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Footprints in the Mud

Monday, 5th May 2003, West Yorkshire

paw prints? Neighbours call me to come and look at some footprints that have appeared in the mud alongside the stream that flows through their garden. There are reports of otters beginning to return to the Calder valley so I'm interested to see the prints. If a Calder valley otter (if there are such creatures) was exploring Coxley Beck, our only local stream which still has a population of bullheads, this is the way it would have to come.

Plaster Casting

I decide to make a plaster cast of the prints:

  1. Improvise an open box around the footprints by sinking a 2 inch strip of cereal carton into the mud. Hold the end in place with a paper clip.
  2. Pour an inch or so of water into an old margarine tub then sprinkle in interior filler (it seems to work as well as plaster of Paris) until little islands begin to appear - this means you'll get about the right consistency - then stir this with a plastic spatula
  3. Pour the mixture into the mould, spreading it gently with the spatula if necessary.
  4. Leave until you're sure it's set, I left mine all afternoon, just to be on the safe side, lift carefully and gently wash off the mud.

Over the past year I've read all the Sherlock Holmes stories for a project that I've got on the go so I enjoy this as a piece of nature detective work. I have to admit to a little thrill of anticipation when I returned and lifted the cast.

The result reminds me of one of those fossilised dinosaurs trackways (except on a smaller scale!). In addition to the mammal prints there are bird tracks, about the size that a blackbird would make and narrow curving tracks that might represent the activities of some invertebrate ploughing through the mud.

The paw prints are 3 cm, a little over an inch, across. A quick look at my animal tracks field guide confirms my suspision that this is a domestic cat. The garden has a a resident dog so the cat must have used the stream, which is in a shallow stone-faced channel, as a way of getting through the garden incognito.

I suggest that we line up the local moggies and paw print them - in order to eliminate them from our enquiries.

As Sherlock Holmes would have said, 'The game is afoot!' next page

Richard Bell