Tracks in the snow

The red squirrel hopped over the lawn

The red squirrel hopped over the lawn


Red squirrel tracks in the snow - note the long narrow fingers and claws

Red squirrel tracks in the snow – note the long narrow fingers and claws

I hate snow! I used to like it when I was at primary school a long time ago but now I much prefer it to be on Christmas cards. That said it reveals much about the presence of wildlife that would otherwise go unseen. Animals and birds leave their tell-tale ‘spoor’, to use an African term. I spent a while looking for spoor in the garden yesterday (Monday) when we woke up to just over an inch of fresh snow.

The first thing I saw as I was filling the bird feeders just before daylight was the tracks of a domestic cat; hardly wildlife and a predator I could well do without. Their marks are distinctive in that no claw marks are visible since they walk with their claws retracted. This fact has often been the saviour in the past when, as a police wildlife crime officer, someone excitedly reported to me that they had found the tracks of a ‘big cat,’ either in snow or in mud. I always went to look at the tracks just in case, even though I am sceptical about the presence of large non-native felines roaming the Scottish countryside. In every case claw marks have been visible on a least some of the pad marks, justifying my scepticism. Sometimes the pad marks were large, but of course as snow melts the marks expand. And of course as the marks were really made by dogs (though in one case an otter) they were quite large in any case. If it had really been a ‘big cat’ it could only have been a cheetah, as it is the only big cat that doesn’t retract its claws. I haven’t seen many cheetahs going about recently.  Anyway the tracks in my garden were of a common or garden moggy; in fact one, I’m sure, that lives just along the road and unfortunately seems to prefer my garden to its own.

I was a bit surprised that the two red squirrels came out so early, and both were hopping about the snow just after daylight in the places they know I leave snacks for them.  I ventured into the garden nearer lunch time to photograph their tracks, which are similar to that of rabbits but with their much longer ‘fingers’ more clearly visible. In these few hours they’d covered much of the garden in their search for food, including forays among the brussel sprouts and kale. A weasel had been in one of the woodpiles. I followed its tracks across the drive to a length of pipe, where it had entered at one end and exited at the other before returning to the woodpile. I’ve little doubt the woodpile also harbours mice, so Mr Weasel is welcome. If there are no mice in the woodpile there certainly are in the compost bins as I’ve sometimes taken the lid off to find a handful of them looking up a me before scurrying down under the compost out of sight. Interestingly as soon as a rat takes occupancy of a compost bin the mice move out. If the weasel takes a rat he is even more welcome.

By early afternoon there were tracks of a pheasant across the top of the lawn. I’ve never seen a pheasant in the garden since last winter, but the covering of snow in the fields has obviously brought at least one in. Now that they know there is a decent food supply I’m sure they’ll be regular visitors, and start to roost in the trees at night. The most I’ve seen roosting in one tree, a fir tree near the vegetable garden, is five hen pheasants. The pheasants are funny when winter turns to spring and the cock pheasants try to attract a mate. They have a favourite site at the top of the wood where they stand and cuck-cuck and flap their wings loudly hoping for some response from a lady, most of which are too busy pecking at the ground and looking for a morsel to eat.

The snow has just started again as I write this so there may be more spoor to ponder over on Wednesday morning. Rather grudgingly I admit snow does have some advantages……

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