“There are few things as intense as the experience of moving silently through a primordial Dartmoor forest: the majesty of nature buzzing around you and the promise of breath-taking vistas around every turn.”
Tracking may have its roots in the million year-old need for man to track to survive. But today it is more than just part of the survival process. Tracking is an expression of man’s curiosity and desire to discover new things and places. Tracking helps us engage with, immerse ourselves in and move through nature. It teaches us to understand animal behaviour, to see through the eyes of the animals we track. It stimulates our senses, encouraging them to work together to observe and more fully appreciate our place within the vast natural tapestry around us. I will never forget that first time of looking up, one afternoon, from the tracks at my feet and seeing the story of the animal kingdom unfurl around me: on a broken twig, in a creased blade of grass and under a turned leaf. Nature is full of clues even to the shyest of animals, and tracking can be our way of helping us feel even closer to them as we share those same paths.
For the individual and the family it is also a ‘great game’: it fires the imagination of young and old. Sharing the experience and the detective work creates your own mini-adventure. I remember the last time I went tracking with my son:
Early morning found us kneeling at the edge of a fresh trail: deer slots retreating in a steady line behind us but not ahead. For some reason there had been a sudden change. The left print was much deeper than the right. Both were deeper at the ‘toe’. The animal had stopped suddenly and looked left, pressing this cleave more firmly into the moist earth. Maybe there had been a noise? There was a raucous barking down the valley. Was this what the animal had heard? My son looked at me; we both glanced opposite and into the bracken. It had broken stems, the underside of the fronds turned skywards; pale and dry in the moist air. The deer must have shied away and bolted into cover. Success! There were the tracks again. Stray hairs on the rough bark of a Hemlock confirmed its new direction. The prints were deep, twigs and stones flung from their beds and spun wide of the track. Its gait betrayed a leaping. It was in full flight. We followed the charge along an avenue of trees, straight over a squirrel’s feeding site: the telltale cores of spruce cones littered around a tree stump, and down towards the lake. This is where we will head. Suddenly, off to the left there was a commotion. Predator alert calls rang out. Birds broke cover in a panic, then hid, motionless. We all held our breath. A sparrowhawk passed silently overhead. Long seconds later the world came alive again to the chatter of business as usual. Further down the slope we both sensed the sweet, almost cow-like, scent of a deer. Far below us was the unmistakable outline of a male fallow deer, antlers branch-like, moving into deep cover. We now had a sighting and would jump to that point. My boy was still hopeful of getting a snapshot to take to school next week.
Dartmoor: forest, moor and stream.
The best tracking on Dartmoor is not to be found across its vast moorland expanse but in, around and between its forests, lakes and streams.
Animals are creatures of habit: look for dens, trails, runs and feeding sites as these will give you plenty of ‘sign’.
It is also important to ‘read’ the land around you; to understand what channels, diverts or provides cover for wildlife. Along the margins of woodland is a good place to look. Animals such as deer use this open land to browse but often stay near the to the protection of the woodland. Numerous intersecting entry or exit points along hedgerows or woodland margins will give you good places to look, as will trails running parallel with these sharp transitions in habitat.
Field and moorland boundaries such as walls will also encourage perimeter trails. Seek out obstacles. Walls, boulder-fields, very steep ground, rivers, ponds and saturated land will all channel wildlife in some way as they seek to traverse, avoid or enter and exit these features. A gate will not only provide a funnel for wildlife but it will also create a useful ‘track trap’ recording everything that has passed through its muddy aperture.
Fernworthy Forest is a good choice for both rookie and experienced tracker: accessible by road with several good parking areas giving direct access to its interior. Try tracking around the reservoir, rich in bird-life, or the ‘wet woodland’ fringe at its northwesterly ‘end’. Small pockets of deciduous woodland contrast sharply against the ranks of dense plantation forest which march up a high ridgeline to crown the moor. Its extensive forest margin is haven for all types of wildlife including Red and Roe deer.
Other top spots:
- Bellever Forest. The huge internal clearings and network of paths in this forest plantation give plenty of opportunity to track from one side to another. Bellever Tor makes for a superb vantage point.
- The oak-rich woodlands of the Dart Valley, especially downstream from Dartmeet toward Holne feel like the land that time forgot. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to spot Otter. If you visit nearby Brimpts Farm then there are plenty of easy woodland walks to help you catch the tracking bug.
- The Teign Valley is home to black Fallow deer aswell as normal Fallow. Around Haldon Forest, Canonteign Falls and north of Dunsford to Castle Drogo have some of the best ancient woodland vistas anywhere in the world.
- The mixed woodlands and reservoirs of Hennock, Trenchford and Tottiford lie on the high ridge between the Teign and Bovey valleys. They offer a rich variety of habitats, packed with wildlife, paired with some less challenging gradients and with good access.
- To the west, the accessible and sizeable woodlands enveloping Burrator Reservoir offer a perfect setting – especially the edge that borders the moor.
- Take time to move to nature’s beat. Find a quiet ‘sit-spot’, spend some time sitting, listening and becoming a part of your surroundings. 10-20 minutes should help you see more, hear more, smell more…sense more.
- Move slowly and quietly. Try to suppress our modern-day urge to rush through every task. Slow down and you will notice much more detail. The quieter you are the closer you can get to the wildlife.
- Think like an animal. Tracking is a way of thinking. If you establish a link with the behaviour of the animal you are following then this can help anticipate where the next track will lie.
- Feel the habit. Most mammals are creatures of habit. They have defined territories, routes and places that they like to feed, drink, sleep or even sit. Regular use of these places leaves their mark providing a good starting point to see and possibly discover the animal itself.
- Patterns, sequences and stories. Individual tracks are not always as important in determining what animal made them, as are trail patterns. A single track will not tell you much. Collecting together a clutch of evidence along with a sequence of events will tell you not what species they belong to and also help write the story of what was happening to that specific animal at the moment when those tracks were made.
- Take care especially at breeding times or birthing times. Don’t get too close to deer during the ‘rut’ as it can be dangerous! Red and Fallow deer rut from around mid-September to Mid-October. Roe deer rut in late July and August. In the spring, many animals will have their offspring and disturbing them may mean they abandon their young.
- Try not to distress or disrupt the routine of other animals – often their survival is finely balanced – don’t upset it
- Try not to damage the habitat you pass through. Leave as little trace as possible. You might also be spoiling the trail for others.
- Be careful of tracking through undergrowth (pokey eye), over delicate or rare plants, falling into fast, deep water or over big drops!
- Don’t track over private, enclosed land, damage crops or disturb livestock.
Useful kit: for a detailed look at some tracking kit and a tracking pack then click here
- A guide to British mammal tracks and signs by the Field Studies Council. A laminated foldout guide, a brilliant piece of field kit for novice or experienced tracker.
- Animal tracks and signs by Preben Bang and Preben Dahlstrom. Probably the most seminal piece of work on tracking and the basis on many other tracking guides.
- Animals: tracks, trails and signs by Brown, Lawrence and Pope. An extremely authoritative, comprehensive but easy to read guide for Britain and Europe.
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