Category Archives: tracking

there IS a Big Cat in my back yard! (part 3)

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I suppose I was not expecting to see a Big Cat in England. The odds are very much stacked against it. Even if overgrown pets have been let loose in the wild, which they undoubtedly have, then their life span would be short, their density would be so low as to make meeting a suitable mate for breeding virtually non-existent. And with a population density of over 400 people per square km (in England) there should have been many more sightings than there have been. And where are the remains of these cats once they have died?

Okay, there have been sightings. But some, at least seem a little far-fetched, even bogus imaginings of over-active minds. And even if there were one or two cats out there….I think I could be tracking for a whole lifetime and still miss out.

If there was one in these woods – remote though parts of it are – it is still near enough a small city (and people do cycle, walk and run these woods) why then would a Big Cat set up home here? Surely it would be better in the emptiness of Scotland or Wales? Surely someone would have seen this big cat (rumours aside) in these woods? Or even been attacked despite a rich food source from the massive deer over population within paws-reach?

All this left me pretty sceptical about the chances of seeing anything and very much doubting the clues in the scat and sign I had already found.

So this left me even more unprepared for what was to follow.

It was mid 2011 when I was leading a part of a Wildcraft week for 11-16 year olds as part of Embercombe’s youth programme that I found myself mentoring 11 teenagers with the support of five adult apprentices. Below is an account written by one of the adult apprentices, Mel, who saw the whole thing, along with myself and two more adults (Kate and Jane) and eleven children at 15:00 on Thursday 11th August 2011. It was full daylight on a clear and sunny day.

“We were almost at our new camp. After walking for nearly three hours from Embercombe, everyone was exhausted and ready to sit down. Mark was enthusiastically marching ahead, until he stopped and crouched on the ground, tracing the shapes of some animal prints in the mud with his fingers. Everyone gathered around, intrigued. Mark looked puzzled, ‘For a print this big, you’d think it was a dog….but strangely, the print shows no claw marks above the pads, and is therefore much more like a cat print really.’ It was clear that IF the prints had been made by a cat, it must be a very, very big one.

Everyone became quite excited and asked lots of questions, some going on ahead to find more prints. Mark then told us the tale of a local resident who had said he believed there to be a big cat living in the Forest. He had once been to the zoo and heard the mating call of a big cat, then had returned home to the edge of the forest to hear the same call echoing through the woods, sending his own, domestic cats, running inside.

We then continued the rest of our journey, deciding to return the next day to take some photos and maybe some casts of the mysterious prints. That night there was a lot of talk of the big cat that might be living in the woods; some wanted to try and find it and others were a bit worried about the potential of its presence. Mark reassured everyone that even if such an animal lived in the woods (which was actually very unlikely), it would come nowhere near to human beings and would know we were coming from miles away. Some were disappointed and others were relieved..!

The next day, we rose early to listen to the dawn chorus and then did some more activities. By the afternoon everyone was tired and there were a few grumbles about the walk home. Thoughts of the big cat had faded, but people got excited about the prospect of getting closer to deer, now they had developed their quiet walking and stalking techniques. Walking up through the forest that day was a proud moment for us as instructors, as compared with the crashing and giggling of the day before, everyone demonstrated real skill and control in their walking, meaning that despite the size of our group, we hardly made a noise as we moved through the trees. Shortly, we reached the track where we had found the prints and stopped to take a closer look. We took a few photos and put a coin next to some of the prints to demonstrate the scale. It was clear that people had developed their tracking techniques, as many were discovering more of the same print further up the track.

We were all about to start walking again, when suddenly something happened. I looked up to see Kate with her hand over her mouth and watched Mark drop his stick in amazement, I then turned around to see what they were looking at and watched other people ahead of me do the same. On the bank fifty or sixty yards away, leading up from the track into the forest, there was a big, black cat, staring at us all as if it had been surprised. It froze for a few seconds, long enough for us to see that this was like no other animal we had seen in the wild before, and then it ran off into the trees. My memory is of it being jet black, with shiny fur, at least a metre long in body [with a long black tail longer than the body, a heavyset almost square head, the most intense yellow eyes and legs that were unusually short/squat and muscular/thick-set – ML edit]. Within seconds, three of the participants had taken off and were heading into the woods after it to get a closer look. Coming out of our shock, we called after them, suddenly realising it might not be a good idea to be chasing after a wild animal!

