A tracker doesn’t follow footprints. She follows sign.
In its broadest definition, sign is any change from an environment’s natural state inflicted upon it by the passage of animal, man or machinery.
Sign can be obvious or it can be the most subtle change to the environment.
There are six key characteristics of sign that we look for. Particular sign can display one or more of these characteristics, in any combination.
There is a certain order and distribution to the natural world. Much material in nature is distributed in such a way as to create an even-ness; for example the distribution of leaves after they have fallen from a tree. This is an order that someone familiar with their environment will consider “normal”.
When there is a disturbance to that normality it can be noticed by the observant. An animal walking or running has a certain tempo and this creates a pattern on the ground over which it moves. This pattern is easy to spot on ground such as sand but harder to spot in less uniform materials. Nevertheless, regularity is a key attribute to look out for.
Regularity also appears within the impressions left by the passing of an animal, person or machine. For example, a boot will leave an imprint of its tread containing a pattern of geometric shapes that is not normal.
The human brain is very adept at detecting patterns (sometimes where there are none). This allows us to pick out regularity imposed on the environment by the passing of an animal or person.
Edges as straight as a ruler don’t tend to present themselves very often in nature; you will certainly spot them when they have been imposed where they don’t normally occur. For example, creases in leaves or blades or grass are something easy to pick up on to the attuned.
Downward pressure from the foot placement of people or animals will flatten or even depress material on the ground.
Other behaviour such as lying or sitting will also flatten vegetation in a way that is detectable by the tracker. Flattening is easily detected by comparison with the surrounding area.
An easily understood example of transfer is the school child running off the football or rugby pitch into changing rooms and depositing clods of mud from between the boot studs onto the floor. This is transfer of material from the pitch to the changing room floor tiles.
More generally, transfer is any deposit of material carried forward from one medium to another. For example, sand onto rock; mud onto grass; water onto dry ground; vegetation onto a road; and so on.
Descriptive examples of transfer are generally quite bold. It is a bold concept. Yet, in practice, transfer can be incredibly subtle. A tiny amount of material can have been carried forward yet still be detected.
When natural materials are disturbed there can be a colour change. Colour change can be at the micro level, for example where a leaf has been bruised by a hoof or the edge of a boot.
Colour change can also occur at a more macro level; for example, where someone has walked through leaf litter that had previously been rained upon yet dried on the surface. The passing of a person will have turned over, or up, certain areas of leaves which will show up as dark (damp) patches amongst the generally dry top surface of leaves.
Similarly, someone walking or driving over grass will depress certain areas. Hence, the angle at which the grass lays to incident sunlight will be different to the surrounding foliage. This presents itself as a change in colour/shine.
Also, some leaves are darker on their top side than their underside. If the light underside of leaves are showing, then something has disturbed them.
Discards are any materials that have been left behind. This can be intentional or unintentional. A deer that is shedding its winter coat will be discarding hairs.
A cigarette butt is a discard. A chewed apple core or banana skin is a discard. A chewed hazelnut left by a squirrel is a discard. An antler shed by a deer is a discard. Fur or threads from clothing on a fence are discards. A shotgun cartridge is a discard. Faeces are discarded naturally.
Disturbance is any other change to the environment that you recognise as abnormal but doesn’t directly fit into the categories above. Leaves or grass or bracken, for example, have been moved around in an area so they lay in an unnatural way. A puddle is full of suspended sediment. Insects have been agitated. Roots have been bruised. These are all disturbances to the natural order of things.
A Tracker Must Tune In
It is important to remember that trackers do not follow footprints. They follow sign. This sign can be obvious or very faint. A tracker must be able to recognise sign in the environment in which they are tracking. To track well, she must be able to perceive the most subtle indications.
An ability to tune in this way and to recognise sign by the 6 key characteristics of sign is fundamental to being able to track in any environment.
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