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Dung detective work

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: February 14, 2013

  • Stand-out smell: Otter spraint marks their territory. Right, a roe deer

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THERE is much to be learnt from the location of dung. Species such as otters and foxes use prominent local landmarks like rocks, tufts of grass or tree stumps to advertise their presence to others.

Badgers group their dung deposits in latrines, some placed for convenience near to their setts, but others at deliberate signal points near their well-worn paths and at territory edges. In deer piles of dung can indicate the presence of a favourite food nearby, while trails of dung suggest an animal was on the move and even the direction taken.

The analysis of droppings has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, taking "dung detective work" to new levels of sophistication. DNA analysis now means it's possible to identify individual animals from the testing of specimens, a method less labour intensive to researchers and less worrisome to the animals than live-trapping methods. Recent fox and badger population counts have used this dung detection method.

Otter: droppings, or "spraint" are cigar-shaped, varying in length from 3-10cm long. They appear black and tar-like with a glistening sheen when fresh, but fade to grey with time. Spraint's defining characteristic is its smell, often described as being akin to jasmine tea or new mown hay. A less poetic description is to say the odour is a sweet/fishy/musk blend, difficult to confuse with anything else. Otters use spraint as a territorial marker – look out for it in conspicuous riverside locations such as sandbanks, rock ledges, logs and under bridges. A further clue is the nitrogen in spraint and urine which tends to encourage the growth of bright green grasses and algae.

Roe deer: the droppings of all UK deer are small, cylindrical and oval. They are usually blackish in colour and have a moist sheen when fresh. Deer dung can be easily confused with that of sheep and goats. Roe deer droppings measure between 1-1.5cm long and 0.7-1cm wide. The droppings have one blunt, rounded end; the other being more pointed. Look for large numbers of droppings around favoured feeding places.

For more on your local wildlife visit www.devonwild lifetrust.org

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