The last two weeks have seen a lot of rain, but today was quite sunny. The rain has given us a lot of lush vegetation and the wood is a bit like a rain forest at the moment. The nettles at the gate are now as high as my shoulder!
The badgers emerged en masse at about 7.45pm, and for the next hour so they milled around the area, quite content and relaxed. One of my problems is that as yet I haven’t been able to recognise individual badgers at the sett. I can recognise the cubs – they’re small and cute and fluffy – but the adults are harder to tell apart. This is one of the reasons for taking photographs and video, so that I can try and learn their features and so tell them apart. The other reason for the pictures is to explain to my wife what I do in the evenings…
Anyhow, there were very soon at least ten badgers at the sett entrance, the five cubs and at least five adults. They were all quite happy, enjoying the pleasant evening, sitting around grooming and playing. The older cubs are getting to be quite a handful, but there are two who are still smaller and quieter. Are these females? Do females develop slower? Or are they just late developers?
The cubs are ranging further afield now, and going off foraging on their own. They still stay within about 100 yards of the sett, but they are definitely getting more independent. There is still the usual play-fighting and wrestling going on, but they seem to have calmed down a little and are getting on with the business of finding food. Interestingly, I saw one of the cubs musking another cub, so it seems as if they are already defining relationships in the group.
Musking is an activity that may need some explaining. The badger belongs to the mustelid family, which also includes weasels, stoats, otters, polecats and martens. One of the key features of these animals is that they communicate by scent, having a musk gland under the tail that secretes a powerful-smelling oil. This is used to mark out a territory, and in the case of badgers, to mark out family members.
Badgers mark their territory through the use of specific ‘latrine’ sites or dung pits. These are located at the edge of their patch, and are visited regularly. The scent at these sites warns other badgers out of the area. These dung pits are a useful way to identify the territory of different badgers. You can also use them to find out what the badgers have been eating. I’m not dedicated enough for detailed analysis, but as a rough guide badgers that have been eating their usual diet of earthworms will leave ‘earthy’ dung. In late summer, the dung is often crammed with wheat from the fields, showing the change in diet. There are a few cherry trees in our area, and in the autumn the badger dung is often dark red and a mass of cherry stones.
A badger musks another badger by pressing its backside against it, so that it rubs the musk gland on the other badger. Musking indicates the hierarchy of the group, so that dominant badgers musk the less dominant ones. It marks them out as ‘belonging’ to them. As I was watching the sett there was a disturbance in the undergrowth (caused by one of the cubs, I think). Alarmed, all the badgers bolted back to the sett. It was like a firework exploding in reverse – badgers raced back from all points of the compass. When they had settled down again, one of the adults came over and musked two of the cubs. It was if it was saying ‘Don’t worry, you’re one of us. You’re part of the gang. You’re safe now.’
I’m curious to see what happens to the family. Will all the cubs stay at the sett, or do they go off and make their own way in the world? I guess I need to work on identifying individuals and keep watching over the year to answer that question.
At the end of the evening, one of the cubs started exploring in a whole new direction. There is a tree at the sett that grows at an angle of about 45 degrees. The cub managed to climb onto this tree, and proceeded to amble upwards. Very shortly it had climbed about 25 feet along the tree, and was about 12-14 feet off the ground. I wondered if it would get stuck. We had a cat once that would climb trees, but could only climb upwards. When it came to coming down again she was much less graceful. The badger cub on the other hand seemed quite at home in the tree, and when it reached the end of the trunk it turned round and ambled down again. I’ve seen badgers climbing trees before, and they always seem a bit out of place, being low-slung, solid animals, definitely suited to life on the ground. I suppose they are related to Pine Martens after all, so it may be a family trait.
As it was getting too dark to see, a muntjac barked loudly nearby and all the badgers scrambled down the nearest sett entrance. I took that as my cue and slipped down from my tree and headed home.