September often starts with a few weeks of sunshine and warmth but as we head towards October, we'll definitely be seeing wetter and cooler weather.
The slightly soggier conditions in early autumn mean softer ground and the opportunity to collect casts of animal prints - a great way to spend the last few weeks of the school holidays.
Animal Track Casts
You will need:
• A 1kg tub of plaster of Paris (try any art supplies shop)
• A 1 litre bottle of tap water
• An old medium-sized mixing bowl or plastic container, ideally with a spout
• A wooden spoon
• An old 2 litre plastic bottle, cut into sections about two inches thick
• Some old newspaper
• Plastic bags (for the messy bowl and spoon)
• Vaseline (or other petroleum jelly).
First, find your tracks. Look on soft ground near to shelter or food and water sources – under trees or near streams in woodland or field edges. See our guide [on the next page] if you need help identifying them.
Once you find a good print, clear away any loose twigs and stones so the print is as clear as possible.
Smear a thin layer of the petroleum jelly around one of the plastic rings (this will make it easier to remove later), then press into the ground around the print, making sure the print is centred. Press the ring a couple of centimetres into the ground so that when you pour the plaster in it won't leak out.
Now mix your plaster in the bowl. Follow the directions on the packet to get the right plaster to water ratio (usually about 1.5 to 1). The mixture will get hot as you mix it. You should have a glossy liquid, similar in texture to double cream or pancake batter. Once mixed, leave for a minute or two and gently tap the mixing bowl to ensure any air bubbles float to the top (trapped air bubbles will weaken your cast). Now pour the plaster into the plastic circle, filling to just below the rim. Try not to pour the plaster directly onto the print but off to the side, letting it run into the impression.
You now need to leave the cast to set for at least half an hour. Mark your spot with a tall stick (so you can find it again) and hunt for more prints or go for a circular walk.
When you are ready to remove the cast, very carefully lift it (including the plastic collar) and wrap it in the newspaper. Don't worry at this stage about cleaning any mud off - it is still very fragile. Leave to dry for another full day at home. The cast will then be properly set and you can cut off the collar and rinse off any mud.
You can paint the cast to highlight the footprint if you want to, or varnish it to give it extra strength. Be sure to label it with the species you have identified and the location you found it. As you add to your collection you will learn more about the animals and their behaviour. What sort of woodland do deer like to live in? What do wild boar like to eat? It's a fascinating way to learn more about the animals that live in our countryside. Incidentally, if you're lucky enough to find larger animal casts, such as a badger's, you can also use long strips of card, secured with paper clips to surround the print, instead of the plastic rings.