Fermynwoods residency: mapping foxes

The fields next to where I’m staying were mown last week: first the cut grass lay in striking stripes, then it got rolled up into bales.




At this point I saw my opportunity to walk through the middle of the field, rather than skirt the edges as I normally would to avoid damaging crops. On a dusk meander, I had a bit of an explore and spotted a few dark green tracks in the cut grass.



At that stage I wasn’t entirely sure if they were animal tracks or perhaps a tell-tale of a pipe or something, but I saw a few more – even more wiggly – and then a while later I encountered these two:


Later that night the bales got cling-filmed  – a surreal process I only saw glimpses of from the other side of the field, illuminated by tractor floodlights. I had to look it up. Here’s what I think was happening:

Anyway, now the field is bedecked with plastic blobs:


And, yep, the tracks are still there and I started noticing more of them as I walked in the field a few more times.

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Yesterday I reached a point where I knew I had to investigate further. I wanted to know how many tracks there were, where they went and how they related to each other. The field undulates quite a bit, so there’s not a convenient vantage point where you can do this just by standing in the tight spot and just looking. Yesterday I reached a point where I knew the only way to investigate further was to walk all of the trails and track my movements using GPS.


I’ve just read the chapter in The Old Ways where Robert Macarlane is trying to locate and then follow a shieling path across the peat moorland and rocky mountain slopes of the Western Isles. Both surfaces in their own way resistant to bearing traces of footfall, the path is marked with small cairns of rocks arranged at intervals. It takes him a few hours of searching to find the path, following the instructions he’s been given:

“When you’re up there you need to look for what shouldn’t be there: two or three pale stones aligned, the rock that has been displaced, that isn’t where the ice and gravity should have left it.”

And then:

“Click. Alignment. Blur resolving into comprehension. The pattern standing clear: a cairn sequence, subtle but evident, running up from the Dubh Loch shore.”

I was particularly thinking of this as I walked around the field because it turns out the trails can be devilishly hard to spot sometimes. There are the main tracks – dark green with long grass pressed flat enough by many feet that it has escaped the mower – easily visible as they snake across the field, however the lesser used trails are less obvious. I found that a lot depended on what direction they were going in relation to the sun, and where I in turn was stood in relation to that. Looking in one direction the trail could be practically invisible, yet really obvious when viewed from the opposite direction. In some cases it took a certain amount of voodoo to intuit where a trail went, then walking out to a complementary vantage point, looking back and checking that that was the right way to go.

I suspect my task might have been easier had I done it later in the day when the sun was lower, but I wanted to be done before dusk so as not to disturb the foxes too much. They’ll already be disgusted at the horrible human smell that’s all over their field!

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I walked for 3 hours and covered about 5 miles walking backwards and forwards, tracking the trails and retracing my steps to go back to each junction.

I’m sure I must have missed out some branches, as it was very difficult to *ahem* keep track of everything, but I feel like I’ve now got some sort of sense of how they all fit together and how they relate to the geography of the field.

Here’s the final trace superimposed onto Google’s satellite view of the area. I like the juxtaposition between these lines and the regular ones made by the tractor working the adjacent field.

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Close to 3 miles worth of network.

What’s it like to navigate those paths?

How much learning does it require, and how much can you sense the current state of the paths and their users?

How do you keep track of where you are and which turnings you have to take when these trails are tunnels within long grass?

How do these trails link up to their counterparts in the woodlands?