If you’re looking at this page in the hope of reading about badgers, I’m sorry. I’m afraid I’ve been very busy lately. We had Scarlett’s Christening on Sunday, and a very pleasant day it was too, but it did take a certain amount of time in preparation. I haven’t had a chance to see how the badgers are doing lately. All I had time for over the weekend was a gentle stroll in the field behind my house.
The field behind my house is in most respects an ordinary field, much as you would find anywhere in lowland Britain. It is a big field, about a quarter of a mile on each side. A road runs up the south side, a hedgerow and a footpath on the west, another footpath and a small copse on the north. The hedges are interspersed with grand old oak trees. My house and garden is on the east. The hill is on a low rise, the soil on the lower slopes being sand with clay; on the higher slopes it is almost pure sand. At the moment the field is under oil seed rape, but it was under wheat last year.
It’s an ordinary field – you probably drive past hundreds just like it – but it’s special to me because it is next to where I live. More than that, though, I’m always surprised by the wildlife that either lives in or passes through it. I regularly track a badger that walks a beat up the northern path. The edges of the field are home to numerous rabbits, and the runs and latrines of voles can be found in many places. Chinese Water Deer are common inhabitants (invisible now that the rape has grown up) as are muntjac near the hedgerows. A herd of fallow deer passes through every week or two, and we even have the odd roe deer, quite a rare species here in Bedfordshire.
This is what makes it special. It’s an ordinary field but I’m starting to learn its secrets. I’d recommend this to anyone. Find a local patch, even if it’s in a park or a piece of scrub, and keep visiting it. I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the wildlife it holds.
It’s been gloriously sunny for almost three weeks now. The ground is parched (as is my vegetable garden) and baked hard. A better tracker than me, or one with more patience, could maybe track animals in the dust, but I had neither the time nor the skill on Sunday evening. I think I’ll have to get out one evening and just spend an hour or so lying down and looking at the ground. I’ve found that when tracking it always takes me a little while to ‘get my eye in’. It isn’t something you can rush. The neighbours will think I’m even more mad than usual, but an evening of lying in a field sounds quite enjoyable at the moment.
One thing that I did come across on my stroll was quantities of dung. I suppose I should use the correct tracker’s term and call it scat. Usually I only see the scat of rabbits, voles and foxes in this field. Fox scat is quite distinctive because they tend to leave it in conspicuous places as a territorial marker – on a rock, a molehill or a tuft of grass. But on Sunday I came across some new scat that I hadn’t seen before. The scale in the pictures is in cm.
It was from a carnivore. You tell that by the thin shape and the pointed ‘tail’ at the end. It was similar in shape to a fox’s, but much smaller. There were five or six individual droppings spread out over an area of a few square yards at the top of the field.
Taking a stick, I teased one apart (first dead polecats, now poo. I get through so much anti-bacterial handwash you wouldn’t believe it!) The scat was composed entirely of hair. It looked like rabbit hair to me. There were no bones, so whatever made it hadn’t been eating mice or voles. I’d expect to find bone fragments if they had.
Why so much fascination with animal poo? OK – follow my reasoning here.
The animal that left these was a carnivore. It was significantly smaller than a fox, and it had been eating rabbit regularly. I’m familiar with domestic cats, and it didn’t come from one of those. This narrows it down to one of the small mustelids – weasel, stoat or polecat. There are no other possible predators it could be from.
Weasels will eat rabbits, but they more commonly prey on mice and voles. Since there were no mouse or vole bones in the scats I examined, I think we can rule out weasel. Besides, they were a bit big for a weasel scat.
That leaves polecat or stoat as the only serious candidates. Both of these will take rabbits regularly, particularly stoats. The Hamlyn Guide to Animals – Tracks, Trails & Signs has this to say about stoat scat:
‘Dark, irregular and elongated. They are 4-8cm long and there are characteristic twists of fur at each end of the faeces, which are coiled and twisted within themselves. They have a strong, musty smell when fresh but weather to an odourless grey with time. They contain a wide variety of mammal, bird and reptile remains’
‘Slightly coiled, often twisted and with tapering ends. Up to 7cm long, about 0.5cm in diameter. Contain bone and fur fragments. Often in regular latrines’.
Very interesting. Either of these could fit the bill perfectly. My money would be on the stoat, simply because they are much more common than polecats. I’ve been fascinated by stoats for ages, and I’ve love to get a good look at one. Based on the evidence, it seems that I’ve at least one stoat resident in the field behind my house.
And this is the point of this post really. It shows what can be discovered if you’re patient and prepared to look. I had a gentle stroll on a summer evening and by the end of it I had strong evidence of stoats in the neighbourhood. OK – I had to sift through a certain amount of animal poo to find it, but it was there. Now I have a spot I can focus on and hopefully get to see the stoat properly one day. As I always say, the wildlife is out there. It’s just a question of finding enough pieces of the jigsaw.
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