Nature connection on Exmoor

Tracking - What's it all about? 

In the words of the musical legend, Tom Jones, ďwhy, oh whyĒ, is a good question. Why do we track, what inspires us to track in the first place and what keeps us going out tracking? In this article Iím going to try to answer the why (for myself at least).

I can safely say that all of you reading this are trackers already! As a teacher of tracking skills, my job is to allow my students to find and express the knowledge they already have. Way back in our history, early man would have associated various sign with the animals they hunted. This would have been essential to their survival, so I believe that tracking is part of our psyche and has not been lost by people, just buried by our modern way of living.

For example, I believe that most people would notice if something had been moved in a familiar room. This brings in the concept of baseline. Baseline is the the current situation as it stands at this point in time and as trackers, we look for changes in this baseline. This can be from sbtle colour changes in the soil through to the animal actually there in front of you! So, to me, whatever had moved in that room is the same as a change in the baseline. Thatís why I reckon, deep down, you are all already trackers Ė you just might not know it yet!

When I was a youngster I spent a lot of time in the woods. I would explore my surroundings, looking for wildlife, though just as often I would sit and watch the world go by. I spent a lot of time looking at the ground and I noticed tracks but could never get my head around what they belonged too (except those of people of course). If only I knew someone at that time who could have helped me out I would have started tracking there and then. As it was I got distracted by birds (come on, the feathered kind) and left the tracks behind.

It was many years later before I was, once more, inspired to take up tracking. This time it was a book that was recommended to me by a friend that got me off my backside and wanting to (re)learn. The book was ĎThe Trackerí by Tom Brown Jr. I read it with a bucket full of salt since some of the tales are pretty tall but nonetheless it got me motivated. I bought more books but soon realised that for me at least, a course would be the best thing to take this forward. So off I went. The point is, take inspiration from any source and go with it; read books, watch programmes, go out with trackers or go on a course. Get out there and start doing!  

I am passionate about tracking and find myself looking for sign everywhere I go. It is borderline obsessive, so be warned! Not being able to track is like being in a foreign library Ė you can see the books and see the words but canít understand them. I love to know what is going on in my local patch and tracking gives me that understanding. I enjoy solving a mystery and working out what has happened in an area. Some of the stories can be as gripping as an Agatha Christie novel. Once, in Portugal, I came across some tracks in a dried up pool. The story, though reasonably clear, was fascinating to unfold. A fox had trotted into the muddy area with a very relaxed gait, it came round a tussock of grass and obviously surprised a bird. The fox leapt, grabbed the bird in the air and spun round, pushing the bird into the ground in order to get a better grip and then trotted back in roughly the same direction as it had arrived. Fantastic. It was so vivid that in my mindís eye I could actually see what had happened. Life and death played out in some marks in the mud.

The ultimate aim for a tracker is to be on an active track and follow it until you get to the animal. Itís all the thrill of the hunt, using your own skills and knowledge, stalking abilities and the like, to get close to an animal, without actually killing it. There is no feeling quite like it when you manage to see the animal in front of you actually putting down the tracks you have been following.  

This happened recently in Poland whilst following fresh Elk tracks. We were hot in pursuit (relatively speaking because it was about -8oC), following the tracks between lay ups and feeding places. The animal was clearly under no pressure as it ambled through the woods, stopping for a nibble here and there and leaving some nice fresh scat. After following for about 1.5km, we crested a small rise and there, less than 50m away, was a very handsome male Elk, quietly munching on more innocent bushes. This was a heart stopping moment. I didnít really expect to get that close to the animal so it came as a great reward for the effort. I watched it for about 5 minutes before it, once more, moved off in a very unhurried fashion around the bush. Needless to say we moved quickly to where it had been to see what treats it had left behind. Fresh feeding sign and fresh scat; so fresh that it was still melting the snow. Now that is what tracking is about! Due to a fast approaching pick up time, there was no time left to carry on stalking which was great shame.

Through tracking I have learnt more about the wildlife I love to watch and how the books may not always be right. For example, the books say that fresh deer scat, as it arrives to the world, is black and shiny. Through tracking and getting close to deer I have found that really fresh scat is actually green and shiny when it hits the ground. So there you have it, donít believe everything you read, unless of course it is something I've written!

Back to the original question, why, oh why do we do it? I think we track because we are born to it, I think the inspiration starts with a book, a passion or a person and strengthens each time you get close to an animal and share its space, and I think we keep on doing it because we are obsessive and love the challenge.

I hope my enthusiasm has been infectious (in a nice way, of course) and that Iíll see you down in the mud getting some good old-fashioned dirt time. Happy tracking.

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