Archive for the ‘Fieldnotes’ Category

Badger CubSaturday evening was warm without being oppressive, with a light breeze blowing.  Around the world financial markets crashed.  Tanks rolled down Syrian streets.  London was in flames as rioters burned and looted.  And me?  I walked up to the wood to watch badgers.

The wheat in the wheat fields is ripe now.  The badgers are making full use of this seasonal resource, with all the latrine pits full of wheat-filled dung.  They’ll need to make the most of it quickly, as the farmers are starting to harvest.  They’ll carry on late into the night while the dry weather lasts, with spotlights on the combine harvesters.

By 7.35pm I was happily sitting up a tree at the main sett, listening to tractors in the distance, muntjacs in the wood and the buzzard in the trees.  You see, it isn’t that I try to escape from reality by watching badgers.  It’s just a different reality – one that’s been here far longer than the troubles of our modern world.

Having had little luck with the badgers at this sett I wasn’t expecting too much – maybe a quick glimpse.  But it turned out to be a very good evening of watching.  At 7.45 there appeared a badger cub.  It ambled over from the east end of the sett and snuffled contentedly around my tree as it foraged in the undergrowth.  This was good news indeed!  Remember that a couple of years ago I regularly saw 8-10 badgers at this sett, which has gone down to just 2 or 3 this year.  I’ve been concerned about them, to be honest.  A cub is an excellent sign that things are picking up again.

I thought I saw a cub last time I was here, but I only got a brief look so I wasn’t sure.  This time there was no doubt.  Here’s a quick video of the badger cub foraging:

As the cub was under my tree I could hear the whickering sound of badgers at play from the other end of the sett, so that makes at least another two badgers in residence.  At 8.00pm I saw another badger walking off from the east end of the sett, which confirmed things.

The cub spent the next half-hour foraging, snaffling up the odd morsel of food from the ground.  Apart from the delight of getting a good look at a real live badger for the first time in ages, I also got a few new insights.  At one point the local buzzard settled into a tree overhead, calling loudly.  The badger cub reacted visibly to this – it scampered to a disused sett entrance at the west of the site and crouched there.  A badger – even a half-grown cub – has nothing to fear from a buzzard, whose food is mostly carrion and small creatures such as worms, but this one looked visibly nervous.

Badger cub crouched in sett entranceAfter a few minutes the cub disappeared underground, only to reappear from the middle entrance to the sett five minutes later.  This is the first time I’ve seen this, but it means that the middle and the west of the sett are linked underground.  They’re at least 25 yards apart, so there must be a fantastic network of tunnels underground.

All in all, a very satisfying evening.  It must be a record for the latest view of a badger cub (I normally see the first in April) but it was good to see it nonetheless.  It’s a good sign and I feel like a proper badger watcher again.

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Elm Tree at DuskHmmm.  It seems I’ve been neglecting my badgers a bit lately.  Sorry about that.  Some sort of explanation is in order, I shouldn’t wonder.

I’ve been busy again.  A few weekends ago I went down to Avebury in Wiltshire for the solstice (it was rubbish – the National Trust closed all the car parks and effectively killed any celebrations).  The weekend after  that we had friends round (very nice) and I spent last weekend digging and levelling the foundations  of a play area for Scarlett (seemed to consist mostly of shovelling two tonnes of sand from one place to another), picking fruit and making jam (seedless raspberry, for Mrs BWM’s famous home-made jammie dodgers).  Add to that the usual demands of being a pater familias and holding down a responsible job as the Senior Consultant in a firm of business psychologists in the City of London, well, it’s been busy.

I managed to see one badger last week.  I had a late night at the HR Excellence Awards in London.  I didn’t win an award, but driving home at 1.00am I did have a badger cross the road in front of me, on a small lane about half a mile from my house.  I’ve seen paths on the roadside verges here, but this is the first time I’ve seen a badger on them.  Only a brief sighting, but it adds another detail to my badger map of the area.

