Exploring With My Camera Trap Spring 2021

After I click open the file on my camera trap, I press next through a male pheasant strutting his stuff and a female roe deer passing through, until a photo makes me stop. There towards the back of the shot are two small brown shapes. I move through the rest of the photos as day passes into night, and watch as these two rough and tumble through the photos, exploring, playing and watching their wild neighbours go past, ending with one sitting stock still in front of the camera. My camera trap had successfully found my first litter of fox cubs of the year!

The last few years I have become known for my exploration of my family’s farm in Dorset using a camera trap. My camera trap allows me to delve into the lives of my wild neighbours without intrusion or disturbance of their natural behaviour, and to use my photos to inspire others to open their eyes and be motivated to conserve our local wildlife. It is always a rollercoaster of emotions, never knowing what my camera trap might find, but in the end it is a very rewarding experience. If you are interested in getting your own camera trap or knowing how to make the most of your own, check out my ‘How to… Use and Make the Most of a Camera Trap’ guide for some more information.

My camera trap has been a very useful tool for me over the last few years, so since 2019 I have spent my spring seasons moving my camera trap around different sites across 250 acres of farmland, taking in different species and behaviour. In 2019, I saw 12 species of birds and mammals, including families of badgers and a family of three fox cubs. In 2020, my camera trapping got even more interesting, with badger cubs, a couple of litters of fox cubs, and lots of roe deer sightings. The most enjoyable shots are always the most unexpected though, despite from time to time getting a photo bomber or two, for example in the form of our farm cat!

This spring I have been out and about once again on the farm with my camera trap. This year I selected six different sites across our land, with the hope of capturing some of the normal sights, along with some new ones. As the spring has now come to an end, activity has dropped across these sites, and thus it is time to see how spring has been captured by my camera trap this year.

Camera Trapping Spring 2021

Quarry Field Badger Sett

My first camera trapping site this year was an active badger sett to the east of my family’s land. It sits between a silage field and a maize field in a wide and thick hedgerow, and is a great crossroads for animals passing through. I have used this site in previous years for camera trapping, with varying success, such as last year’s highlights of badger cubs and a lively, lone fox cub.

This year I set my camera trap up at the sett for a week (3rd-10th April), moving the position and angle every other day to increase my chances of capturing wildlife. It paid off as I had a successful first week, with rabbits, roe deer, badgers, and a fox.

Due to seeing a lone fox cub at this site last year, the presence of an adult fox at the sett once again led me to return with my camera trap seven weeks later for another week (27th May-1st June). My hunch paid off as my camera trap returned photos of two fox cubs playing, living alongside a badger family, and being fed by a parent.

Gill Hill Copse

For my next site, I set my camera trap up within a copse surrounded by a cow grazing field west of the Quarry Field badger sett. During early spring this is a great site to capture wildlife moving through the landscape as the copse is a great stopping place. I have used this site before, and last year I saw species, such as roe deer and foxes.

This year I used my camera in the copse for just one week (11th-18th April), but moved its position within the copse every couple of days. I captured photos of a territorial male pheasant, an adult badger, a grey squirrel, an adult fox, and a rather comical sequence of photos of two female roe deer being spied on by a hiding male. As vegetation in the copse grows up and spring progresses, camera trapping success decreases at this site, but it was nice to see some life early on this spring.

Dorset County Council Wood

For my third site, I set my camera trap within a small, young wood that can be found at the centre of my family’s land, bordered by a road and a meadow. I have used this wood before, with some positive sightings in 2019 of foxes and badgers passing through.

This year I tried the wood again for a couple of days (19th-24th April), with some overall disappointing results. A male pheasant and magpie were seen, with an adult fox being seen twice, but overall the wood was quiet, reflecting a lack of diversity evident in this unmanaged woodland. I did not return to the wood again during this spring as a result.

Badger Field Sett

For my fourth camera trapping site, I returned to an active badger sett towards the centre of my family’s land. The sett is bordered by grazing land on both sides, and is set within a wide, thick hedge, extending out into the field on its east side. Last year I used my camera trap to look within the sett and to the sett entrances on either side, and saw adult badgers, badger cubs, and an adult fox. This was unsurprising as the sett is a thriving mixed site for badgers, foxes and rabbits alike.

