Tracking in the snow

Published: 8th February 2009

We haven't had as much snow around Fort William as some this last week or so, but enough to provide some interesting wildlife watching on Glen Loy. Fresh snow is always great for tracking – and indeed seeing what there is about that might not usually be seen. The first thing that is obvious is simply the number of pine marten there are about – every forest ride, the canal towpath and even the roads seem to be criss-crossed with their trails. Pine marten have relatively large hairy feet with strong claws, and they tend to leave quite a big print for the size of animal. It is interesting to see which sets of tracks move purposefullly along whilst others meander around as the animal presumably investigates likely food sources. Indeed, there has been more than one little splash of red on the snow, where a marten has made a kill – probably of voles or mice. In the last month or so I have seen the aftermath of two rather more bloody events. The first was where two or more marten tracks converged with obvious scuffle marks where they met and a bloody trail leading off from the centre of it all. The other seems to have been an encounter between an otter and a marten – somewhat surprising as normally they would have been expected to keep out each others way. Again there were signs of an 'interaction', with a bloody trail leading off – as far as could be made out the marten came off worst. Our local martens play their part leaving plenty of clear trails to be followed around Glenloy Lodge and its grounds.

We rarely see foxes – probably not surprisingly as they are dealt with raher summarily hereabouts.  Tracks in the snow show that there are plenty about. Usually the trails are very direct, the animals travelling in a direct line with one set of footprints almost directly in fromt of the other – a purposeful jog. This can be readily contrasted with those of my wayward dog, that meander drunkenly from one side of the path to the other.

Another animal that I have yet to see in the flesh locally, but which leaves plenty of evidence of its presence is the wild boar. These are a somewhat unexpected addition to our fauna locally, and are escapees and their descendents of farmed animals that were penned some distance away in a rather remote glen – probably an accident waiting to happen. The pigs seem to move in small groups through tthe forest at night, following the forestry tracks.. Their cloven prints can be mistaken for those of deer – but the cley imprints are rather larger and more blunt than those of a roe deer, whilst a clear print often shows up the dew claws, which can be quite prominent in heavier sows.

All the forest tracks are also well used by roe deer, with their dainty little, sharp-pointed hoof prints, and rather more worryingly from the foresters' perspective, red deer. These prints are relatively massive compared to any of the other prints described, and usually lead along the forest rides before disappearing into the trees at either side. The damage these deer do to young trees that naturally colonise the edges of the rides is all too evident, with mishapen, chomped treees all along the edges. There is also a previous history of forest gates being left open, which has allowed sheep to wander into the forests. Once in, these are very difficult to extract, and the neat, blunt cleats are evident in places.

Whilst out tracking the other day we had a good sighting of a hen harrier, viewed at some distance from a high forest path. The harrier was quartering the bog between the Caledonian Canal and the River Lochy, with slow, languid wing flaps and glides, almost looking like a large owl in the way it was flying. The long tail and relatively short face also helped identification. I probably saw the same bird the next day, but this time only got a quick glimpse of a large, gliding raptor that had put up a couple of our local graylags in the pasture adjacent to the bog. Will keep an eye out for it.