Anyway, one quick glimpse of a badger doesn’t make me a badger watcher.  I made time on Sunday to get outside and see The Hawthorn Sett - note the absence of badgers!what the badgers were doing, without great results.  I still haven’t got to grips with the badgers at the Hawthorn Sett, so that was where I headed.

I arrived at 7.30pm and left at 9.30pm, but without so much as a peep of a badger.  My fieldcraft was sound.  I was joined by a rabbit that sat for half an hour between me and the sett.  Rabbits are, in my experience, more sensitive than badgers.  If the rabbit wasn’t disturbed by my presence then the badgers wouldn’t be either.  The sett is plainly in use – there are at least four active holes here.  But there were no badgers in evidence.

Perhaps this is an odd sett, where the badgers don’t play by the rules.  It is quite close to the road, so maybe they’ve adapted to disturbance by coming out late.  Who knows?

MuntjacAs a consolation I stopped to watch some deer on the way home.  The wheat is ripening in the fields, and the muntjac and chinese water deer are almost hidden, which means you can almost walk past without seeing them.  I really must get out more often.  Perhaps I’ll make time one of these evenings to see how the barn owls are doing, or maybe check out some of the new setts I’ve found.

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OK.  I’m back from holiday.  It’s been a warm evening, although a little windy, so I took a quick trip up to the main badger sett in the hope of seeing more badgers and hopefully some cubs.  I arrived a little late – 8.05pm – and luckily I sneaked into the area of the sett quietly because only 5 minutes later a pair of badgers emerged at the east end of the sett.  They snuffled and foraged around the sett and slowly wandered away.

I sat and watched for another 45 minutes but no other badgers emerged.  The sett looks active, with fresh spoil visible outside at least half a dozen holes, but I still haven’t seen evidence of more than three badgers this year.

Two years ago I sat at this sett and watched groups of up to ten badgers engaging in all sorts of social behaviour.  For the last couple of years though it’s been just a few individuals and much less social interaction.  And no cubs.  I’m not sure what has happened.

I write this blog mostly as a diary of my experiences so that I can keep track and look for patterns.  In this respect, it is just as valid to record only a few badgers (or even none at all) as it is to record a big group.  It may turn out to be more interesting in the long term.  But I have to say, on a personal level  it would be good to see some more badgers.  I enjoy being outdoors in the evening, but the badgers definitely make it special.  It would be very nice to come back one of these days and say “look everyone, here’s some pictures and video of a whole bunch of badgers!”

And here’s the dilemma.  Do I persist in watching at the main sett to see if I can figure out what’s happened?  Or do I swap and spend more of my time at another sett in the hope of seeing more (and more interesting) badger behaviour?  In an ideal world I’d do both, but my time is limited at the moment.  I must confess, I’m getting tempted to move my attentions to another sett for a little while.  I think I’ll learn more that way, as well as it being more enjoyable.

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“When I was in Muckley the other day–“
“Muckley? That’s a ways”
“Two miles or more, easy”
“Gosh, I’d like to travel someday…”


New Pastures

Various work and family commitments kept me at home in the evenings this weekend but I managed to sneak out on Sunday morning for another look for badger setts.  I didn’t find what I was looking for but I did explore the far side of the woods and add a couple of new setts to my map of the area into the bargain.

I may have mentioned that the woods are on the top of a hill – not a huge hill, but big enough for this part of Bedfordshire.  Odd as it may sound, almost all of my attention to date has been on the side of the hill nearest our village, so it was time I paid a visit to the other side.

Woodland Trail

The woods are a mixture of conifers and deciduous trees, surrounded by pasture.  It’s ideal badger country.  I was looking for the sett that bordered the main sett on the east side.  I thought this was the Beech Tree sett but I’m not sure now.  It doesn’t seem to be active.  I didn’t find any sign of a sett in this area, but I find a couple of new setts further to the east.

Here’s what looked to be an old and established sett on quite a steep slope.

