As the winter rains lie heavy on the Heart of England Forest’s pathways, patches of mud allow the perfect opportunity to become a ‘nature detective’ and spot the tracks of the animals that criss-cross them day and night. Here’s our Tracker’s Guide to help you identify the prints of five common animals that wander the woodland……..

 

Grey Squirrel

As you’d expect, squirrel tracks are likely to be found near the trees, particularly acorn-bearing oaks that provide their favourite food. They also favour berries, fungi, larvae and insects and will travel long distances for a meal, so their tracks should be easy to spot. Contrary to popular belief, grey squirrels do not hibernate and are active all year round. Their tracks show four toes on the front feet, which are commonly around 2cm x 1.5cm, and five toes on the hind feet, which measure roughly 3cm x 1.5cm. Their stride varies between 25cm and 75cm.
Did you know that squirrels can also turn their hind feet backwards, enabling them to descend a tree head-first?

Fox

Spotting fox tracks on woodland paths used by dog walkers can take an expert eye as they initially seem very similar! They are usually diamond-shaped and narrow (roughly 50mm long by 35mm wide) and it is occasionally possible to see the impressions of hairs between the pads, especially in winter. Another feature that differentiates them from dog pads is that there is a larger space between the heel and front toes of the fox’s paw.

Did you know that foxes travel many miles searching for food, consistently pounding the same trails and often at night? They are more purposeful than dogs, which leave more erratic tracks as they explore different scents!

 

Deer

 

 

 

(Image left to right: muntjac, roe and fallow)

If you’re lucky you might spot fallow deer, roe deer or muntjac in the Heart of England Forest. At first glance their prints may look similar to the cloven hooves of sheep. Deer tracks range in length from 30mm in muntjac, 50-60mm in roe deer, to 90mm or so in fallow deer, although the size can vary depending on whether the deer are male or female, young or older.

You might find roe deer prints where they forage for food such as herbs, brambles and ivy or (much to our foresters’ consternation!) tree shoots. Fallow deer are grazers, preferring grass for much of the year, although when nutrition is short in winter they sometimes feed on woody plants. Their tracks are very similar to muntjac, and often the only way to tell the difference is that they are slightly larger, although young fallow deer tracks are virtually identical.

Bear in mind that while roe and fallow deer often venture into wide open spaces seeking food, muntjac tend to stay safely in dense scrub and woodland, browsing on flowers and plants and sometimes standing on their hind legs to reach higher vegetation.

 

 

Badger

Famously shy, nocturnal animals, badgers are creatures of habit, tending to tread the same paths whenever they are out hunting for food. Much of their diet is made up of earthworms, but they are also partial to small rodents, slugs, frogs, fruit, nuts and wheat. The rear paw print is generally smaller and less broad than the front ones and the rear claws are shorter too. Their broad footprints can be up to 65mm across and the longer claws on the fore foot are perfect for digging. All five toe pads are in front of a broad rear pad and in the fore foot the inner toes are set back further than on the hind foot.

Look out for traces of badger fur (black with a white tip) caught on fences or bushes along their paths too!

 

Pheasant

Pheasants were introduced by the Normans as a game bird in the 11th century. They have a varied diet of seeds, berries, insects, worms and fruit which they forage for on the ground and occasionally in trees. The three-toed pheasant tracks measure around 7cm in length, and their pattern shows that they place one foot neatly in line with the next.

 

 

Did you know that pheasants also have a back toe which is higher than the rest to avoid it dragging on the ground, although it can sometimes appear faintly in their tracks?