Learning how to cast animal tracks

Casting animal tracks deer trailOn nature walks we constantly spot animal footprints and can see where they roam when we’re not about. We’ve also been on a nature detective hunt following badger trails.  Finally we decided it was time to learn how to make casts of animal tracks so we could find out who had been sharing those same trails with us. Many animals only appear at dusk, dawn or during the night so the only traces of them are the footprints they leave behind.

We went on an expedition to search for a variety of tracks near our house and then make casts of them.How to cast animal tracks whats neededHow to cast animal tracks gear

What’s needed:

  • Plaster of Paris
  • Cardboard strips (Approximately 20 to 30 cms length x 5 to 10 cms width) (You could also cut rings out of large drink cartons)
  • Paper clips (or fold down clips)
  • Mixing bowl
  • Bottle of water
  • Spoons
  • Plastic or paper cup
  • Paper towels
  • Newspaper and bag

How to cast and find animal tracksCasting animal tracks field with pheasantsCasting pheasant animal tracksFind some tracks

Off we went to the edge of a nearby meadow which was muddy and a frequent route of our local wildlife. Often deer pass right through this area on their way in and out of the woods.  Recently there have been lots of pheasants around.

Deer path through field

Animal track trail woods

We initially chose two different animal tracks to cast.  The first was a clear imprint from a pheasant in the mud.  Nearby we found small deer tracks.

  • Other good places to spot tracks are near streams and ponds which animals might visit at night.
  • In the woods we often see trails made by animals through the trees.
  • Another place to look for tracks is where a deer or animal trail goes through a field and enters  a wood by its edge.

Casting animal tracks ring and clipCasting deer animal tracks Make cardboard rings to surround tracks

  • First we cleared some of the grass and any leaves near the footprint.
  • We then used a fold down clip to make a cardboard ring before putting it over the track.  We used fold down clips as they’re strong but paperclips are a perfect and often recommended alternative.
  • Gently we pushed the ring into the mud so that the track was in the centre.

How to make and cast animal tracksMix Plaster of Paris and water then fill ring

  • Next we poured some water into our mixing bowl measuring with our cup before slowly mixing in plaster of Paris with a spoon.
  • We kept adding and mixing water and plaster of Paris until we had a decent amount of smooth but not way too runny plaster. Luce and Theo said it looked just like pancake batter.
  • We used a spoon to fill the bottom of the cardboard ring with our plaster of Paris ‘batter.’ You can also pour the plaster into the ring if it’s runny enough.

How to cast animal tracks with plaster in ringLet plaster set

Now we needed to wait for the plaster to set.  This can take from 15 to 45 minutes depending on the weather.

Casting animal tracks in mudSince we had some plaster of Paris left over, Luce and Theo wanted to find another animal track to cast. Near our garden fence we found some tracks in the muddy grass. Luce and Theo were excited as maybe it was a fox footprint? We’d seen a fox hunting in this patch and no dogs ever came here. But it looked like an animal with long claws…My kids would have to be wildlife detectives by identifying the animal from the final cast!

Animal track moulds on trayLift and take casts home

As the tracks were all so close to our home we fetched a plastic tray to bring them back on although we had originally brought a large bag to carry them in. Next time we go in the woods to cast tracks I’ll also bring along some old newspaper to wrap the casts before putting them in a bag. We first checked that the plaster was set before lifting the rings up.

Back home we left the moulds on the tray – still inside the rings – to harden and set completely. This can take at least 24 hours.

Drying out animal track castsDry out and clean

Once the moulds were dry and hardened we gave them a gentle scrub to remove any remaining dirt and debris. I’m going to save some old toothbrushes for our next casting session to help clean off any remaining mud.

So far we’ve also painted one of the footprints to help measure and identify the animal track. Luce and Theo are still trying to come to a compromise on who gets to paint the pheasant or the deer impressions.

Identify the tracks

Pheasant track cast The pheasant cast was easy to identify especially as we knew a nide of pheasants often  wander around here. (By the by, ‘nide’ is the collective noun for a large group of pheasants on the ground. I have a thing about animal collective nouns!)Stag deer on laneYoung roe deerOn purpose we had chosen small deer tracks to cast. Herds of Fallow deer often cross this field but their hooves leave much larger imprints in the mud. There are also Roe deer and Muntjac deer where we live.

Deer tracks mud

We measured the animal track in the mould and it was 4.5 cms long and 3 cms wide. We had made a cast of a Roe deer track! Roe deer tracks are narrower and pointed in the ends with an average adult length of 4-5 cms and width of 3-4 cms. Muntjac tracks are around 2.5 cms long while Fallow deer are about 6 cms long.

Badger with paws in airAnimal tracks badgerOnce we had made the cast and looked at the raised impression we quickly learnt that our last animal track was definitely not a fox. It looks like we had found a badger by the shape of the tracks!

I’d been told that badgers frequent this patch of meadow next to our garden and we finally had proof. In my wonderful book An Illustrated Country Year there’s a page illustrating animal tracks for us to compare. As you can see above, I also found a photo of a badger I had taken in the past with its paws up in the air.

One lesson we learnt when the moulds were ready was that we should have spent some more time brushing away the debris around the animal tracks before enclosing them with cardboard rings. However it was a very chilly winter day and small hands were freezing. After all practice makes perfect.

It was also healthy and good for my twins to play in mud as I explain the benefits here.

The bottom line was that it was easy and fun for my kids learning how to make animal tracks.

Cast animal tracks nature activities kids

For me the best bit was seeing the amazed expressions on Luce and Theo’s faces when we lifted the casts and they first saw the moulded footprints.  We’re already planning more casting sessions.  Luce wants to find a really clear badger track to cast. Theo wants to see what other animal we can find in the woods.  And I want a warm and sunny Spring day – of course, after a rainfall to ensure we’ll find plenty of tracks in the mud. Sounds like a perfect excuse to bring along a picnic next time to enjoy while we wait for the plaster moulds to set.

16 thoughts on “Learning how to cast animal tracks”

  1. Wow! I SO love this post. This is will a good activity – thank you for sharing. I’m sure Olivia will love this. Your Photos are always magical

  2. Wow. Love this activity. When T is older (she doesn’t have much patience at the moment), would love to do this with her. Perhaps, I’ll do it on my own and she’s welcome to join me if she wants 😉 #countrykids.

  3. I love this post! I am amazed at how quickly the plaster sets – I thought you would end up having to leave them for hours, but this is such a nice way to add some more interest to a walk and help kids to learn about wildlife.

    1. It doesn’t take long for it to harden enough to take home, but you need to let it dry for at least another 24 hours at home. Also add plaster to water, not the other way around, and slowly mix it until it’s like pancake batter.

  4. I love how you put this post together and that you shared the things you would do differently next time. I think the results are really great just as they are and you have so much wildlife on your doorstep it makes this a perfect activity. Our farm is not short of a little mud at the moment so we might just give it a go taking on board some of your tips. Thank you for sharing with me on #CountryKids

    1. It really does give animal tracks a fun twist for kids while helping them to learn which animal left its mark. I’d always wanted to do this with my twins but was a bit nervous about getting it right which is why I thought it’s actually better to reveal the ups and downs – and that actually it’s not hard to do even if you make mistakes the first time round!

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