Following wildlife clues in the snow

Grey Squirrel. Photo: Bob Coyle.
Grey Squirrel. Photo: Bob Coyle.

Our regular column from Rachel Shaw of Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust.

The arrival of snow is always exciting. It’s a reminder of the joy of childhood.

Whilst building snowmen may be frowned upon within a work situation, I took the opportunity of snowfall at the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust’s headquarters to explore the gardens and adjacent meadow and riverbank in search of animal tracks. Animals themselves can be difficult to spot but fresh snowfall makes their presence much more obvious in the trail of footprints they leave behind.

I spent one lunch-time happily scouting out these signs and was surprised at the quantity I found. The first I spotted were those of a large bird, the identification of which I could easily confirm as I saw the culprit, a male pheasant strutting around the garden. Slightly more discreet were the prints of a blackbird, lightly pressed into the snow and jumping with both feet together. The meadow at our headquarters borders the River Bain; walking straight up from the bank and across the path were the prints of another big-footed bird. Three long toes with no indication of webbing, this must have been the prints of a moorhen rather than a duck.

Nearby there’s a small wooded copse. Here were prints that seemed to appear out of nowhere, the animal then bounding off in great leaps. These were the prints of a grey squirrel jumping down from a tree and leaping through the snow.

The squirrel prints, much like a rabbit’s, showed larger hind-feet and smaller front-feet, the action of the animal giving away its identity.

The most dominant print, however, were those of a predator, and they showed just how active they are in our gardens. These prints, which criss-crossed the gardens and the meadow, were from domestic cats. I felt sorry for the birds, especially the small ones like robins, blue tits and wrens. Life is very hard for them at this time of year. It’s difficult to find enough food and keep warm without the extra challenge of avoiding these prowling predators that have a ready supply of food back at their owner’s home.

When there’s no snow, it’s still possible to see the tracks that animals leave behind by looking in mud or sand.

There are other signs too: owls cough-up pellets containing indigestible fur, feathers and bones; thrushes smash snail shells on prominent stones leaving behind the broken shells; and most mammals leave behind distinctive droppings.