Following in the footsteps

Elspeth Ingleby – Natural Heritage Officer, This Exploited Land of Iron

Wildlife can be wonderfully conspicuous – in the UK there are lots of places where you are assured a wealth of wildlife before your very eyes, be it throngs of guillemot on a sea cliff, ducks and geese scrambling for titbits at a local park, or even clouds of the infamous Scottish midge. However many other species can be much harder to discover, whether because of where they live, what they eat or their sensitivity to disturbance.

But with a little effort and some detective work, you can discover a whole new world of wildlife. Spring is a great time to look a little more closely and see what you can find.

Prints, tracks and signs

You can pick up guides to some of the more common prints and signs (the Field Studies Council produce several) and then with a little practice it is possible to find and follow the footsteps of your local wildlife seeing how animals are using the landscape which is their home. Things to look out for include:

  • Bare ground, turned earth or puddle edges which are great for retaining foot prints of passing wildlife – head out a few hours after rain (or snow!) to see what has passed by in the recent past.
  • Patches of white splattered on the ground, branches or tree trunks that are a dead giveaway for a regular perch or roost where the resident has lightened the load before taking flight.
  • The bottom of fences and around the base of trees which can provide rich pickings of hair tufts which can identify who has been there.
  • Holes in the ground that can indicate where a pheasant has scratched, or a badger has dug after worms.

Pellets and poo

You can tell a lot about wildlife from the physical remains they leave behind. Looking a little closer at droppings or the regurgitated pellets of raptors can yield a wealth of information, not only about the eater, but also about the eaten.

At our recent This Exploited Land of Iron launch weekend, we challenged young wildlife explorers to see what they could find within Barn Owl pellets. Within minutes we had identified remains of Field Vole, Common Shrew, Wood Mouse, Robin and Frog showing just what a range of food owls will eat. It’s also fun trying to see how many skulls you can find, or identifying the different bones of the victims’ anatomy!Getting hands on at the Land of Iron launch event (copyright NYMNPA) and photo of Barn Owl (copyright Brian Nellist).

Many of our native predators use scats (animal excrement) as sign posts advertising their presence and territory to others. Surveying some of our shyest mammals is often done almost entirely by poo alone. The distinctive ‘tic-tac’ Water Vole droppings can identify not only where a population is, but also size of inhabited area, number of population, whether breeding or not – where you could be walking every day and never actually see ear nor tail of a Water Vole.Water Vole by WildStock Images

Smell can be a great way to tell different species apart as a careful sniff can tell you a lot. For instance Otters will leave ‘Jasmine scented’ scats often containing fish bones and scales, on prominent rocks in a stream, whereas Foxes will leave grey, foul smelling scats with wisps of hair, bone and beetle shells in the middle of a path giving clues to their daily haunts and diet.

Camera tracking

Trail camera. Copyright NYMNPA.A slightly less ‘hands on’ approach is to wait for the wildlife to come to you. As technology progresses and costs fall, remote cameras are becoming much more accessible – whether you are hoping to learn about a particular species, or simply work out what is digging up your vegetable patch! Our Land of Iron Programme has recently invested in a number of cameras to help us find out more about the shy and elusive Ring Ouzel which breeds around the moorland edge, and is also known as the Mountain Blackbird. The local population in Rosedale has been vulnerable to nest predation in recent years and we are hoping to catch the Ring Ouzel with its distinctive white chest. Copyright North East Wildlife.culprits in the act by staking out key nest sites. We are also expecting these cameras to give us real insights into Ring Ouzel behaviour, informing how we can best support and bolster the population of these beautiful birds. The best bit? – we don’t have to spend the next three months sitting behind a bush to find out!

Rosedale with Rowan in the foreground. Copyright Tom Mutton, NYMNPA.

Animal tracking can be incredibly rewarding, and a great activity to do when you’re out and about – particularly with kids. You can get involved for yourself by joining This Exploited Land of Iron at the upcoming Rosedale History Society Festival on 22 and 23 April where we will be busy dissecting owl pellets, or taking part in one of the family friendly events at The Moors National Park Centre over the Easter holidays, or just heading out yourself for an explore! However when you’re exploring please remember that most of the North York Moors is privately owned and you’d need permission from the landowner to explore over private land.

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