Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex

Navigating With Help From Animals


Gorse bush viewed from the south


Gorse bush viewed from the north

There is more than one way that the animals can help us to navigate. The first and most obvious way is that we can follow them. Horses have been known to lead their riders back to their companions if they have become separated and camels have taken desert travellers to water, but the birds have arguably had the greatest influence on this area of human navigation.

Irish Culdee monks are believed to have used the migratory routes of the Brent geese as they made their way under grey skies to Iceland from Ireland in the 6th Century.  There are some uncanny similarities between the routes that humans are believed to have followed in their colonization of the Pacific and the routes that birds follow during their annual migrations.

The second way the animals can help us is if we emulate them. Birds have shown an impressive ability to adapt to the circumstances of each journey in the methods of navigation they choose. They can use magnetism, the sun, stars and follow lines in the ground, from coastlines to trainlines. Pigeons are known to follow motorways. Bats are famous for their ability to echo-locate and the ships and submarines of the world are finding their way around the oceans of the world with technology that would not impress a flying fox. Animal journeys are both impressive and essential, honed over many generations of survival by those that succeed, but humans do have one or two gifts that other animals do not share and which we can use to navigate in a way that might pass them by.

Humans are capable of deductive reasoning and lateral thought. We are capable of spotting patterns and then using detective work to understand these patterns. We are also capable of communication. Pulling these strands together allows us the opportunity to understand and find our way through the landscape in novel ways.

I have noticed the way heather prefers south-facing slopes, it dislikes the shade, and I have also noticed in similar parts of the world how gorse bushes are asymmetric, appearing healthier on their southern side. For many years I had put this effect on the gorse bushes down to a similar effect to that of the heather and many other plants. In my mind it was a typical plant effect, one reflecting the southern passage of the sun in the sky. It was only when I discussed this observation with those that knew the habits of the sheep that shared the land with the gorse better than I did that I came to understand the effect better.

Gorse bushes often appear healthier, with denser, greener growth and more flowers, especially near the ground, on their southern sides than their northern and northeastern sides because… the sheep like to shelter in the gorse from the harsher winds, and these blow from the southwest more often than any other direction. The sheep’s sheltering habit damages and kills parts of the northern and northeastern sides of the gorse bushes. The observation was easy, but appreciating the way the sheep were playing a big part in pointing direction took deduction, lateral thought and communication. The deeper understanding also explained why this unusual technique will only work well in areas that have a good population of sheep.

Spiders webs will be found on the northeastern, lee sides of trees, buildings and other shelters too, for very similar reasons. There are doubtless hundreds of similar clues out there waiting for a little detective work and lateral thought. This is navigation at its most beautiful and intriguing.

There is more detail about how animals can help us navigate, as well as methods on using the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals and buildings, in Tristan Gooley’s books.