They returned, excited, having seen the big cat again through the trees. One boy claimed to have looked straight into its yellow eyes! Still buzzing from our experience, we made our way back to the road and back to Embercombe, each sharing what we had seen. Mark said he thought it was a panther. He left us shortly before we arrived, heading back into the woodland to see if he could get another glimpse. As soon as we got through the gates, people were running to go and tell Stu and Dan, who hadn’t been with us. Of course, they didn’t believe us; it seemed like exactly the sort of thing we might have decided to make up to trick them. Eventually, after questioning many of us on our own experiences, they were convinced by our correlating descriptions of the event.”

So by now you will see what the problem is. On one hand we have a real, shared, awake experience, witnessed by 14 others. But on the other there is the logical mind telling me that what was seen was impossible. Even a case of mass imagining just through wanting to see something (a big cat) so badly. There is of course a chance that we all could have been mistaken, even at that short distance and in full daylight. It might have been just a ‘rambo’ of domestic cats. It might also just be my complete invention (although the other 14 people who saw it might disagree).

As the passage of time lengthens I do wonder if my eyes or mind have deceived me. But then they never have done before…or since. Lets not forget, those others still swear by what they saw. And of course, the last thing I want is people to think I am is a hoaxer. Because, believe me, I am not.


is there a big cat in my back yard? (part 2)

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Six months after my first evidence of something that could have been sign of a big cat I found myself speaking to a resident on the opposite end of this remote valley. He owned quite a bit of land, lived in an ancient farmhouse and was a retired CEO type with small coterie of domestic cats. He did not strike me as a person who was prone to hyperbole. But you never know.

He had told me that about four or five years previously he had visited Dartmoor Zoo and a female Puma, on heat, had called out…and moments later a reciprocating call was heard out on the Moor. I thought however that it could have just been an echo. I did not say so at the time. Then he leaned into me, conspiritorially, and said that he suspected that there was a big cat of some sort in the forest, feeding on the massive overpopulation of deer. He said that one evening, after dark, a couple of years ago all his cats rushed in from outside into the kitchen in high states of excitment and distress. Then came a call from down in the depths of the valley. The same call as he had heard at Dartmoor Zoo a couple of years previously. I gulped. That night I was due to spend sleeping in those woods!

If this was not freaky enough I also had a friend that owned Russian Deerhounds up at the far end of the same forest and a couple of years ago she had gone outside at dusk after hearing a commotion and found one of her large (slightly grey-reddy coloured) deerhounds on its side with a broken neck. Quickly taken to the vet an x-ray showed a broken neck (vertebrae), a couple of puncture marks (possibly left by teeth) and the vet had commented that the force of a pull ‘up’ on the neck had broken it. Possibly through the action of the jaws and a weight or momentum of the owner of those large teeth. The Deerhound is the size of a fallow deer, similar colouring, and maybe at dusk mistaken for one. If this was not so bad, the same friend had found a decapitated head of a deer in the centre of their large lawn around the same time. But for me there was still no conclusive evidence and no sighting. The Deerhound might have been in a fight with another dog and fallen and the deer head might have been dragged there by a scavenger. I had not seen the head to gauge how fresh it was either.

That night, as I retired to my hammock in the woods, I must admit I was a little un-nerved. And maybe this contributed to my reaction as to what I saw two-days hence.

 


is there a big cat in my back yard? (part 1)

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Back in November 2010 I had visited an isolated spot in a dead-end, steep-sided valley, in a forest on the edge of the expanse of Dartmoor. It was the kind of valley that walkers or wanderers don’t visit. It goes nowhere. Unless you have a real reason and the surefootedness of a goat then there really is only one way in and out: through its densely screened mouth. It a sanctuary for wildlife. Away from too many prying eyes.

Early that morning I had dropped down the steep back wall of this canyon. Spending the early hours tracking and stalking deer. On this visit two things puzzled me. I found large prints and I found a carcass. The prints were round with no claw marks. And in moderately soft mud. It could have been a large dog with very short claws (dogs cannot retract their claws like cats) or a cat print. The rear pad was a little indistinct so you could not make out any vertical grooves characteristic of a cat. I still took a plaster cast.

The second thing that puzzled me was that I stumbled across a deer carcass. Not any deer carcass. But one that had been decapitated. Its head lay some 20 yards away. It had a sausage-shaped scat perched atop of it. The scat looked full of deer fur. The main carcass had been entered through the chest/belly and not it’s flank. Canines tend to eat in through the flank. However the carcass was not fresh and had been subsequently scavenged making any accurate judgement impossible for me to do. I was not even sure if the prints, a little distance further up the valley had any relation to this kill.

