A Forest Tale

This is a story taken from the Master Tracker Programme, which hopefully puts tracking in context.

It was early evening on a June day. 

The sun had nearly dried out yesterday’s rains but there were still a few small puddles dotted around. The big, brock badger had stuck his nose out of the sett earlier, sniffed the air and then went back below. The cubs were causing an impatient ruckus further down in the sett. The brock stuck his nose out once again and declared to himself that all was clear. He slowly moved out of the sett and onto the mound of earth immediately outside the sett entrance. The cubs followed a short time after.

The fox had already been out and about earlier in the afternoon. Her cubs were grown up enough now for them to forage on their own. Even though their den was located some distance away from the badger sett, the cubs often came snooping around. She had travelled directly from the den, through the farmyard and then followed a straight, well-worn path across the field. She had gone under the fence as usual and straight across the mound of earth that was the main sett entrance toward her favourite foraging area. She trotted purposefully in a straight line. She preferred straight lines but the rain had pooled water further up the trail. This had made a rather large puddle. She disliked getting her feet wet so she would have to navigate around it. On the way to the puddle she brushed up against the large oak tree which was just off the path on the right, adding to the shine and smoothness of the bark. The action added few more soft, ginger hairs that was already stuck on the bark. This quick, passing rub renewed the scent still lingering from yesterday. It reminded her to leave some scat further up the trail where there was a slight rise on the path. Both these scent marks would let the others know she was still the dominant female in the area.

The oak where the fox had just rubbed her body has a small hollow in the base of the tree where the roots have grown up from the ground. Not many had seen the wood mouse scurrying around the base of the oak. One by one the collected nuts and seeds of hawthorn, ash and hazel were stored in the hollow. The hollow was large enough for the mouse to look out but not big enough to let in any danger while it ate the seeds. The mouse had since moved away from the area probably because a tawny owl had moved in. The only evidence of the mouse’s previous presence was a mound of empty seed cases still stashed in the hollow.

A few strides after the oak, the fox turned her whole body at an angle to the left but she still trotted in the same straight direction, not deviating from her route. As she did so, she sniffed at the remnants of the pigeon carcass a few meters off the trail. She had come across this easy meal a few days ago. A young pigeon had been caught off-guard by a female sparrow hawk as it perched on a limb of a nearby birch tree overhanging the trail. The sparrow hawk had taken the pigeon by surprise and, with a crashing blow to the body, she had taken the pigeon to the ground with needle sharp claws. The pigeon had been swiftly dispatched by a series of pecks. She had just started to pluck out some feathers when something had scared her off. It was probably the blackbird who was preparing her nest for a second brood in the nearby bramble bush.

The blackbird had sensibly kept hidden low in the hedge and had kept quiet as the sparrow hawk approached and killed the pigeon but she had spotted a more immediate danger of the trotting fox rapidly approaching the area. The blackbird had no choice but to bolt out of the bush, alarming noisily as she flew rapidly out of the hedge to the safety of another bush some way away. The sparrow hawk took heed the alarm and flew off herself leaving the carcass laying on the ground. The fox immediately changed her direction and had settled down to make a meal of the pigeon. She had bitten through a few clumps of feathers while pulling them out with her teeth and then thought better of eating it in situ. She decided to take it straight to her cache area nearer to the den. She would then be able to share the meal with her cubs. This afternoon she sniffed the air as she passed where the carcass had been. There was nothing else left apart from a few feathers plucked out by the sparrow hawk and some cut feathers which she had torn out and part of a wing. She turned again to face forward and concentrated on circumnavigating the large puddle of water before trotting off to her feeding area.

The squirrel had been watching the fox approach. He had been seeking out some of the hazelnuts that he had buried in the autumn. There weren’t many hidden nuts left now, in fact they were quite scarce, but he was sure there were still some in the vicinity. He had just dug one up with his sharp little claws. The shell was brittle and he had no trouble biting it in half, which he discarded. He managed to grab the nut inside the casing just before the fox came along. He had scampered up the tree and along a large branch carrying the nut in his mouth. The fox was no threat and was merely passing through; so, he just sat there watching her pass under him. He didn’t bother to lay flat and hide, or hiss and flick his tail in distaste shown for the usual intruders entering his territory with intent to stay. He noticed the fox tread on the empty half of the nut shell with her left rear paw pushing it slightly into the ground.

Not only is the badger sett a favourite route for the fox but the muntjac had also paid a visit that afternoon shortly after the fox had passed through. He likes the woods and especially likes the area around the sett where there is good browsing. He often uses the mound of earth on the ancient raised sett entrance to reach the juicy, young leaves hanging over the sett entrance. After a nibble or two he moved off deeper into the copse and brambles where no other animal larger than himself can follow. He is aware that a female in the area has just given birth making her available for mating again, so he is now looking for her as well as browsing the lower edges of the hedge and brash. He is also prepared to challenge the other male that he knows is in the territory somewhere.

