leslie's guiding traditions

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Another traditional activity is stalking.  It has always been about getting close enough to animals to learn about them, and photograph or sketch them, not about hunting.

Before you can effectively stalk animals, you have to practice and develop your skills.  The first thing to consider is your outfit.  Firstly for colour - you want colours which may blend in with your background - usually camouflage brown and dull green colours, dark colours if you will be out in dusk or after dark, potentially white if going stalking in snowy conditions.

Having considered the colour, think about the details.  Do you have any belts with shiny buckles, or jewellery which may catch the light?  A pocketful of jingling coins?  Long cords on your jacket which may get caught on foliage?  Simplify your clothing and any bags you are carrying so your accessories are not a giveaway.

The next thing to consider is your footwear.  You want weatherproof well-fitting shoes, in which you can walk comfortably.  But they need to be flexible enough and broken into your feet so you can step lightly in them.  

Then practice your stalking movements.  Step forward onto your toes then gradually lower your foot onto the ground.  Watch for twigs which may snap underfoot, or gravel which may noisily slide, causing you to skid.  Be ready to freeze on the spot if you are spotted.  Watch a cat stalking and see how smoothly it moves, how carefully it places it's paws, how it is ready to freeze at any second.

Often though, there isn't enough cover to move upright, so it is important, too, to be ready to crawl beneath the line of the cover.  In this, again observe how a cat crawls when stalking - how it naturally ducks down and stretches it's full length, spine, how it moves steadily with front left and back right, then front right and back left paws - and is constantly looking to see if it might be spotted.  

Sometimes, however, the cover will be short - in which case you pull yourself forward using your elbows to pull forward, and the toes of your shoes to push forward.  

With either technique, be aware of keeping your body down - when crawling keep your hips down, and if you want to look to check, look round the cover not over.

No matter what you are stalking, the wind direction is vital.  Animals are far more sensitive to scent than we are, so without us being aware of it, we give off a scent which animals can spot easily if the wind is blowing our scent towards us - it is a total giveaway.  For this reason, we need to consider whether there is a breeze, and if there is, work out which direction it is blowing in.  Then make sure you are approaching the animal you want to stalk with the wind in your face, so your scent is being blown away from the animal, and not towards them.

As well as scent, the other thing to be aware of is sight.  Animals' eyesight can vary - some have more sensitive eyesight than us, many less so, but the thing all of them are sensitive to is movement - just as it catches the eye for us, so it does for them.  Hence we need to be aware of how to use cover to our advantage - for instance, to look through cover instead of over it.  We can use a bunch of foliage held in front of our face to break up our outline.  But in all you do, move slowly and steadily, so you do not attract attention.

We also need to be aware of whether the 'cover' we are using is large enough.  A tree may seem like good cover, but we may not be as hidden as we think we are - are you actually hidden by the cover, or are you 'sticking out' in a literal way?

We can also use items of foliage to add to our camouflage, to break up our shape and make us less obvious.  And we can consider what could be plausible - foliage blowing at ground level is a lot more plausible than it suddenly appearing halfway up a tree . . .

Dappled light and shade, too, can help to break up our shape and appearance even if cover is lacking, ensuring we are not obviously a large human approaching.  It offers a camouflage which doesn't exist in the open where we are fully lit by the daylight.

We also have to consider horizon.  Think about landmarks which catch your eye in the countryside - often, the lone item sticking up (whether a monument, or a tree) will instantly catch your eye, whereas a similar monument or tree against a background of a hillside is barely noticable.  In the same way, if you are on the top of a ridge or hill you will be very obvious, if you are against a slope, far less so.  And if the ground has 'humps and hollows' you can use these to your advantage by hiding over the ridge or down in the hollow.  It's thus important to consider 'the lay of the land' and use slopes and contours to your advantage.