We don’t have much experience of big cats in this country. As a result it is a struggle to gain enough experience (unless you go abroad) to understand them, their habits and their tracks. However six months later I was to come face to face…….

 

for Part Two of this blog, click here


nature immersion & tracking

Dirt Time

27th March – 31st March

an invitation only event

This four day ‘immersion course’ is for those who are experienced in nature awareness and have at least a foundational tracking knowledge.

  • This course is by invitation only and is limited to 6 places.
  • These four days are for those practitioners who need access to self-guided study, peer-support learning or just a chunk of dirt time in order to knock the rust of their skills, hone areas of interest, share knowledge or just immerse yourself deep within the folds of nature.
  • Using a woodland base camp the days from before dawn until after dusk are yours to do with as you wish – alone or in groups. All activities will be self-organised.
  • The case camp will provide a focal point for morning check ins before departing for the days action or an evenings exchange of stories and discoveries around the campfire.
  • There will be undercover space to journal, examine scat or catalogue evidence. Various pieces of equipment and guides will be available for use or reference.
  • There is a large communal shelter and an undercover ‘kit’ area along with tables for samples.
  • This is a self-catering course
  • The area has access to large swathes of mixed and coniferous woodland, river valley and exposed high moorland with a large reservoir of birds, mammals and invertebrates to observe and follow.
  • Please be aware that facilities and ‘creature comforts’ are VERY minimal.

a deer day from dawn: part two

[continued from: a deer day from dawn: part one]

Leaving our packs by our day camp we crossed a narrow, steeply banked stream and climbed through a dense stand of douglas fir. The smell was exotic. We found a clearing that I had used once before. A place I had sat in the low boughs of a tree as a sit-spot in the middle of the clearing and had a small herd of deer come and graze beneath me. Here we spent ten minutes dialling into the baseline again so we could move more calmly through nature without leaving too many ripples of disturbance. The sun warmed the clearing making a pocket of warm air within the cold air circulating through the dense coniferous block around us.

barefoot tracking

We left and continued our ascent through the dense, low-branched trees and staggered out, blinking into the light of the forest road. We cut along, noting myriad crossing points on adjacent sides of the trail made by deer but used by fox and badger too. Creatures will use the paths of least resistance and will develop a custom for using them – just as we do on our routes to-and-from work an home.

After several hundred yards we cut up a  narrow side valley. This was the place I spotted a big cat a couple of years back. This isolated ravine, perpendicular to the main valley is not a natural path for man or his dog as it leads nowhere and the back wall of the ravine rises abruptly. A perfect place for lots of deer to hide. A perfect place for a big-cat to take prey. At the mouth of the valley we found some ammo shell casings and a makeshift target range. Some of the brass shells were old and tarnished, some here more recent but nothing in the past couple of months at a guess.

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We hacked up the wooded ravine until we got to the spot where I had seen the cat. No sign. No clue. Nothing. We dropped down and across the muddy, swampy brook looking for prints in this huge ‘track-trap’ – a place that captured evidence of all that crosses it. Still nothing. We spotted deer higher up on the opposite side of the valey and as they moved off we started after them. We came across burrows. Most probably rabbit but not on the woodland fringe one would expect. The apertures seemed too small for fox or badger but too large for other creatures. Then we found a lone rabbit tail, fluffy, cute and perfect on the forest floor. How did it get there? It had been plucked from a rabbit and not chewed off. Not other sign of a kill was about. Had it fallen from the beak of a buzzard flying overhead or taken by a goshawk as it gunned through the trees? We needed more clues.

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We spotted the herd again. They were heading to the back of the ravine.

Often when deer spot something curious and of  potential but not immediate threat they will move off some distance and, hidden by the vegetation, move around so that they have the wind in their favour keeping a close ‘eye’ on the threat’. For them it is better to know where the potential danger is in relation to themselves rather than losing all sense of it. So knowing this, the shape of the ravine, that there was an old, well-worn, deer-trail high up on the opposite side and that they were creatures of habit we anticpated that they would retreat, circle round and exit along this path. A pair of us cut across to intersect this whilst the others stalked onwards in the direction of the retreating herd.

Once again timing was not perfect. The deer took the path en masse but passed along the trail earlier than expected, and while my companions were still a hundred feet below. Never mind. The principle still held good.

