Today I finally finished the shelves that have taken up quite a lot of my time recently – ten shelves of solid oak, seven feet long, cut to size, jointed and glued into five rectangular units, oiled and now attached to the wall. A good job, if I do say so myself. This gave me the chance to take a stroll up to the wood in the evening to see how the badgers were doing. It’s been the first weekend without the threat of torrential rain for a while, so it would have been a shame not to get outdoors at some point.
It was a windless evening so I settled down in my favourite tree. There were signs of great activity at the western end of the sett. A large heap of fresh spoil suggests the holes have been enlarged over the past few days. I still don’t understand how or why the badgers occupy different parts of the sett at different times. Perhaps there is no pattern? Perhaps they just sleep where they feel like it?
At 7.55pm a pair of badgers emerged from the middle sett entrance. This is new. The badgers haven’t used this part of the sett much at all this year. Soon there were five badgers by the entrance, engaged in some energetic mutual grooming. They were a picture of a happy, healthy badger group. I guess that life is good at the moment, what with the corn ripening in the fields and the wet weather making it easy to catch worms.
After ten minutes or so of grooming, the interaction started to get a little more, shall we say, intimate. To put it more bluntly, two of the badgers started mating. The boar swiftly mounted the female, biting her on the back of the neck to keep her in position.
I’ve seen badgers mating a few times. Badgers can mate at any time of year, although the cubs are always born in spring. This happens because of delayed implantation; the fertilised egg (blastocyst) lying dormant until December. Mating seems to vary in intensity. Sometimes the female resists and it is hard to tell whether they’re mating or fighting. This time was much less vigorous, with only the occasional ‘yip’ from the sow when the boar bit her too hard.
As I’ve mentioned before, Ernest Neal made the distinction between short- and long-duration mating, with only the long-duration mating being a serious attempt at reproduction. This was definitely long-duration mating – a little over 35 minutes by my watch.
The interesting thing for me was the behaviour of the other badgers. Most ignored the mating couple but one in particular – a fairly young boar – took a much more active interest. Although a bigger (and probably older) boar was already mounted on the sow, the smaller one would also bite her neck as if he wanted to mount her too. This resulted in a few sharp snaps from the larger badger at times. Such was the younger badger’s eagerness that at one point he mounted the larger boar while the larger boar was mounted on the sow. Apparently frustrated by his lack of success, the smaller badger also mounted another passing sow, so that there were two badger couples mating side by side at one point.
[You see, not only am I watching badgers mating, I’m watching badgers as they engage in all sorts of deviant sexual activity – there’ll be complaints soon, mark my words!]
The video below shows a selection of events from the mating.
As I said, the coupling lasted for a little over 35 minutes. As soon as it was over and the badgers separated, the smaller boar immediately mounted the female and the process began again. This second mating went on for at least 20 minutes. It was still going strong in the darkness when I left for home.
This second mating by another male is unusual behaviour for a hierarchical animal. Many social animals have evolved mechanisms so that only the dominant ones are allowed to breed. For a larger male to let a smaller male mate with the same female immediately after he has done so goes against this pattern. However, reading through Ernest Neal when I got home, it seems that it is not uncommon in badgers. Female badgers in oestrus seem to be very promiscuous, and it seems that it is the female that will often initiate these multiple matings with different males. Badgers do have other ways of controlling breeding by non-dominant individuals, notably the dominant female killing the cubs of others, so perhaps the actual act of mating is less important.
Apart from being slightly voyeuristic (again!) it was a fascinating evening. It was good to see the whole mating process and to capture it on video. As I always say, it’s the complex social life of badgers that makes them so interesting to study.