feathers, seeds and berries. It can often have a slightly sweet aroma.
We’ve all seen piles of little round rabbit pellets here and there, and brown hare faeces is very similar. It is generally larger (up to 1cm), more flattened and fibrous. Neither rabbits nor hares are ruminants, meaning they don’t chew their food greatly, so their poo often contains large remnants of grasses and plants.
You may not have to go far to see this one – maybe just out to your lawn. Usually dark brown-grey or black, hedgehog poo can be cylindrical and up to 5cms long, and it’s sometimes tapered at one end. Since they love to tuck into small insects, look out for shiny fragments or the remains of a juicy worm.
It’s easy to confuse bird pellets with mammal droppings, but they are, in fact, undigested and regurgitated food. All birds produce pellets, but the most evident are those of the raptors, such as the owls or kestrels that feed on small mammals and other birds – they will contain bones, fur and feathers.
Usually found where birds have been feeding, roosting or nesting, they soon dry out and harden, and pellets can give investigators a fascinating peep into the feeding habits of the local birdlife.
Remember, it’s never a great idea to pick up poo or pellet by hand, so if you’re keen for a closer look then break it apart with a stick to investigate further! Fingers crossed you don’t step in any of them first!