Our ascent was interrupted by the mating calls and follow-my-lead behaviour of a male and female sparrowhawk. Because of our elevation they were flying back and forth only just above us. It was amazing to see and share. Nature just keeps on giving I thought. We continued our ascent when in a clearing underneath some powerlines we came across a graveyard. Deer skulls, antler and bone were strewn across the heathland hillside. This was a place just below a forest layby. It must be where poachers threw the carcasses after they had roughly butchered the useful meat. My companion wistfully muttered that it would be great to find a cat skull today. Moments later he pulled a small, perfectly intact skull from the undergrowth. We gaped at it open-jawed. It gaped back. Felis. But domesticus. Striking nonetheless as we rarely get the chance to examine a cat skull in such perfect detail.

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Twenty minutes later we had dropped back down into the valley to the mouth of the ravine and were examining two legs and sharp talons (still joined at the hip) of a mistle thrush. They were just standing in the middle of the pathway. Most probably dropped by a sparrowhawk or even a goshawk. The existence of both birds was more or less confirmed when we discovered a nearby kill-site strewn with sparrowhawk feathers – the result of a territorial dispute between goshawk (the winner) and sparrowhawk (the loser).  Feathers were collected and the beauty of them marvelled at. We turned and almost fell over a complete and skeleton of a deer – everything intact – even the legs and skull still joined to the body by tendon and sinew. Like a macabre display in a museum – a perfect working skeleton showing the dynamics of skeletal movement. A great teaching aid and just another one of our many souvenirs of this extra-ordinary day. The only thing left to do was to sit in the dappled sunshine, cook our lunch over a campfire, and exchange tales and observations on the adventure. We might not have seen the big cat – or even a single sign of its existence. But nature gifted us with an experience every bit as special.


a deer day from dawn: part one

It was pre-dawn when I pulled up at the remote forest lay-by. As I approached I switched off the headlights so as to not broadcast my arrival. There was another car there in the darkness. By the soft light of a crescent moon I could make out three occupants. We got out and exchanged grunted welcomes. My new companions were tracking and nature awareness experts. We were to spend the day immersed in a large block of woodland rich in fauna.

We hitched our kit and in the twilight we stole silently down the fire-trail and into the forest. A couple of hundred yards in we spread out in a clearing and hunkered down for twenty minutes at our sit-spots to silence our internal ‘noise’, bring down our tempo towards nature’s baseline and ‘drop into our zone’. Ready for tracking and stalking. It was also perfect timing for dawn with its chorus of waking birds.

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In the dark a parent-free fawn wandered up to me, saw almost too late what I was, and crashed back into the undergrowth. Leaving the rich smell of deer behind.

Light crept into the canopy. The dull, waxy light that comes before sun crests the horizon. Things started to gain colour and depth. The clearing was large and seemingly empty as the three others were either prone in the long grass or blending into the stumps they squatted against.

After a time we rose, stretched our cold, stiff joints and began our tip-toeing descent from the valley ridge and down into the valley’s mirky depths where night still embraced its deepest crevice.

We trod softly. Past old Devon banks lined with ancient beech. An echo of the past when this was modest farmland. Down past a salt-lick and an old broken high seat that once stood over it like an executioners post.  We paused in another clearing, looking at rabbit sign and its playful bunnies lolloping off into the heavily-browsed hawthorn. We descended further, passed an old birch, whose woodpecker peppered trunk stood hollow, the tar-rich bark preserved whilsts its innards had crumbled away in decay. The drum of the wood-pecker made us squint into the canopy and we gathered for a moment around the plucked feathers of a mistlethrush and briefly pondered its fate.

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Deer sign was everywhere. These woods suffer a dramatic overpopulation. Here the forest is slowly dying from their over-browsing. There is little new growth for the future canopy. Topsoil erosion is present because of the steep aspect of the slope and the lack of binding roots. Fallen trees are frequent. This is not a place to track  – it is like a twelve-lane highway – the ground heavily marked by hundreds of passing deer. The forest floor is visually noisy, like the static from a poor tv signal – clarity has broken down with hundreds of overlaying print. However it is an amazing place to marvel at how hundreds of thousands of different sized deer slots can look, from different angles, at different speeds and on different substrates.

In the gloom herds of deer move all around you. For, if stalking and observing deer behaviour is your thing, this is the place to be: a few hours in this woodland can give you a whole month’s worth of hard-won experience elsewhere.

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We paused at the opening in an old Devon bank – a transition point between deciduous and conifer woodland. There was a fox hole tucked away down in a culvert. Fox scat was nearby as were shallow holes probably made by badger snouts and paws as they dug for bulbous and wormy things, their robust snufflings had moved branches previously embedded in the mud – now unseated from their moulds.