Once you've practiced the basic skills and learned how to use the landscape to your advantage, consider how to use the skills.  Are you going to study animals to learn more about them - about their anatomy, or what they eat, or how they move?  Are you planning to draw or paint them, trying to capture them in a natural circumstance and showing natural behaviour, but observe them closely enough to get the fine details of your drawing right?  Are you planning to do photography, trying to capture pictures of animals which are tastefully composed, showing your subject to best advantage and developing your skills at using a camera and framing a picture, perhaps using different lenses and effects?  Or perhaps your interest lies in trying to track animals, to discover where they live, where they feed, where they drink, whether they interact with others of their species?

The next stage, after knowing how to stalk wildlife - is knowing how to find some wildlife to stalk.  To do this, you need to use all of your senses, together with any knowledge you can muster about the animal you want to track.  What sort of area would it likely choose to live in?  What times of day is it usually active?  Where is it likely to go - especially for food, or for water?  What times of year is it most active, are there any periods of the year when it changes coat, and may not have such good camouflage?

Then you need to think about what sort of tracks it's feet would make.  Also look at how it would move - some birds walk, and some hop.  Some animals walk four-legged and some two.  Of the four legged ones, some walk so their feet make a straight line one in front of the other, others walk with alternate left and right treads.  Some have cloven feet, some have paws, some have clawed feet.

To judge whether a track is recent or not, look at the ground it is in - has damp ground dried?  Is there rain pooled in the track?  Is the track still clean or have the edges of it started to crumble?

If there is snow or mud, then it can be straightforward to follow tracks.  Otherwise, it is much harder, especially if a track passes from areas of mud over patches of grass or foliage.  In these cases, it is best to mark the last definite track, then check methodically in each direction to see if you can pick up the trail again, starting in the directions that seem logical first based on your knowledge of the creature and the directions it would be likely to be heading in.  In long grass, there may be trodden areas; claws may have scratched stones or patches of earth.  If you face the sun you will be more likely to see shadows of pawprints, or disturbances of the dew on the grass.

A good starting point, is the animals which are easily available to you to study.  Domestic animals such as cats and dogs can make a good study, and it is wise to start by carefully studying them, including a range of individuals if you can, so that you can always pick out the common animals and not mistake them for rarities.  Although the track shown is of a cat's front paw, it s wise to be familiar also with the back paws, which are longer.  If you are familiar with the tracks of various domestic cats of different ages and sizes, you won't mistake a cat print for a lynx . . . !

Just as with cats, so it is wise to become familiar with dog tracks - and those of the dog's close cousin, the fox.  As you can see, although there can be broad similarities, the fox's toe pads are narrower, and there is a larger space in the middle between the toe pads and the ball of the paw.  

When it comes to rabbits and hares, the significant difference lies in the size - so time spent on studying domestic rabbits will help you to become familiar at a glance with the size of a rabbit's track, making it easier to spot the significantly larger hare track.

As with cats, also compare the shape of the back paws, as compared to the front paws which are shown.  

Squirrels have quite distinctive tracks - with long toes which have prominent knuckles.  With the larger back feet, they tend to walk mainly on their toes, so although there can be an impression of the back of the foot, the main impression will be of the toes on the back feet.

Amongst a lot of the larger animals, cloven feet are common.  So it's wise to become familiar with the domestic farm animals - cows, sheep, pigs, donkeys, horses.  

Once you are familiar with them, then it will be easier to be confident about identifying deer tracks.  As well as looking for footprints, you may also spot traces of hair.  

But tracking doesn't have to be all about the big animals - you can also track smaller animals, such as the rodents - rats, field mice, dormice - and other small mammals such as pine martens, badgers, etc.

If you are good at art or photography it can be a great way of capturing the tracks you find.  But to capture the 3-d image, one of the best ways can be to make a plaster cast.  You can carry a bag of powder and a water bottle with you, and add water to the powder to mix into a paste.  A strip of cardboard and a paperclip to form it into a ring allows you to set the ring around the track, ready to pour the liquid plaster in.  Once the plaster has set, you can lift it away from the ground, then when convenient you can wipe off any traces of mud.  You can keep the case as it is, as a relief, or as shown, you can apply a thin layer of grease and then add a fresh layer of plaster to make 'a cast of a cast'.