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Happy Winter Solstice! - Robin in SnowWell, here we are again.  The shortest day of the year.  And it really does feel like midwinter with the snow and the deep frost outside.  It’s definitely a night for staying inside in the warmth and light, for celebrating turning the corner of the year. From tomorrow, the days start to get longer again.  After summer is winter, and after winter summer.

However you celebrate it, season’s greetings from Tales from the Wood!

Scarlett - Dreaming of a wild christmas

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All-terrain baby buggyThere is one piece of kit that is absolutely essential for the middle-class dad, and that’s a fancy baby buggy.  It’s as if new dads, facing the reality that they won’t be getting a sports car any time soon, channel their masculine pride into getting the baby equivalent of a Ferrari.  The most popular are the all-terrain, go anywhere type.  I see a lot of these in the shopping centre at Milton Keynes (Scarlett and I go there for breakfast on Saturdays while we wait for the library to open).  The buggies we see are pristine, polished and new-looking.  Despite being all-terrain, like most 4×4 cars they’ve never actually been off-road at any point.

I’ve got an all-terrain baby buggy too.  Mine looks like it’s been dragged through a hedge backwards.  This is because it has – several times, in fact.  It’s also been pushed up and down countless ploughed fields, through woods and across streams.  It’s been lifted over stiles and carried over rocks.  It’s been around lakes, along beaches and into the sea.

OK, so my buggy is never again going to look new.  In fact, I have to hose it down every now and then.  But think of the things that young Scarlett has seen from that buggy: the birds, the animals, the trees and the clouds.  If my daughter grows up feeling happy and comfortable outdoors then it will be worth it.  After all, surely this is what all-terrain buggies are for, isn’t it?

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Good news from the Badger Trust…

Campaigners were celebrating today as the Court of Appeal handed down judgment finding the proposed Welsh badger cull to be unlawful on all three grounds they raised on appeal.

On 5 July, the Welsh Ministers had conceded the appeal on the basis of one of three grounds: that the 2009 Order which permitted culling in the whole of Wales (even in the many areas where TB is not a problem) was not supported by evidence and was unlawful as a result.

However, the Court of Appeal today ruled that the Welsh Ministers had also acted unlawfully in misinterpreting section 21 of the Animal Health Act 1981 as giving them power to cull if they could achieve a potential reduction in TB which was merely more than trivial or insignificant. They also unlawfully failed to carry out a balancing exercise to weigh up the harm involved (i.e. killing over 2,000 badgers) against the potential benefit (which the Minister’s own model predicted to be a reduction in the rate of cattle herd breakdowns of just 0.3% of farms annually).

David Williams, Chairman of the Badger Trust, said: “We are delighted with this outcome. We are grateful to all the badger groups and supporters whose donations and encouragement made this crucial legal action possible.

“Of all the wildlife organisations the Badger Trust exists to secure the welfare of our native protected species, the badger, and we will continue to do so through lawful means. We are pleased to see that the protection offered by wildlife law cannot be vitiated by political smoke and mirrors and that the court saw the issues so clearly. We also note the court’s criticism of the Welsh Ministers’ failure to reveal their advice without heavy redactions.

“Scientific evidence about the futility of killing badgers to control bovine TB remains exactly the same. Although some farmers may see this judgement as a setback, the massive body of rigorously peer-reviewed literature shows that killing badgers can play no meaningful part in the eradication of bovine TB and that robust cattle measures are sufficient, as demonstrated by the fact that the rate of increase in new TB outbreaks is already starting to slow. We also hope that the Minister will now adopt a strategy of vaccination as a cost-effective, viable alternative.”

Congratulations to the Trust on their victory for common sense.  They’ve worked hard for it and they deserve thanks.

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BadgerWatching badgers, in theory, should be quite simple.  All you need to do is to find an active sett and be there (suitably downwind and out of sight) when the badgers come out in the evening.  I’ve covered the first part – finding an active sett – in an earlier post (see How to Recognise a Badger Sett).  Now I’ll say a little about the second part – when the badgers come out of their sett.

Badgers are nocturnal: they sleep during the day and are active at night.  They emerge from their sett in the evening to play, socialise and forage.  Unfortunately for the badger watcher they don’t come out at exactly the same time every evening.  They vary  the time of emergence from day-to-day and month to month.

