Reading a fox’s tale in the snow

The fox places the hind paw almost into the mark made by the front paw

The fox places the hind paw almost into the mark made by the front paw


The fox sat and ate the vole

The fox sat and ate the vole

Continuing my 2011/12 wildlife survey reports – Part 1 of 2:


Sunday 19 February 2012.  Weather:  one or two inches of snow on the ground, having fallen the previous evening.  Temperature -3 degrees, gradually reaching 4 degrees as sun came out about 0930. Thankfully no wind

There was only a dusting of snow at home, though I suspected there would be slightly more once I drove to my wildlife survey estate. The forecast was good so I thought I might take advantage of an opportunity to track birds and mammals that may have passed earlier. If snow has lain overnight without freezing it is an open book of what has taken place during the night. I hoped that would be the case.  A light snowfall, in line with yesterday evening’s weather forecast, makes little difference to the nocturnal activities of mammals, thought a heavy snowfall severely limits the movements of the smaller ones.  I could see as I approached Dunkeld that the hills were white; in fact the side roads were white as well, and demanded careful driving to avoid landing in the ditch.

There was a good omen on one of the side roads: ten or a dozen fallow deer were ambling from one side of a big house bell-mouthed entrance to the other, and about 10 yards from my car. They took no notice of the vehicle, thought I was unable to stop or even slow down before I had passed the entrance and lost them to sight. Most were the dark variety, with one dappled one among them. A good start!

I left my car at the farm. There was an inch or so of snow there, more where it had been drifting in yesterday evening’s wind. It was crunchy underfoot, but thankfully that was only on any field or hill tracks. If I walked to the side of any tracks the snow was quite soft, and allowed me to walk quietly rather than alert ever beastie within quarter of a mile. Rabbit tracks were everywhere, and as I headed up towards the High Larches Wood a fox had crossed my path. Its passage must have been during early evening as drifting snow had partly filled in its tracks, but the neat straight line of paw prints, with toe marks still visible in an occasional one, confirmed who had left the tracks. Fallow deer had also been down very close to the farm. Their cleat marks were mostly filled in with snow as well, but where they dragged each foot forward, barely off the ground, they left two virtually parallel lines, punctuated every time they put a foot down. Roe are much more dainty when walking and, unless the snow is deep, are much less inclined to drag their cleats through the snow.

I cut into the small roundel, mainly of larch trees, immediately before High Larches Wood. A rabbit ahead of me thumped the ground with a back foot (the sound carrying quite clearly in the absence of wind) and another rabbit came out of a nearby burrow to assess the danger for itself. The two looked at me, 25 yards away, trying to work out – in almost monochrome vision – what this apparition was. It’s strange that birds see in colour yet most mammals, with the exception of primates and some marsupials, only appear to see shaded versions of colours. Most mammals in Scotland are nocturnal so I suppose improved night vision might be the reason, and certainly an advantage. As I was watching the two rabbits I was aware of a chaffinch half-heartedly trying to sing. I’ve heard chaffinches singing at home over the last few mornings, but these mornings were milder with no snow. The one above me sounded a bit downcast that the route to spring had faltered spectacularly and eventually gave up its musical efforts.

The rabbits’ patience was wearing better than mine, and I finally moved forward, causing both rabbits to take off through the wood. Most observers might wonder why they did not bolt down the adjacent burrow, especially considering one had not long emerged from the burrow. When I walked forward I could see that the burrow was quite small with only three entrances. Taking refuge in what appeared to be a small, shallow, burrow might put them at great risk if the ‘predator’ had seen where they had gone. Making for a bigger burrow, or even an equally small burrow, but out of sight of the predator was a much safer option.

I was torn between looking down at tracks and looking up for birds, but when I did eventually tear my gaze away from the myriad of tracks in the snow I could see a buzzard’s nest high in a larch tree. It looked in good repair and was probably from the previous year. The chances are they’ll be back to the roundel, or even the same nest, this year. As I came out of the roundel, two dunnocks were feeding on the tip of a blown fir tree, apparently the only two avian companions for the despondent chaffinch.