The rabbits already make use of the covered area near the sett. They have made their runs through the low brambles directly back to their burrows. They like the older, disused sett entrances and often sit on the higher ground nibbling the grass surrounding the old holes. The higher ground enables them to see any threats like the fox coming their way. Of course, they keep a respectable distance when the badgers are out and about. The badgers aren’t too interested in them. The rabbits are far too fast except for one year when a sick rabbit was caught by the big brock and eaten, leaving only the skin, head and legs on the forest floor. The buck rabbits have made small territorial scrapes along the fence line of the field. There are still a couple of clumps of fur – the result of a quick fight between two older males – embedded in the bushes where the wind has blown them away from the field edge.

The trail from the field into the forest is like a motorway. The fence doesn’t seem to make any difference to the creatures that move from one area to the other. They either go under, over or even through the barbed-wire. About a week ago the farmer’s dog went through there. He is a big dog but not big enough to jump the fence so he crawled underneath it leaving his black fur on the lower strand of wire. Perhaps he was after the cat that sometimes hunts in the area. The dog doesn’t often get out from the confines of the farm but he did on this occasion.

Unusually today, there was another visitor. A large fallow doe had walked across the mound of earth shortly after the muntjac’s visit. She had a fawn with her. She didn’t seem to stop and feed like the muntjac although there was plenty of browsing available for them both. She must have had something else on her mind. Maybe the wind changed slightly and she was anxious to get deeper into the woods to protect her fawn. In fact she did turn off slightly to the left thereby taking another less used trail.

This trail took them passed an old fallow buck stand. It is an area circled by a mixture of ash and hazel with a prominent oak. There are still marks on the trees where, during the rut in early October last year, a large buck had rubbed his antlers against the trees trying to get the scent from the scent glands around his face on to the trees to announce his presence and challenge any young upstarts. The wallow between the larger ash and the hazel is no longer obvious but there is still a slight depression on the ground. A few hairs are still left on the ground from where the buck had rolled in the mixture of mud and his own urine in an attempt to enhance his scent and attract the does. The fawn accompanying the doe is testament to last years successful rut conceived at this exact spot. The doe would now lead the fawn into the longer grass beyond the stand where he would lay down and keep absolutely still while she foraged nearby. The fawn would leave a small body-shaped indent in the grass which would be warm for a while – the only evidence that he had been there.

Since the flurry of activity in the afternoon it had seemed a long time before the badger made an appearance in the early evening. There had been little activity until then. All was quiet and peaceful until the light started to fade slightly. A female tawny owl called to her mate with a “kee-weee” from a branch of the large oak where the fox had brushed up against earlier. There was no answer from her mate but it was enough for the badger to freeze and sniff the air in all directions. The cubs did not know enough yet to keep still and continued snickering and playing together suddenly free of the confines of the sett. The big brock badger was old and wise enough to take heed of any forest communication and would listen closely to the other forest inhabitants for the slightest sign of danger. In this case there was none. The owl was simply contact calling and no other creature seemed concerned.

The owl slowly swivelled her head, blinked and listened intently for any movement in the undergrowth below her perch. She liked this perch more than the others despite the presence of the badgers. In fact the badgers had helped dig up the area disturbing the smaller animals still present. There had been a mouse at the base of the tree recently but she had failed to catch it. It was now a good perch for digesting her meals. She sat here on a regular basis letting her pellets containing undigested remains of small rodents fall to the ground. Her favourite food was mice but she also took voles – both bank and field voles – and of course, shrews. She also like to keep an eye on the badgers. Once they had wandered into her territory a little deeper into the forest. On that occasion her shrieking had worked and the badgers quickly left the area.

She fluffed up her feathers and decided to fly off to her another hunting perch further into the forest. She was hungry because the recent rains had stopped her flying between her regular perches. She spread her huge wings, lifted off the perch and, after a couple of silent flaps, glided through the forest.

The badger looked around. He had just moved a few meters to a disused entrance at the rear of the sett where the active latrine was situated. He used his powerful front paws and claws to dig a shallow hole. On the way to the foraging area he would add to the line of latrines that would mark the boundary of the clan’s territory. He made a low grunt. It was enough to call the cubs to attention and they followed as he trotted out towards the field and the luscious earthworms that would be waiting for them brought to the surface by the recent rains. The sow and her sisters would follow later.

The tracker stood up slowly from her crouched position and lent against the tree. She surveyed the scene making sure that every detail had been obtained. She now had an account of what had happened during the afternoon and evening the previous day. The wind direction changed slightly and gained in strength. She knew there was more rain coming soon. In fact, the first spots had already been felt. She guessed the time, which was a favourite game of hers. Her watch told her she was fifteen minutes out. Not very good by her standards – but you tend to lose all sense of time when tracking. She would note the time of the rain to time-stamp the scene if she visited again in the near future.

She made a final check of the scene. No. Nothing had been over-looked. She was satisfied that her version of events contained a minimum of guesswork and was as accurate as could be. She was pleased with herself. She hadn’t followed any animals – she hadn’t even seen any animals. She had just read the story of the Forest related to her from the tracks and signs the inhabitants had left behind.