Generally speaking, the time that badgers come out is governed by the time of sunset, earlier in winter and later in summer.  It is a little more complicated than this though, as they will often emerge while it is still light.  Badgers need enough time to find food, so during the summer when nights are short they will come out before the sun has set to give them sufficient foraging time.  In winter, when the nights are longer and the badgers are less active, they will emerge well after dark.

There are other factors that affect the time of emergence though.  Neal and Cheeseman, in the classic book Badgers, list a number of these. For example, badgers will come out later when there is more light.  Those in a sett that catches the light of the setting sun may well emerge later than those in a sett that is in shadow.  Nights when there is a bright moon may also mean the badgers come out later.

Weather plays a role too.  Badgers may come out later in strong wind or heavy rain, probably because they cannot detect danger as well in these conditions and they feel less secure.  Linked to weather is the availability of food: damp nights are better for catching worms so the badgers may come out earlier to feed.  On the other hand, a prolonged dry spell may also see them coming out earlier as they are under pressure to find food and need to spend longer foraging.  The same may be true of sows with cubs, who according to Neal and Cheeseman are often the first to leave the sett in the evening, presumably to get as much food as possible.  Lastly, human disturbance may keep the badgers underground for longer.  Setts that are subject to regular human activity tend to emerge later.

All of this means that whilst it is possible to estimate the general time that the badgers will emerge, predicting the precise time is much more difficult.

Here’s where this blog comes in.  The  main reason for writing this blog is to provide a journal for my experiences, to record details that hopefully will prove useful at some point in the future.  Since the beginning, one of the things I have been careful to record is the time that the badgers emerge from the sett.  My hope was that by keeping track of these I’d be able to find a pattern and be able to predict their movements much more accurately.  I’ve now had a chance to look back through the archives from the last two years and plot a graph of badger emergence times at different times of year.

Each point on the graph represents a time when the first badger emerged from the sett.  To show how this varies across the year I have split the graph into half-months.  I obviously don’t do enough badger watching before April and after August!

Time when badgers come out of the sett

The first thing to notice is that there is a wide range of times in each month, so there is a lot of variation in times of emergence.  In June, for instance, the badgers have come out as early as 7.00pm and as late as nearly 9.00pm.  The 7.00pm event may have been an anomaly – it was an undersized cub that acted strangely – but there’s still a big variation.

The data set for the graph is statistically too small to support firm conclusions, but it still helps to build a picture of emergence.  For instance, it does seem that the badgers come out slightly later in May and June than they do in August.  The graph also shows that in almost all cases the badgers emerged after 7.30pm and usually around 8.00pm, so it does at least allow me to judge the time I need to arrive at the sett.

Neal and Cheeseman have a much better graph in their book, based on hundreds of observations.  Anyone interested in the subject would be well advised to have a look at it.  Nevertheless, I’m quite proud of this little graph of mine.  It’s based on my own fieldwork and the records I’ve kept of my own experiences.  If you are thinking of going to watch badgers I hope it is of some use to you in planning your visits.

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I’m always happy to help out with spreading awareness of wildlife-related projects, so here is one that is worth looking at – one that everyone can join in with.  The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) is asking people across the UK to help with their ‘Wildest Hide & Seek’ study, which is looking at the effects wetlands may have on the range of wildlife found nearby.

In true ‘Hide & Seek’ fashion, participants will need to spend some time hiding quietly in their garden or nearest open space, followed by a few minutes of seeking and recording the wildlife they see.

The UK-wide study is investigating whether having a pond or other wetland in gardens, local parks, school grounds and allotments affects the range of animals found there. The survey takes place between Friday 21st and Monday 31st May and marks the International Year of Biodiversity.

As a big ‘Thank You’, those who take part will also receive a 2 for 1 voucher for entry to their local WWT centre.

Martin Spray, CEO of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, explains:

“We’re asking people to spend one hour looking for fourteen species such as hedgehogs, foxes, kingfishers, frogs and dragonflies which will give us a guide to the health of wildlife habitats. Some animals might be spotted relatively easily, however some may hide under rocks or logs so we do encourage people to be inquisitive!”

