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Archive for the ‘Thoughts and Musings’ Category

Well, today is the shortest day of the year.  Today, the Oak King of Summer has got the upper hand in his endless battle with the Holly King of Winter, at least until the the summer solstice when their fortunes will be reversed.  The Holly King is not beaten yet – the warm weather won’t be here for a good while – but we’ve turned the corner of the year.  After tonight the days will start to get longer.  It’s a time for celebrating, for eating and drinking and shutting the dark outside.  A time to think about the unfolding of the seasons and to be thankful for the year that has gone.

So bring in the mistletoe, put another log on the fire and raise a glass.

Seasons greetings to everyone!

snowy-lane

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Do badgers hibernate?

A badger in summer

A badger (in summer!)

I’ve been asked this question quite a lot recently.

People say “I’ve looked at your blog, and there doesn’t seem to be any badger-related activity since late summer.  There’s all sorts of stuff about tracking deer and seeing sparrowhawks and so on, but no badgers.

In a nutshell, Badger Watching Man, why are you not watching badgers?

Have they hibernated?

The truth is that badgers do not hibernate, but badger watchers do.

Badgers remain active all year round, although a very hard frost may keep them underground if it stops them from digging out worms or other food.  They’ll put on weight in autumn when food is plentiful to help them through the leaner times of winter, but they do not go to sleep in winter.

As I write this in November, the badgers will still be emerging each night and going about their usual foraging.  You can check this by looking for tracks and for fresh dung at the latrine sites.  The reason why I am not watching them is because they will be emerging from the sett at about 6.00 or 7.00pm, long after it has got dark.  In the summer months this isn’t a problem as dusk falls after the badgers emerge, but now it is fully dark and there would be no chance of me seeing anything.

The only options for a badger watcher in winter is either to illuminate the sett with some sort of artificial light, or to use night vision goggles.  I don’t have any night vision goggles (yet), and I’m very reluctant to start shining lights on the badgers.  According to most people it does them no harm and doesn’t really disturb them, but I’d still rather not take the chance.

Stormy winter sunset

Stormy winter sunset

So, the badgers are still going strong but I’ve hung up my badger watching hat until the spring, when the days will grow longer and the new cubs will emerge.  Rather than hibernate fully myself I’ve become engrossed in deer and tracks and all manner of wild things for the winter, but don’t worry, the badgers will return!

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Autumn dawn

Autumn dawn

A couple of days ago I saw my first Sparrowhawk.  I’ve been looking out for Sparrowhawks for a while now.  I know they’re found in my area, and I know the habitat around our village is perfect for them.  I’ve got friends who regard them almost as pests as they prey on the birds attracted to their bird tables.  I’m not a twitcher by any means – I don’t have list of birds to tick off – but I’ve got a thing about birds of prey and I’ve wanted to see a sparrowhawk.

The irony is, that after countless hours spent in the fields and woods, I saw my first Sparrowhawk sitting on the top of a lamppost on the outskirts of our local town, Bletchley.

In a way it was a little disappointing, but it’s got me thinking about urban wildlife in general and how resilient nature is.  After all, many species are adapting and living alongside man. When I lived in London I had dozens of urban foxes in my garden, but here in the country I’ve only seen a handful.  There are urban badgers in some places, and even reports of urban otters.  And what about the pigeons?  How many people have seen a proper wild Rock Dove, compared to the millions who see urban pigeons every day?  Not to mention the colonies of wild budgies living in South London.

I suppose it is all rather encouraging.  Although the urban landscape is spreading, the wildlife is adapting.  Sure, there are probably as many losers as winners, but it is adapting nonetheless.  The first Red Kite I ever saw was on a bleak mountain in a spectacularly remote part of Wales, four or five hours walk from the nearest road or house.  The last Red Kite I saw was over a dual carriageway off the Oxford ring road.  Perhaps you can’t compare the two experiences, but I’m glad to see the Red Kites flourishing in all areas.

Hopefully I’ll now see more Sparrowhawks, in more aesthetically pleasing surroundings.  I’ve noticed that once you’ve seen one example of a particular bird, or animal, or plant, you tend to see more.  Take Buzzards for example.  When we moved to the village I was convinced that it was the right environment for Buzzards.  I spent hours staring distractedly at the sky hoping to see one, yet it took me two years before I finally got my first sighting.  Now, of course, I see and hear them all the time.  I can take you to four or five spots that each have their own local Buzzard, all within walking distance of my house.