New Badger Sett

The spoil heaps in the sandy soil are huge.  The badgers must have worked for generations to alter the landscape like this.

New Badger Sett 2

It rained heavily early on Sunday morning so there were no tracks visible, but the sheer size of the excavation could only mean badgers.  There were a number of holes linked by obvious paths, so this seems to be an active sett.

Here’s another sett.  This one was outside the wood in a hedgerow that was only one hawthorn tree wide.  I’ve seen hedgerow setts like this before.  It shows how badgers can adapt to most places.  There were two main holes, the spoil from which had spilled through the fence and been worn away by the sheep in the field.  My young assistant here shows the scale.

Spoil heaps at the badger sett in the hedgerow

The holes were visible in the bushes.  Again, there were no tracks, but the shape of the hole, the size of the spoil heaps and the discarded bedding all point to badgers.

Hole at the Badger Sett in the hedgerow

So I’ve got a few more coloured dots on my badger map, even thought there’s still some significant blank spaces.  But all in all it was an enjoyable walk, even if it was almost into the next parish.

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The fine weather is continuing and it really feels like early summer now.  Everything is lush and growing in the warmth.  Tomorrow is May Day – Beltane in the old celtic calendar – which marks the start of summer.  The celtic fire festivals neatly divide up the year.  Beltane is the beginning of summer, Samhain on November 1st is the beginning of winter. It means we’ve got six whole months of summer ahead of us after today.

Which is good, because I seem to have lost my badger mojo lately. I paid a visit to the Hawthorn sett this evening.  Last time, you’ll remember, I only managed to see half a badger here.  This time was even less impressive.  I didn’t see any parts of a badger at all.

My badger watching aims at the moment are quite simple:

  1. to get a reasonably accurate estimate of badger numbers at the main sett, the Pine Tree sett and the Hawthorn sett  so I can track this in the future,
  2. to locate the active sett in the vicinity of the Beech Tree sett and monitor that too,
  3. to see this year’s cubs at one or more setts, for no other reason than they’re cute and fun to watch.

Now, I’m not some sort of ultra-hardcore badger watcher.  The main reason I do it is to spend time outside, enjoying the countryside – listening to the owls, smelling the scents of a wood at night, that sort of thing – it’s a way to relax.  But I do like to follow some sort of plan, and right now I don’t think I’m making much progress.

Some of this is to be expected.  After all, the Hawthorn sett is new for me, so I may need some time to learn the habits of its residents.  And I don’t have as much time as I’ve had in previous years.  But I’m starting to suspect that the badgers are playing tricks on me this year…

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Badger Watching Man being patriotic on the day of the Royal WeddingToday is the day of the royal wedding – Prince William and Kate Middleton tied the knot.   I like Prince William.  Not only does he live on Anglesey (a place I know well) but everyone got a day off work for his wedding.  There’s been street parties and flag waving all over the country.  Bread and circuses?  Yup – that’ll do for me.  I’m happy with that.

We had a party in the village.  Everyone brought food and drink to the village hall (including some home-made cider) and the whole village had a slap-up feast followed by games on the green – five-legged races, welly-throwing, tug-of-war and so on.  It was a great day that showed just how eccentrically the British can celebrate when they want to.

In the evening I took advantage of the day off work and the fine weather and walked up to the wood.  I want to get an ideaFirst Badger of 2011 of the number of badgers at the sett.  Hopefully there’ll be cubs soon too.  As it happened, I only saw one badger so I’m no wiser about the total number.  This badger emerged at 8.15 and snuffled around the leaf litter contentedly for the next 20 minutes or so before wandering off deeper into the wood.  There was just enough light for a photo (only just).  It was a normal, healthy badger foraging for food, but it was on its own.