A small herd of deer was sighted in the thicket. In that moment they spotted us too. They paused as we surveyed each other then one-by-one made noisy escape. We forget how hard hooved they are and how noisy they can be. We made for the spot last seen to look for their most recent sign. As soon as we reached this spot, we triggered yet another herd to amend its position, staying down-wind of us and moving just beyond our vision.

But across the valley, bathed in the morning sun were a dozen more deer, grazing in a clearing on the forest floor. We dropped our sacks and crawled to a forward position, some of us glued to the lenses of our scopes. We had the wind in our favour and the deer were relaxed and ignorant of our proximity. Young and old stood in harmony, feeding, grooming and flicking their ears and tails.

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Up above us on the ridge of the opposite valley wall was a high pasture. Often frequented by many deer. I split off from the main group to hook up around the back of this pasture. Meanwhile the others stalked up the opposite way to confront the deer that would have been driven on by my beating. Timing was of the essence. Unfortunately I breached the back edge of the pasture too early in my enthusiasm for this cunning plan and the deer dashed past the very spot where my friends should have been lying in wait. Had I been less hasty then it would have worked perfectly – gifting the audience a close-up and personal vew of the deer as they ran within touching distance of the trees they were to hide behind. It did not help that Jays were vocally following the team up the green lane with their alarmed, croaky enquiry. Never mind. The principle works.

We stood for a while in the dazzling sun of the high pasture, its whole four acres closely cropped, just by deer, like a golfing green. Then we dropped back down into the valley to aim for the spot some of us had seen a big cat over two years ago. Maybe we would strike it lucky again?

Capture

[continued here a deer day from dawn: part two]


I’m gonna track santa

We all know it comes but once a year: Santa landing on your roof (or nearby if inconvenient) with his reindeer. I have been made to promise that I’ll get on the roof on Christmas Day and see if I can spot the reindeer tracks. Thanks. So for those of you who don’t have easy, year round access to Santa and his reindeer (ie: don’t live at the North Pole), then here are a few signs to keep an eye out for.

Reindeer prints, when compared to other deer (such as our local Fallow deer), are unusually round and easy to spot. Compared to fallow deer, only a bit smaller in stature, whose prints are long, narrow, pointed with very parallel outer walls to the cleave towards the rear of the print. Other things that set them apart from other deer prints is that the dew claws on a reindeer are very low to the ground so they are often seen as two points or holes in the ground behind the rear of the print. Reindeer prints are often wider than they are long (8.5cmx10cm) compared to fallow deer (7cmx4.5 cm).

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As far as print spacing (stride length) a fallow deer prints they tend to be around 70-130cms apart unless they are in full flight (galloping as much as 40 miles an hour) when the stride length be as far as 3.5 metres. Reindeer usually walk or trot as galloping and jumping is rare and they have a stride length of around 100-120cm. Although your ‘bog standard’ reindeer’s stride length at a trot is more like 130-150cms Santa’s reindeer have a stride length of about 15km and travel at 4500 miles an hour.

Obviously landing is a much bigger issue for Santa’s Reindeer. They have to drop onto areas, fully loaded, the ‘size of a postage stamp’. This deceleration, with sleigh, will cause an absolutely mahoosive skid mark on the roof. This is very different from a reindeer or a normal deer print. Most notably these do not have sleigh runner skid marks of twenty feet that accompany stopping a 2 gazillion tonne sleigh in less than 15 yards.

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The other thing to look out for is the feeding sign you might spot when the reindeer are stationary. Whilst Santa shimmies down the chimney with his big sack they are usually browsing around for a quick nibble to recharge their batteries. This is where a roof is ideal. Reindeer love lichen more than any other food (even cookies, oats and tinsel or sugar cubes). Luckily the northern tundra and many a roof has plenty of lichen on it for a quick snack. Fallow deer on the other hand don’t usually eat lichen and like to browse new leaf growth and during winter they are quite partial to tree-bark. Reindeer are less prone to nibble bark (although they like a good fray just like the next deer!). So if your roof has had its lichen nibbled then its probably reindeer and not fallow deer.

Of course, no one ‘sign’ will be conclusive. It is usually a couple or more sign (I like using the ‘rule of threes’ in tracking: three corroborating clues) if you think a reindeer has landed on your roof. There may well be scraping and skuffing marks from Santa scrambling up to the chimney (pretty conclusive). The other is that there will be nine reindeer tracks and a ruddy great skid mark from a pair of sleigh runners (another very good clue). Missing cookies, milk and ‘quick snifter’ PLUS a full Christmas stocking is most definitely a 100% positive ID.

Good luck and Happy tracking!