This year I positioned my camera trap first on the western side of the sett (25th-27th April), before positioning it directly within the area above the sett (4th-7th May). Pointing my camera trap at the animal track running along the side of the sett, I captured an adult badger, adult fox, and my first hare! Above the sett, my camera trap was more active, capturing lots of badger activity, woodpigeons, blackbirds, and red-legged partridges, and a surprising sighting of a field vole climbing vegetation. It was a lovely sequence of photos!

Badger Alley

For my fifth site, I chose to return to one of my favourite locations, the familiarly known Badger Alley. Badger Alley is an enclosed footpath that has dug out animal holes along half of its length, split into two old badger setts. In 2019 this was a super site for seeing badgers wondering its length, but last year it was obvious that wildlife numbers had declined, badgers in particular.

This year I spent two stints setting up my camera trap along Badger Alley. Firstly, I spent five days with my camera trap trained on the non-active lower sett, changing the camera’s position after two days (10th-14th May). Amongst photos of a female roe deer and a displaying male pheasant, I got lots of really lovely photos of two fox cubs playing and exploring their world.

I then returned to Badger Alley in June, moving my camera from the non-active lower sett (5th-11th June) to the sett further up (11th-14th June). By now my camera trap found that the family of foxes had moved on, with only the female and new male roe deer appearing at the lower sett. What was really sad, was finding that Badger Alley has now been fully abandoned by badgers, with the higher sett now being home to just rabbits. A slightly disappointing end to my camera trap’s time at Badger Alley!

Monkwood

To finish camera trapping during the spring season, I took a bet on a site where there was a possibility of finding another litter of fox cubs. This site was a hedge in the middle of cow grazing land, where I had not previously camera trapped before. I chose to set my camera trap up on a fence post pointing along the hedgeline where I had found holes into the hedge, and left my camera for a couple of days (14th-16th June).

On retrieving my camera trap, I was excited to find that my instincts had been right and my camera trap had shot photos of two fox cubs and an adult. It was a lovely end to my spring camera trapping season!

How to… Identify Chalkland Wildflowers

Colourful, radiant, buzzing with life, a piece of paradise in the summer sunshine. All words to describe a small piece of chalk habitat nestled within the heart of my family’s farm in Dorset. Amidst a clay-dominated landscape, this small creation aims to emulate the approximately 41,000 hectares of lowland chalk grassland that can still be found across the UK. This super rich habitat contains over 40 species of flowering plants in every one square metre, giving chalk grassland its reputation as the tropical rainforest of Europe! Sadly though, 50% of chalk grassland has already been lost in Dorset alone since the 1950s.

In 2017, my Dad made the decision to transform a small triangular area of land on our farm into our very own chalk paradise. Though we do not live immediately on chalk downland, it can be found to the North and South of us. This makes our location ideal to create stopover habitat or a wildlife corridor, for the myriad of species that rely on these diverse plant communities. Following bringing in 40 tonnes of quarried chalk and lots of wildflower plugs and seeds, we now have a thriving 10m by 3m and 2m in height chalk mound.

Though my family’s chalk habitat is still in its relative infancy, over time it is transforming into a wildlife haven. From Grasshoppers and Marbled White Butterflies to blue Butterflies and Carder Bees, new species are popping up each and every year. This mini habitat has also been a great place for my mum to teach me all about the plant species that call chalkland grassland home. With her inspiration, I have put together a simple guide to identifying just some of the many wildflower species that are appearing on our mound.

Chalkland Wildflowers

Wild Marjoram (Origanum vulgare)Wild Marjoram

  • Family: Mint
  • Lifespan: Perennial (lives for several years)
  • Size: Short to medium height (30-60cm)
  • Stems: Erect, dark-red, downy and either round or square
  • Leaves: Oval, often slightly toothed, stalked, and 1.5-4.5cm in length
  • Flowers: Dark purple buds in loose clustered heads, opening to pale purple 6-8mm long flowers. Strongly aromatic. Flowers July-September
  • Range: Found throughout the UK (particularly in the South), but scarcer in Scotland
  • Fun Facts: This culinary herb is a symbol of happiness descended from Roman legend, with Origanum meaning ‘mountain joy’

Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria)Kidney Vetch

  • Family: Legume
  • Lifespan: Annual (lives for one year) or perennial
  • Size: Sprawling and medium in height (up to 60cm), but very variable
  • Stems: Silkily hairy, round, and often greyish
  • Leaves: In pairs, they are silky white below and green above, and are 30-60mm in length
  • Flowers: Yellow, orange or a fiery red, and downy-white below. They are found in single heads (12-15mm across) or sometimes pairs. Flowers April-September
  • Range: Found throughout the UK, especially around the coast
  • Fun Facts: In the Middle Ages, it was known for speeding up wound healing, with vulneraria meaning ‘wound healer’. It was also once used to commonly treat kidney disorders

Wild Thyme (Thymus polytrichus) Wild Thyme

  • Family: Mint
  • Lifespan: Perennial
  • Size: Low to the ground, forming a mat of non-flowering rooting stems (up to 10cm in height)
  • Stems: Square with erect flowering stems
  • Leaves: Evergreen, short stalked, very small oval 4-8mm leaves in opposite pairs
  • Flowers: Faintly aromatic with pink-purple flowers in round and dense heads. Flowers May-September
  • Range: Widespread in South East England, but scattered distribution elsewhere
  • Fun Facts: Long regarded as the favourite flower of fairies, and associated with love. The Greek thumon though means ‘that which is included in a sacrifice’

Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum)Lady's Bedstraw

  • Family: Madder/Bedstraw
  • Lifespan: Perennial
  • Size: Short to medium in height, often sprawling (up to 100cm)
  • Stems: Four-angled, almost hairless stems
  • Leaves: Dark green, long, narrow, shiny leaves in whorls of 8-12. Said to smell of new-mown hay
  • Flowers: Bright golden yellow, 2-4mm wide, in clusters, with a sweet honey-like scent. Only Bedstraw species in the UK with yellow flowers. Flowers June-September
  • Range: Widespread
  • Fun Facts: Associated with the story of the Virgin Mary giving birth to the baby Jesus, leading to the belief that a woman lying on a mattress of Lady’s Bedstraw would have a safe and easy childbirth

Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare)Viper's Bugloss

  • Family: Borage/Forget-Me-Not
  • Lifespan: Biennial (flowers in its second year before dying) or perennial
  • Size: Medium to tall in height (up to 100cm)
  • Stems: Roughly hairy and spotted (red-based bristles)
  • Leaves: Narrow, oval-shaped lower leaves
  • Flowers: Flowers in drooping clusters of pink buds that open to become erect, blue, trumpet-shaped, open-mouthed flowers, 10-20mm long, in branched spikes. Flowers May-September
  • Range: Scattered distribution across the UK, being most common in the South
  • Fun Facts: The plant’s name comes from a time when it was believed to be a cure for snake-bites, reinforced by the dead flower-heads resembling a viper’s head

Rough Hawkbit (Leontodon hispidus)Rough Hawkbit

  • Family: Daisy
  • Lifespan: Perennial
  • Size: Short to medium in height (up to 60cm)
  • Stems: Very hairy, unbranched, leafless, and slightly swollen at the top
  • Leaves: Form a rosette of bluntly lobed leaves at the base of the flowering stem
  • Flowers: Golden-yellow, though often orange or reddish beneath, solitary and 20-40mm wide. Forms seed heads that look like dandelion clocks. Flowers late May-October
  • Range: Widespread and fairly abundant across the UK, apart from in the far North
  • Fun Facts: In Greek, Leontodon means ‘Lion’s tooth’, referring to the toothed leaves. The flowers are also rich in nectar and smell sweetly of honey

Greater Knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa)Greater Knapweed

  • Family: Daisy
  • Lifespan: Perennial
  • Size: Medium to tall in height (30-120cm)
  • Stems: Erect and grooved
  • Leaves: Lobed, where the lobes are positioned in pairs either side of the leaf centre. The leaves are 100-250mm long
  • Flowers: Purple, solitary and 30-60mm across. Flowers July-September
  • Range: Scattered across the UK, but predominantly grows in England
  • Fun Facts: Commonly used to treat wounds, bruises, sores and similar conditions