I’ll keep watching.  Sooner or later the badgers will reveal their secrets…

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Scarlett in BluebellsThe bluebells are out early this year.  We went for a walk as a family this weekend to go and see them.  They’re not fully out in the wood yet, but they’re definitely there.  The picture of the bluebells at the top of this page was taken a few years ago in mid-May, which means this year is very early.  I read somewhere that this is due to the warm weather we’ve had lately, but I always thought flowering was controlled by the duration of daylight (or more properly, the decreased duration of darkness).  Perhaps the days have been lighter as well as warmer?

Anyhow, this post isn’t really about bluebells, pretty though they are.  It’s to record my first badger watching visit to the Hawthorn sett.  I’d love to say that it went like a dream and I spent a lovely evening in the company of badgers as they cavorted and frolicked in front of me, but that would be too easy.

In fact, these badgers proved to be just as awkward as any others I’ve watched.  They didn’t seem interested in a grand debut performance.  I settled in to watch at about 7.40pm.  Nothing happened.  This wasn’t a problem – I can’t expect the badgers to come out at the same time as the others.

At 8.26 I heard the sound of scratching from behind a bramble patch.  Definitely a badger, but one that had come out from one of the few holes not visible from my spot.  At 8.30 I caught my first glimpse of a badger at this new sett – just its head peeping out over the undergrowth.  And that was all, until the light faded.  A single badger scratching contentedly.

The sett is big and active, so there must be more badgers in residence.  Hopefully next time I’ll be able to make a better count.

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The dunghill or manure heap

The dunghill at the local stables

What a beautiful weekend.  Never mind spring, we’ve had a couple of days that wouldn’t have been out of place in summer.  Lovely warm sun, the birds singing and the countryside coming alive.

And how did I spend this gorgeous weekend?  I’ve been digging manure from a dung heap at the local stables that resembled the Matterhorn in size and shape and transporting it to the vegetable garden again.  My rural lifestyle seems to involve an awful lot of dung, in one way or another.  If I’m not clearing it out from the chickens I’m going out and getting more for the veg.

Mrs BWM was working the late shift this weekend, so the evenings have been babysitting rather than badger watching for me.  But the weather was so nice I couldn’t resist taking Scarlett out for a walk.  Another sett survey was in order, before the vegetation gets too high.

The reason for this flurry of looking for new setts is that I want to build a better understanding of the badgers at the main sett, and this means – paradoxically – understanding the badgers at the neighbouring setts.  By getting familiar with other nearby setts I’ll be better placed to understand any changes at the main one, and also to judge the general well-being of badgers in the local area.

I’ve focused on the the east of the main sett so far, where the Beech Tree sett is.  I’ve started to doubt that the Beech Tree sett is active, but the signs all point to badgers in the area so there must be another sett nearby.  To the west of the main sett, the next one is the Pine Tree sett, which seemed to have only one badger in residence for the last year or two.  Today, I decided to go further south-west to the next sett along.  It needs a name, so let’s follow tradition and name it after a tree.  Let’s call it the Hawthorn sett.

The Hawthorn sett is 500m south of the Pine Tree sett and 900m south-west of the main sett, as the badger walks.  It is another sett that I’ve been aware of for a while but never examined closely.  I might have been missing out, because it seems very active at the moment.  I counted six active holes in a small area, plus well-used paths and latrines.  The soil is very sandy and the badgers have been digging lately, leading to some impressive spoil heaps.

Spoil heap outside badger sett

Here’s another classic sign of an active badger sett in the picture below – old bedding that has been dug out and discarded with the spoil.  The use of bedding is a distinctive badger behaviour that you can use to tell a badger sett from a hole used by rabbits or foxes.

Badger sett with discarded bedding

If there was any doubt that badgers are in residence, here’s another good sign.  See the claw mark in the centre of the picture below, made by the badger as it dug out the hole?  This can only have been done in the last day or two – these marks wouldn’t last long in such soft, sandy soil so they must be recent.

Badger sett with claw marks

It was only a quick visit to the sett but there was enough time to see that it is home to a decent-sized group of badgers.  The next step is to pay a visit one evening and see if I can count the numbers.  It’ll take time to build up a full picture of these neighbouring setts but it’ll hopefully give me another piece of the puzzle.