The feedback will help to paint a picture of what habitats are like across the country and will be very useful to our research work as well as the work we do to protect wetlands and wildlife worldwide.”

To find out more about how to take part, and to download a survey guide, go to http://bit.ly/wwt_hideandseek

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Scarlett in BluebellsNow, May has to be one of the best months, if not the best month, in the badger watcher’s calendar.  The evenings are getting longer and warmer, the badgers are coming out while it is still light, giving you great views, and the year’s cubs are out and getting playful and adventurous.

So how come things have been so quiet around here lately?  Why no new posts?  Frankly, Badger Watching Man, you don’t seem to be living up to your name at the moment.

I must confess that I haven’t been near any badgers at all in May.  I’ve not been home.  I spent a week in Egypt on business and then a couple of days later we went off on a family holiday to Turkey.  I’ve gazed in wonder at the ancient, riddle-haunted Valley of the Kings and walked paths in the parched and aeon-shadowed hills of Thebes that were old when Stonehenge was built.  I’ve sailed on the warm, blue waters of the Mediterranean, brushing up on spinnaker and catamaran techniques under the bright sun where Herodotus and Alexander the Great once sailed.

And now I’m home, back to the green fields and leafy hedgerows of Bedfordshire.  And you know what?  It’s nice to go away to hot places, but it’s nice to be back home too.  This really is a green and pleasant land.

More badgery stuff soon, I promise.  I’m itching to see if there are cubs at the sett.

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Normally I don’t have much to do with politics.  At best I look on the whole process with a sort of idle, morbid curiosity.  However, I have noticed that general elections seem to coincide with politicians paying some interest to the views of the people they represent (put it this way, the last time I heard anything from my MP was during the last election.  Go figure!)  Perhaps there is some chance that we will be listened to at the moment.  Perhaps not, but it is a good time to try.

Today, I received an e-mail from the Badger Trust.  It seems that the Conservative Party has promised to carry out a cull of badgers if they are elected.  The Trust has asked all of its members to contact their Conservative Party candidate to ask them to clarify their position and to request that they re-examine their policy.  They have thoughtfully put together a summary of the science behind the issue if you are not sure what to write.  Drop me a line at badgerwatchingman@googlemail.com if you’d like a copy.

I think that this is an excellent idea.  I have taken the opportunity to e-mail Nadine Dorries, our MP here in Mid Bedfordshire, and I urge others to do the same to their candidates.

Dear Nadine

You very kindly offered on your website to listen to what people have to say, so I hope you can answer my question.  I’m sure you’re busy at the moment, what with the election and everything, but as one of your of Mid Beds constituents this is important to me.  I’m writing to ask what is the Conservative policy (and your own personal opinion) on the proposed badger cull in an effort to control bovine TB (bTB).

The thing is, I’ve spent a good few years now studying the badgers of Mid Bedfordshire.  Like you, I keep a blog.  Mine is about badgers (www.badgerwatcher.com).  I am concerned that the Conservative Party has promised to go ahead with another badger cull if they are elected.  Perhaps you could confirm or deny this?

I am obviously concerned for the welfare of our native wildlife, but I am more concerned that an ill-conceived cull will be launched against the weight of scientific evidence.  A 10-year £50million taxpayer-funded research programme  by the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) concluded that a badger cull would have no meaningful impact on the bTB epidemic and that on a comparatively local scale it could make matters worse (as happened when reactive culling was carried out as part of the randomised badger culling trial).  bTB has continued to rise despite previous badger culls (the example from Ireland is relevant here), and at best, a badger cull would be an expensive, senseless slaughter that will do little to alleviate a problem perpetuated (if not caused) by questionable modern farming practices.

So please could you take the time to let me know whether the Conservative Party intend to go ahead with a cull, and what your personal stance on the matter is.  I am sure that my readers will be interested to know.

Many thanks

BWM

Like I said, I rarely get involved in politics and I certainly don’t want to turn this blog into a political forum.  I have no particular allegiance to any political party. Nevertheless, like most people, I’m feeling the frustration of being governed by politicians who are wholly out of touch with the views of the people they are supposed to represent and besides, this is an issue close to my heart.

I’ll keep you posted if and when I get a response.

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