Common Bird’s-Foot-Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)Common Bird's Foot Trefoil

  • Family: Legume
  • Lifespan: Perennial
  • Size: Short or medium in height and sprawling (up to 50cm)
  • Stems: Solid not hollow, and trailing
  • Leaves: Greyish-green, downy or hairless, and oval-shaped tapering to a point
  • Flowers: Deep yellow or orange, often partly red, and 10-16mm long, often 2-7 per flower head. Flowers May-September
  • Range: Widespread
  • Fun Facts: It has more than 70 common folk names including Eggs and Bacon. The name Bird’s-Foot-Trefoil reflects the resemblance to a bird’s foot, and is a larval food plant of Green Hairstreak and Dingy Skipper Butterflies

Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)Ox Eye Daisy

  • Family: Daisy
  • Lifespan: Perennial
  • Size: Medium in height (20-75cm)
  • Stems: Round, angled or square, erect, and slightly hairy
  • Leaves: Long-stalked, dark green, spoon-shaped, toothed and in a rosette around the base of the flowering stem
  • Flowers:  White, 20-60mm across, solitary and on sparsely leafy stalks. Flowers May-September
  • Range: Widespread
  • Fun Facts: In past times, an extract was obtained by boiling the plant down, that  was used in salves and medicines to cure a variety of ailments from liver disease to runny eyes. Largest native daisy species

Common Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)Common Toadflax

  • Family: Plantain
  • Lifespan: Perennial
  • Size: Short to medium in height (30-80cm)
  • Stems: Erect, grey-green, and hairless
  • Leaves: 30-80mm long, very narrow, untoothed, and spirally arranged up the stems
  • Flowers: 15-35mm long, yellow with an orange bulge and long straight spur, forming stalked spikes. Flowers June-October
  • Range: Widespread
  • Fun Facts: Most common Toadflax species in the UK, getting its name from previously being considered as useless, fit only for toads

Meadow Crane’s-Bill (Geranium pratense)Meadow Cranesbill

  • Family: Geranium
  • Lifespan: Perennial
  • Size: Medium to tall in height (30-100cm)
  • Stems: Hairy, erect, and often reddish
  • Leaves: Have 5-9 lobes, cut nearly to the base
  • Flowers: Soft violet blue, petals not notched, 15-30mm wide. Flowers June-September
  • Range: Found throughout the UK, but rarer in South West England and East Anglia
  • Fact: With lesser known names such as ‘Jingling Johnny’ or Loving Andrews, it is a horticultural favourite dating back to before the Elizabethan times

Black Medick (Medicago lupulina)Black Medick

  • Family: Legume
  • Lifespan: Annual or short-lived perennial
  • Size: Low in height (up to 60cm), and sprawling or erect
  • Stem: Round or square and hairy
  • Leaves: Trefoil, downy, and 5-20mm in length, with minute teeth
  • Flowers: Bright yellow and small, with 10-50 to one short-stalked rounded head (3-8mm wide). Flowers April-October
  • Range: Widespread across the UK, but sparser in Scotland
  • Facts: Name means ‘plant of the Medes’, referring to an ancient Middle Eastern people, whilst lupulina means ‘hop-like’, due to similarities with Hop Trefoil

 

Now get out there and see what you can find!

 

Drawings and photos all my own

How to…Use and Make the Most of a Camera Trap

There is nothing like the exhilaration of camera trapping. Setting up the camera trap/trail camera in a golden location, waiting with anticipation for the camera check day, and riding a rollercoaster when capturing something totally unexpected. Camera trapping is one highly addictive activity!

M2E31L53-53R392B293

So why is camera trapping so popular? Well, camera traps allow us to non-invasively open up a normally unseen world. This is a thrilling thing to be able to do, giving us the addictive ability to observe wildlife up close and personal without disturbance. In this way, camera traps can be used as an important tool to identify the presence or absence of species, monitor animal populations and record interesting behaviour.

M2E1L0-13R350B300

At home on my family’s farm, I use my camera trap to carry out surveys across our land, to find out what wildlife is present, how abundant these species are, and to experience new life in spring in all its glory. However you choose to use your camera trap, I can only say for you to have lots of fun and adventures whilst doing it!

