Nonfiction

SCAT

It had been a long walk across the boggy moorland at the foot of Snowdonia’s Carneddau mountains. The choice not to wear gaiters had been ill-fated, and our feet were soaked and tired as we came to rest for a few minutes by one of the numerous abandoned slate quarries. The scree-strewn hills rose above us on all sides allowing just a small breach in the grey-green walls for the Afon Eigiau to feed into the reservoir to the north-east. 

As we sat on a large boulder to eat I noticed a small, black, twisted coil. I knew by its pointed end and visible contents of fur that it was the scat of a small predator. It was deposited prominently on the boulder and had been dried by the sun and wind. I put down my oatcakes and picked it up to inspect its oily sheen. Tiny bones of small mammals were hidden inside. Given its size and location I could reasonably assume that it came from a stoat. The old slate building and dilapidated walls of the quarry would be a good habitat for a stoat.

Some people might wonder how or why I would give so much time and thought to the dried turd of an absent animal in a remote part of Snowdonia, but I find the arcane art of animal tracking fascinating. It gives me access to a moment of secrecy and intimacy that goes beyond the awe of simply seeing an animal in the wild. By shitting on a rock, this stoat had written a coded passage of its autobiography upon the Earth. If we learn the rudiments of the language we can read more and more of the story.

It’s not just scat which can be read in this way. Tracks in earth, sand and snow, bent branches, crushed plants, stripped bark, scattered bones and feathers: all these things convey a routine yet captivating episode in an animal’s life. Yet with scat, it can be subtly different. A set of pawprints leading to a fox den has not been made purposefully visible, but these prominently deposited stoat droppings are there as a marker. They are intended to be seen, a boundary of an agreed territory. 

This habit is common among the mustelids. You can often find a small ditch piled with the ripe, loose dung of a badger, glistening with beetle casings or cherry stones. These badger earthworks, known as latrines, are there to be seen by other clans. It is similar to the old human habit of digging ditches in woodland to act as boundaries of owned land. The ditches that humans dig are often developed into hedges, and it is not so different in the realm of badgers. Their shit enriches the soil, giving the advantage to nitrogen loving plants like nettle and elder. In time they flourish into arcane, full green statements of existence, becoming detailed threads of narrative in the text of a landscape.

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