I crossed a narrow, damp area to the entrance to the High Larches Wood. On the left of the entrance there is a huge area of wild rhododendrons. Red-legged partridges started to explode out of there at my approach. I was amazed as they continued to come out, making a total of at least 70. I saw from the footprints in the snow as I went in the track to the wood that others had run across to the right; tracks with three toes forward, one back and with a small furrow in the snow made by the middle toe scraping the snow, thereby joining the footprints together.  This was an incredible pack of partridges for mid-February, especially after an excellent shooting season. I’ll be interested to see if they pair up; whether they’ll nest on the lower ground rather than on the hill; if a red-legged partridge is a good mother (as the father takes much less interest in rearing a family than does his grey cousin), and if there is a good enough food supply to sustain chicks. I suspect there will be plenty food, as no chemicals are used on this estate so insects, essential for many young birds, should thrive.

The High Larches Wood was quiet wildlife-wise. There were plenty tracks of fallow and some of roe, but the only bird I saw was a robin. A primary school pupil once wrote in a nature diary during a project I ran that ‘robins only come out when there is snow.’ There was certainly snow today; maybe she was right! I walked to the top of the wood to where larch and sycamore trees give way to sitka spruce, and wondered if I might see a red squirrel. The red squirrel habitat had degenerated with so many recently-fallen trees, but hopefully there may be sufficient remaining to sustain a few of the scarce and lovable beasties. At the top of one of the trees, though out of my view, a mistle thrush was singing. Even he, like the earlier chaffinch was putting little effort into the song and gave up after a few bars. It was nearly 10.00 o’clock and the sun had come out, but not enough to convince birds that their musical endeavours, which are really about communication and territory, would not be wasted. Did they know of a spell of wintry weather ahead?

I left the wood and had a look round the corner at one of my favourite rock-seats (too wet to sit on today) to see if there was any sign of the black rabbit. En route I crossed fox tracks heading in that direction and hoped black bun had not been on last night’s menu. There was no sign of the black rabbit, but I’ll not give up hope just yet….  The fox tracks continued down over the burn and up the small incline to the gate leading to the grass field that leads up to Spooky Valley. The tracks were nice and clear, probably made around dawn, so I decided to follow to see what Vulpes vulpes had been up to.  When the fox walked in a straight line it was easy to validate the habit they have of placing the hind foot almost on top of the imprint of the front foot. Unlike some other mammals where there are usually two parallel lines of tracks, a left and a right, the fox normally leaves a single line of tracks. This single line led to a rabbit burrow, where the fox had investigated two of the entrances before moving on and turning right to head down to the dyke separating the field from the hill. It followed the line of the dyke to near the top of the field and was joined (or at least its tracks were joined) there by the tracks of another fox coming in from the centre of the field. The two sets of tracks continued, without any signs of one fox greeting the other (which made me think the tracks were made at different times and that the two foxes had not, in fact, met), through the gate at the top of the field and through the next gate 20 yards along that led to the hill and Spooky Valley.

Once on the hill, one set of tracks veered sharp left, but the other – my original fox – continued along the track through the hill that leads to the pegs for the partridge drives. A couple of hundred yards along the track it deviated sharply to the left to the bracken, flattened by the winter frosts, and almost immediately came out onto the track again in two bounds. At that point there was a small red blood-stained patch of snow where the fox had crunched and eaten the morsel it had caught, probably a long-tailed field mouse or a field vole. I could even see in the snow where the fox had briefly sat on its haunches while it dined, with the impression in the snow of the lower part of its back legs, from toe to hock, forming an open ‘V’, almost surrounded by the semi-circular impression of its backside.  Any countryside walk in fresh snow can reveal these secrets to anyone who can interpret them. The fox walked on a bit further, investigating – though not eating – a fallow deer gralloch, before cutting right-handed again down towards the burn running through Spooky Valley. Just after the fox left the path, the tracks of a small mammal, probably a field vole, crossed the path from left to right. Surprisingly I’ve never seen a live vole on this estate, but they were certainly here. Maybe this year will be a good vole year, and consequently lead to better breeding success of species such as stoats, weasels, owls, kestrels, hen harriers and merlins. The vole doesn’t have many friends!

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