M2E45L145-145R394B315

Buying a camera trap

So where do you start if you do not already own a camera trap? Well all off-the-shelf camera traps have similar components and operate on the same principles: a digital camera connected to an infrared sensor that “sees” warm moving objects. Camera traps typically range from £30 to £1000, meaning there is a lot of choice out there. To find the camera trap that is right for you though, you should consider these key questions:

  • How much are you willing to spend?
  • What are you going to be wanting to use it for?
  • Where are you going to be using it?
  • Do you want to use it during the daytime, night-time (black and white or colour) or both?
  • Do you want to take photos, videos or both?
  • Will you want increased capabilities, such as wireless, geo-tagging or higher detection capabilities?

The camera trap I use is a simple Bushnell model that I bought many years ago now for about £120.

How to use a camera trap to get the best from it

Camera traps have a lot of potential as they can remain operational 24/7 and can be left in the field for long periods of time. To increase your chance of camera trap success though, you need to set it up properly to maximise animal detection. Here are some handy tips to get you started:

  1. Visit your chosen site before setting up your camera trap to make sure it is the best site possible.16_04_20_Farm_Badger_Alley_5
  2. Do not forget to make sure your camera has another battery life and SD card room each time you set it up.
  3. Carefully select where to mount your camera trap, such as a sturdy tree or post, to make sure your camera will be supported and  positioned to take in your chosen field of view.Detection zone
  4. Consider the height of the animal(s) you are trying to capture to increase detection and inclusion in the frame. For the best result, position your camera trap so it sits just below the target’s shoulder height.Camera Height
  5. Camera angle is as important as height when positioning the camera trap. For best result and to increase the detection range, you want the camera trap to aim horizontally at the subject. A stick is a great way to get a better angle for your camera. Camera angle
  6. Think about where you want the animal to be positioned in the frame. Larger animals are easier to detect so will be detected at longer ranges compared to smaller ones, and animals walking across the camera trap’s field of view will be more easily detected compared to walking towards it.Animal Position
  7. Try to reduce the number of false triggers by trimming back vegetation that could trigger the camera if moving in the wind. Do not remove enough to disturb your intended subjects though!
  8. And always do your research! The more you know about a site or species, the more likely you will get results.

Inspiration for camera trap sites and uses

Over the few years I have owned my own camera trap, I have used it for a number of different purposes and in a variety of locations. Here are some examples of my own work to help inspire you:

  • Abroad – In 2017, I was lucky enough to spend 2 weeks in Costa Rica on a field course for my Bachelor’s degree, and so I decided to take my camera trap along with me. This allowed me to get some cool sightings of some interesting wildlife

M2E43L24-32R350B300

  • Badger setts – A popular choice for a camera trap site is at a badger sett. With 3 established badger setts on my family’s land, I have previously had all sorts of interesting results by observing setts in this way. In particular, it has always been great to see how different species cohabit such locations.

M2E40L17-25R350B300

M2E54L167-167R388B312

M2E54L172-172R388B317

  • Paths – A great place I have found to put my camera trap is on an enclosed footpath on our land. This is because the path, fondly known as Badger Alley, is bordered either side by hedges, is in the vicinity of used and disused badger setts, and is frequently used by wildlife but infrequently by humans. Always be aware of how safe a camera trap may be on footpaths though!

M2E43L126-126R396B311

Garden – One of my all time favourite projects I used my camera trap for, was to get photos of our own special garden visitor in October 2018. I love getting to see the wildlife that is truly on our doorstep!

M2E1L0-8R350B300

  • Woodland – I have previously found that a woodland can be an interesting place to capture wildlife. The result can often be unexpected or interesting, with less of an idea of what might turn up.

M2E51L160-159R390B314

Animal trail – Another great way to try and capture the wildlife that is in your local area is to find and set up your camera trap on a well used animal trail. It is interesting to find out what animals are actually making those tracks!

Specific animals – Often when camera trapping, you want to capture a specific animal, which leads to research and setting up the camera trap in a position where this animal has been sighted. Relating to this, my other favourite camera trap project has been to capture fox cubs above ground and to observe their behaviour. This has resulted in many cute photos over the years!