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I’ve spent the day shifting manure for the vegetable patch and buying hedging plants, so it’s been a real outdoors day.  But even better than that, I’ve been out on my first proper badger watching trip of the year.  The evenings are now light enough to get a chance of seeing badgers before it gets too dark.

By 7.50pm the sun had set and I was sitting in my favourite tree.  To be honest, I’m a little rusty.  I haven’t done this for a while.  I moved to quickly in the wood.  I was clumsy and noisy.  I put up a small herd of fallow deer and a couple of muntjac on my way in.  But hey, this is all part of the experience.  It always takes a little while to get back into practice, to really tune in and learn to move at the slow pace of the wood, not the frantic city pace that I’ve grown accustomed to.

At 8.10 I could hear the unmistakable sound of a badger gathering bedding on the other side of the sett.  A few minutes later a badger trotted into view.  You know, this will be the fifth year that I’ve been watching badgers, and I still get a thrill when I see a stripey face in the twilight.  The badger snuffled this way and that as it foraged in the dried leaves.

It was now too dark to see with the naked eye, but the badger was visible through binoculars.  Binoculars are the poor man’s night vision.  A good set of binoculars with a large objective lens will act as funnel, collecting and concentrating the available light.

Another few minutes later, a pair of badgers emerged from a hole in the middle of the sett and sat for a while grooming contentedly.  As the light faded completely a pair of muntjacs began barking incessantly and it was time for me to go.

So far, so good.  There are at least three badgers in the sett and they seem healthy and happy.  I was a bit worried last year when they didn’t seem to be thriving, but there are plenty of signs of activity at the moment.  Let’s hope they have a better year this year.

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Hurry up daddy!

Hurry up daddy!

There is a weekend in our village that marks the proper start of spring.  It doesn’t have a formal date and it isn’t written on any calendar or in any diary.  It’s the weekend when all the inhabitants start to emerge and life begins again.  During the winter it’s dark and it’s cold.  If you meet people it’s usually only fleeting as you hurry by.  But this weekend we’ve all been out – mowing lawns, digging gardens, walking to the park or just chatting over the fence.  The daffodils are out, the primroses are in flower and the blossom is thick on the blackthorn, but this awakening in the village means that spring is truly here.

I’ve been looking after Scarlett today so there was no badger watching, but the beautiful weather (and the longer evening now the clocks have gone forward) was too good to waste.  It was out with the backpack baby carrier and off to the woods.

I did have a proper aim for this.  I’m still trying to locate the badger setts that neighbour the main one I watch.  But it wasn’t all serious.  It’s the first day for months that was warm enough to spend some time outside, so I packed a picnic for Scarlett’s tea so that we could have a little adventure without having to dash back home.

And an adventure is what we had.  I walked almost to the next village and back, up hills and down dales, and let me tell you – well-designed though the backpack carrier is – it gets a bit heavy after a few miles.

Spoil heap and path - classic signs of an active badger sett

Spoil heap and path - classic signs of an active badger sett

Did I find any badgers?  Yes and no.  The badgers at the main sett seem to be doing well, with more holes active than the last time I checked.  The spoil heaps outside the holes told their own stories.  Some were fresh soil, meaning that they were new excavations.  Some were soil mixed with the remains of leaves and grass.  This showed that the badgers were clearing out old holes, complete with the remnants of bedding.  Let’s hope there are cubs this year.

As to other setts, I didn’t find any.  I found loads of badger sign – dung pits, hundreds of tracks and even paths, but I couldn’t seem to find their focus.  I’ll need to sit and look at the map for a while and plot everything.  It’s good to know there are plenty of badgers out there, but slightly frustrating that I couldn’t locate the sett.

Only slightly frustrating.  I had a great walk.  Scarlett loved to see the lambs playing in the fields, and we had a jolly nice picnic sitting in the woods.  You know, I think it was a perfect way to spend the afternoon.

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