Get back: Paws for thought on an outdoor adventure

A monthly series following Rob Cowen and Leo Critchley as they reconnect with the simple things in life.

Your instinct may tell you that the weather is a reason to stay in, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Spend some time close to the muddy and snowy ground and you can discover a hidden world. Animal tracking is all about familiarising yourself with patterns left by wildlife, a skill that deepens our connection to the landscape and its wildlife.

A few centimetres of fresh snowfall provide an ideal canvas. If you are up early enough, a flurry even in the city gives an easy-to-follow record. In rural areas, head for the intersections between habitats: the field and forest, the forest and stream, the stream and field. If there is no snow, muddy areas also retain clear impressions.

Look for prints around walls, hedges, gateposts and at the edges of woods. Investigate any "runs", paths cut by regular animal use, leading to and from feeding and breeding grounds. Telltale signs are flattened grass, holes pushed through thicker vegetation and clumps of hair trapped in fence wire.

Record any print you find so you can identify it properly at home. Photograph it alongside something that adds scale, such as a coin or, in mud or sand, try casting a print with plaster of Paris. Encircle the track with a ring of stiff card pressed a few millimetres into the ground. Shake plaster of Paris into a jam jar half-filled with cold water. Keep stirring until it resembles pancake batter, then pour into the card circle until the track is covered. After 20 minutes it can be lifted.

We found fresh prints running along in a muddy furrow in a Welsh wood, not far from Carmarthen. At first we took them to be those of a dog, but they were too long and slender. There was also an undoglike separation between the front two pads and the two outer pairs.

Tracing the prints through the vegetation meant lowering ourselves to the ground. At this point, we realised, as Ted Hughes did, that "delicately as the dark snow, a fox's nose touches twig, leaf". There was no mistaking the musky, sour scent of this bushy-tailed omnivore.

To be in a wood as night approaches is a strange sensation. Instinct tells us it is unsafe, but it is exciting too. Wood pigeons returned to roost, and tree-creepers fizzed up the young birch in corkscrews. Suddenly, a crash of undergrowth nearby; rabbits, disturbed while making their way to the fields for their evening feed, were bolting into holly bushes. On the path below us stood the fox, frozen in the moonlight.

We've probably all seen urban foxes ravaging a black bin bag in the wee hours, but this creature seemed utterly different: as a wolf is to a dog. It was a thick-maned wild animal and we were trespassers in its kingdom. After a minute sniffing the air, it melted back into the black.

From childhood, we are encouraged to appreciate nature in the majestic and grand sense, but it is important to take in the small scale too. Tracking prints satisfies something ancient in our hunter-gatherer DNA. We walked, unspeaking, back to the cottage where we were staying, both wondering where the fox's footsteps were being left now. The mournful vibrato calls of tawny owls rang out, the frost a crystal sheen over the grass.

Rob Cowen and Leo Critchley appear on The Culture Show tonight at 6pm on BBC2. Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild (Hodder/Coronet) is available now. See their blog at robandleo.com

Track down some wildlife

Fountains Abbey,  North Yorkshire

The largest abbey ruins in the country, and the adjoining grounds of Studley Royal, form an 800-acre estate and deer park where you can easily cast red, fallow and even roe deer prints. The varied woodland and river terrain that surrounds it is also home to a complete cross-section of British wildlife.

Ashdown Forest, Sussex

Originally a medieval hunting ground, this thick wood supports a diverse animal population including deer, mice, foxes, rabbits, squirrels and (some claim) wild boar. If you see a five-toed, bear-like print it could either be a badger or Ashdown's most reclusive resident, Winnie the Pooh.

Bradgate Park, Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire

A printer's paradise, best known for its herd of fallow and red deer, but also likely to be thick with the trails of shrews, mice, foxes, stoats, weasels and badgers.

River Tamar, Cornwall

Otters often leave webbed tracks along the banks of this wonderful river as they busily fish for salmon and trout. The woods and fields fringing it are also fantastic hot spots for everything from foxes to weasels.

Suggested Topics
Voices
Ed Miliband and David Cameron are neck and neck in the polls
election 2015Armando Iannucci: on how British politics is broken
News
i100
Life and Style
Great minds like Einstein don't think alike
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power