M2E31L60-60R392B300

Now it’s your turn! Even if you do not own/want to own a camera trap, there are always ways around it, for example why don’t you see if you can borrow one from somewhere or someone.

Though camera trapping does not always go to plan, the results can be truly satisfying. Time to see what you can find!

For more camera trap action, check out my blog post from last year called: Spring Countryside Camera Trap Surveys

How to… Identify Animal Footprints

Often it can be difficult to catch a proper glimpse of the animals around us, especially those that are more active at night. Just because you may not be able to see them though, does not mean that they are not there. Instead, a great way to find out what is living near you is to play detective and look for the signs they leave behind, such as fur, burrows or droppings.

Here we take a look at a great sign of animals being present, animal tracks/footprints. Though they are best found in snow or wet mud, at this time of year the best way to look for tracks is after rain, hardened in drying mud, or by creating your own tracker. So why not have a go playing detective and see what you can find in your garden or wider countryside whilst getting out for exercise. To help you out, here’s my guide to animal footprints!

Guide to animal footprints

Badger

Footprint Size: 5-6cm long & 5-6.5cm wide

Badger

A badger’s footprint is large, broad and robust with 5 toe pads pointing forwards in front of a broad rear pad. They also may show long claw marks that are well in front of the toes. Claw marks are shorter and closer to the toe pads for the hind feet.

Badger

Fox

Footprint Size: 5-7cm long & 3.5-4.5cm wide

Fox, Cat, Dog

A fox’s footprint is a bit like a dog’s, but appear more narrow in shape with toes closer together, making a diamond shape. There are 4 distinctly oval toes, 2 at the front and 1 towards each side, and a roughly oval rear pad. Foxes do leave claw prints, unlike cats, but do not have the elongated claws that are visible in badger prints. Sometimes impressions of hairs between pads may be visible.

Rat

Footprint Size: Front= 1.8-2.5cm long; Hind= 3-4.5cm long

Rat

A rat’s footprints vary between the front and hind feet. On the fore, they have 4 toes, whereas on the hind, they have 5 toes and a long heel. Their footprints can be mistaken with a water vole’s, but a water vole’s tends to show more splayed toes and a shorter heel.

Rabbit

Footprint Size: Front= 4cm long; Hind= 7.5-9.5cm long

Rabbit

The hind feet of a rabbit are much larger than their fore feet. This means that their footprints will be grouped into a pair of long and a pair of shorter prints. Often you will also see lots of footprints crossing each other and signs of multiple rabbits together.

Hedgehog

Footprint Size: ~2.8cm wide & ~2.5cm long

Hedgehog

A hedgehog’s footprint is long and narrow in shape with 3 toes pointing forward and 2 pointing out to the sides, making a star shape.

Deer

Footprint Size: Vary from muntjac deer at ~3cm long to red deer at ~9cm long

Deer

All deer species have cloven hooves (2 toes), the same as a sheep or a cow. A deer’s toes are more slender and pointed though, looking like 2 teardrops or an upside-down heart. Toes may appear splayed in soft ground.

It tends to be difficult though to tell apart the footprints of different deer species, as they tend to be similar, only differing in size and subtly in shape. A muntjac’s footprint though, for example, will be alot smaller than a red deer’s.

Deer

Otter

Footprint Size: 6-9cm long & up to 6cm wide

Otter

An otter’s feet are webbed due to their semi-aquatic lifestyle, which can make their prints easy to spot if visible. Their fooprints are also round with 5 toes in front of a large rear pad. Short claw marks projecting from the toes may also be visible.

Small mammals e.g. Mink, weasel, stoat, pine marten, polecat

Footprint Size: Varies with species and sex

Small Mammals

Five toes splayed in a star shape

Birds

Footprint Size: Varies with species

Most bird species have four toes, with typically 3 facing forward and 1 backwards. Depending on the species, footprints on the ground will vary in size, shape and form. A common footprint seen in the english countryside is that of the non-native pheasant. Their footprint is fairly distinct due to their large size and looks like an arrow in shape (Footprint Size: 6-8cm long).

 

All photos and drawings are my own