PHOTO: Daniel Johnson
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November 20, 2019

It’s essential for every farmer to learn how to identify animal tracks on his or her farm. It can lead you to where your future farm projects will go. A case in point is the fence that surrounds my fruit tree orchard.

After a considerable amount of effort through spring, summer, and fall, I’m proud to say I have completed work on the deer fence surrounding the fruit tree orchard I planted in 2018.

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Black plastic deer fence winds its way through the woods on three sides of the orchard, relying on mature trees and saplings to provide a surprisingly formidable eight-foot barricade. Across the open front of the orchard, a hefty wood-and-welded-wire fence ranging in height from eight to thirteen feet stands guard against hungry deer. All told, the fence spans a quarter of a mile.

Now we’re heading into winter, when my deer fence will be put to the test. And thanks to the snow already blanketing my northern Wisconsin farm, I’ll have an easy way to determine if any deer manage to penetrate the fence and run rampant through my orchard this winter.

You can’t keep secrets in fresh snow. The antics are marked by footprints that can last for days or weeks under the right conditions. Whereas deer can walk by and leave barely a trace during the summer, every step they take is meticulously recorded and preserved during the winter.

And it’s not just deer that leave evidence of their passing. Rabbits, voles, squirrels, coyotes, you name it—if they venture across your farm, you’ll spot their tracks.

Identification Tips

It doesn’t take an Ph.D. to learn how to identify animal tracks on your farm. Plus, it’s a fun and satisfying task in and of itself, and it also has practical applications. In my case, I’ll be watching the interior of my orchard this winter to determine if there are locations where deer are sneaking through. If they break through the black plastic, or find a spot they can jump, I’ll be able to spot their intrusion and make improvements to the fence. I know from previous winters the deer have a major highway cutting right across my orchard field, so I paid particular attention to those sections of the fence, reinforcing them to discourage deer from trying to push their way through.

The snow can also reveal the presence of pesky critters not previously on your radar. While there are wild rabbits living on my farm, I’ve never seen one up in my orchard field. However, the snow reveals all, and upon walking through the snow-covered orchard last week, I spotted rabbit tracks heading up and down the tree line on the western side of the fence. Suffice to say, I’m glad the trunks of my trees are wrapped in defense of rabbits and voles.

Tracking Animals in Winter

During winter, I suggest you keep an eye out for animal tracks and keep a record of what you see. Take photos for later reference. Purchase an illustrated or pictorial guide to the tracks made by wildlife in your area so you can identify unfamiliar markings in the snow.

Before long, you might start spotting trends. Do the deer have a highway running through your barnyard? Are rabbit tracks emanating from the brush pile out back? Do you have a heavy vole population? How often do foxes, coyotes, and other predators pass through?

If you pay enough attention, you just might learn a thing or two about the habits of your local wildlife. Maybe, like me, you’ll be able to put this knowledge to good use improving an aspect of your farm. Regardless, you’ll have fun identifying unfamiliar tracks while increasing your knowledge of the animal kingdom. Enjoy!

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