It always pleases me to find evidence of the tracks that animals have worn through the undergrowth by their passage. I can’t explain why. Perhaps it’s something about the reassurance of knowing those animals are there? This is only a small area of woodland after all, ringed fairly tight by estate housing and roads, yet within it there are clearly populations of undomesticated creatures leaving their mark, simply by doing what they do, going where they go, following their instincts.
I also know they’re there because I see them. If I’m lucky, I’ll happen upon deer on a weekly basis, and more so in the winter when there is less vegetation to hide them. They typically freeze with what seems like fear, but will calmly hold your gaze until you realise you’re no longer breathing, often only fleeing once you move on again. Squirrels are plentiful but rarely on the ground. Foxes are more elusive, and tend to keep their distance – I smell them more often than see them. There are surely other mammals around – mice, rats, voles, hedgehogs (although the latter of these are easier to encounter in the garden than the woods). Badgers I’m hopeful but not sure about. I keep on the lookout for the telltale entrance to a sett, without success so far.
Humans beings have made paths too, but by the more deliberate, co-ordinated use of earth-movers, aggregates and vibrating whacker plates, rather than the gradual weathering action of their feet. An army of dog-walkers, pram-pushers, cyclists and joggers criss-crosses the woods every day, and largely keeps its feet and wheels free of mud. We’re well-behaved on the whole, going where we’re ushered, following routes that someone else decided we should take. There’s little incentive to do otherwise unless you’re determined to stray no matter what – the paths are well-made and extensive. And there are nettles and fallen trees everywhere!
A “desire line” (or “path”, though “line” sounds better and is more familiar to me) is the term used by landscape architects, parks authorities and planners to describe what happens if we don’t behave ourselves when going from A to B, and instead go off-piste, following our own course rather than the one suggested and provided for us. This usually means a lazy shortcut, cater-corner, directly through the middle rather than around the outsides. We’re creatures of habit too, it seems.
I don’t imagine that cutting lazy corners, seeking a swifter route, is what the animals who made the tracks in the three previous pictures were necessarily doing, whichever species they were. Not deliberately, anyway. They were, and are, probably looking for food, seeking safety or returning to a reliable source of water. They have probably been doing it for centuries.