Scottish Badger Week 2020 – Day 3 Tracks & Signs
As badgers are most active during the hours of dusk and dawn, the sighting of a wild badger is a relatively rare occurrence. As such, ecologists and wildlife enthusiasts rely largely on locating and identifying field signs to establish badger presence in an area. Badger field signs such as prints, paths, foraging and dung are relatively easy to find as they are generally quite conspicuous and the badgers’ habits are quite predictable i.e. we can be reasonably sure about what the field signs will look like and where we will find them. That said, badgers do like to mix things up from time to time, so newcomers to badger surveying should be prepared to expect the unexpected!
Our Project Officer Elaine Rainey has been surveying badgers for over fifteen years now, initially coordinating the Scottish Badger Distribution Survey and latterly having the opportunity to train with some tracking greats such as Jon Young from America and some fabulous UK tracking experts. In this blog, Elaine will highlight her approach to tracking and provide some ideas and resources to help you improve your tracking skills.
This is the foundation of tracking, indeed it was a matter of life and death for indigenous trackers hunting for food and avoiding predators. Paying attention is a skill and it takes practice. To develop attentiveness in nature, I would recommend a nature connection activity called the ‘sit spot’ – a place where you go regularly to observe nature. As you show up at the same spot regularly, you get to know the wildlife sharing your patch and you begin to notice subtle seasonal/ diurnal changes, or when something is out of place. You will eventually be able to carry this state of enhanced attentiveness out into the world with you on your tracking adventures.
When starting out with tracking, you’ll quickly begin to notice various field signs. However, without much knowledge or experience, it can be difficult to link the field sign to the animal that left it. This is where Master Listing and the Tracker’s Sieve come in. Master Listing is where you make a list of all the possible animals that could have left the field sign. Beside each animal, list the reasons ‘why’ and ‘why not’. Although you may not arrive at a definitive answer with this technique, you can certainly narrow down the options as you begin to differentiate between the field signs of different mammals.
The Tracker’s Sieve is the name I’ve given to a nature connection technique whereby for any given field sign, you ask the questions where, when, what, why and who. I see this exercise as a way of sifting through the mental mud to get clear on what you see.
Badger tracks and signs
The most common field signs of badgers include footprints, paths, dung pits and latrines, hair, foraging signs, setts, scratching posts, claw marks, above ground nests and skulls/bones. It is outwith the scope of this post to cover these field signs in detail but I would like to highlight a few resources I have created to help others become skillful in locating and identifying badger field signs:
- The Field Kit Facts activity sheet allows you to create a pocket-sized swatch book with images and descriptions of the common badger field signs.
- The Skeleton Skills: Build a Badger game introduces you to badger skulls and bones.
- With the Whose Poo? quiz you can learn to differentiate between the scatological evidence left by different animals.
The resources above have been developed as part of Let’s Notice Nature – a free online environmental education and nature connection initiative for all ages.
The importance of seasonality
The habits of badgers vary considerably throughout the year. This is reflected in their field signs so it’s worth taking the time to learn the badger year. Our printable Circular Calendar gives you a monthly breakdown of badger activity.
Recording and monitoring
I’ve been supporting volunteers through our Level One Registered Badger Surveyor training and assessment scheme for many years now. The one thing that I see time and time again holding trainees back from progressing to assessment is a lack of confidence in recording badger setts. It sure is fun following field signs and finding the setts, but that is often where the enthusiasm ends! The process of filling in our standardised recording form is so valuable in getting you to really look around a badger sett and make informed decisions about usage at sett entrances, sett categories etc.
Monitoring an individual sett or series of setts with regular visits over a period of time is also really beneficial as you get to know the setts and can track changes so much more effectively. Trail cameras add another layer to this process. One of our volunteers has been monitoring a sett with a trail camera for the past three years and has documented two females giving birth to separate litters of cubs in setts less than 50 metres apart. This has not been a one-off, it has now happened for three consecutive years.
I mentioned at the beginning to expect the unexpected with badger surveying, and this really is my take-home message. You can have all the knowledge, skills and experience in the world, then one day you see something that blows all of that out of the window! Badgers are determined, resilient, opportunistic forces of nature. Over many years of sniffing their poo and joyfully coming across their setts, I’ve developed a deep admiration for our lumbering, playful black and white fellow mammals. This is what I hope to pass on as I support others on their tracking journey.
Would you like to learn more about the fundamentals of tracking? We’re considering running a one-day course as soon as it is possible to do so. If you would like to register your interest, please email Elaine at firstname.lastname@example.org.