Did my village suddenly get overrun with Buzzards two years ago?  Of course not.  I think what happened was that I became more tuned in to the Buzzards.  Once my ‘Buzzard-sense’ had developed it allowed me to see them much more easily.  The same thing is happening now as I learn to track mammals.  I am seeing vole runs and badger latrines that I must have walked past a hundred times without realising, but now I’m tuned in they stand out clearly.

If there is a meaning to this story, I guess it’s that you should be aware of your local environment.  It’s fine to dash around to new places looking for new wildlife, but spending time getting tuned in pays dividends in the long run.

Here’s to more Sparrowhawks, whether they be urban or rural!

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This post continues my thoughts about watching badgers. I’ve examined my reasons for doing it, and so far

Seeing the wood for the trees

Seeing the wood for the trees

I’ve discussed the fact that badgers are amongst the most striking and impressive wildlife to be seen in Britain (Part 1 – click here to jump to it).

I also think that for those people who are curious about wildlife, there a few better animals to study than badgers. As social carnivores they have such a wide and fascinating range of behaviour that you could watch them for years and still not fully understand them (Part 2 – click here to jump to it).

In this final post I discuss some of the more personal reasons why I watch badgers, or more particularly, why I enjoy being out in the woods at night.

There is something deeply rewarding about spending time in a wood. It is something that few people do, and I’ve always got a perverse enjoyment out of doing things that other people can’t, or won’t, do. More than that, watching badgers is so different, so far removed from my everyday life that it provides a welcome change. During the day I wear a pinstripe suit and talk to people about high matters of business strategy. In the evening I put on a tattered pair of green trousers and a camouflage jacket and lie in the mud. Oh, if my clients could see me then!

Watching badgers gives me time to think. I spend large chunks of time sitting waiting for badgers, just patiently watching as the sun goes down. In our modern fast-paced lives, how often do we get the chance to just sit and think? Really think, I mean. No television. No mobile phone. Nothing. I don’t think very intelligent or deep thoughts, but that isn’t the point. I just sit and think and that’s enough.

There’s also all the other experiences of nature that I’ve had while badger watching. I’ve sat and watched herds of wild deer as they’ve foraged through the woods. I’ve watched a fox stalk and catch rabbits. I’ve listened to tawny owls as they call to each other. I’ve watched in amazement as a buzzard skims between the trees. To me, all these experiences are priceless. They are out there for everyone to see, if only they’d go out and look for them.

Badger tracks on a fallen tree

Badger tracks on a fallen tree

Being ‘close to nature’ is a hideously trite and overused phrase, but watching badgers has helped me to be just that.

Think about it. Who, in today’s modern world, really takes notice of the time of sunset, or thinks about the direction of the wind or when the berries will ripen? I think about all these things now as a matter of course, and I wonder why other people do not. When other people see a wood they see a patch of trees. For me the wood comes alive and I see it for what it is – a great web of interconnected plants and animals all working together. I don’t claim this as a great spiritual insight, by the way. It’s a natural result of spending time watching wildlife.

Finally, there’s something deeply and fundamentally satisfying about creeping around in woods, trying to outwit wild and wary animals. It talks to something ancient and primal within you. Maybe this is because I grew up reading Jim Corbett’s tales of stalking man-eating big cats, or the stories of Victorian poachers, but I believe it goes deeper than that. For hundreds of thousands of years man lived as a hunter, and that sort of background is hard to shake off. We’ve only had two hundred or so generations of farming and twenty generations of civilised life. The wild still calls to something in all of us.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that every modern European was made up of three separate men – three separate parts to our character. I suppose he meant women too, but he wrote in different times.

The first man is the Christian. Whether we believe in it or not, we are the products of a thousand years of Christian thought, and our view of the world is always coloured by this. Man and God, heaven and earth – it is all there in the back of our minds somewhere.

The second man Chesterton called the Roman. This is the logical side of our character, the man who values order and reason and laws and straight roads.

And Chesterton’s third man?

‘And the third man: he has no name, and all true tales of him are blotted out; yet he walks behind us on every forest path and wakes within us when the wind wakes at night. He is the origins — he is the man in the forest’.

We all hear the call of the wild. I’ve found my way to answer it.

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The good news this week is the the government has abandoned plans for a badger cull as a response to Bovine TB.

The sad news is that a badger cull was ever contemplated in the first place. I’ve mentioned before that badgers are the largest of the truly wild animals left in Britain. I honestly believe that people won’t rest until we’ve sent them the same way as the wild boar and the bear. If we don’t get them one way, we’ll get them another.

The fact is that Bovine TB, like BSE and foot and mouth, is another product of our wasteful and inefficient farming practices. The reservoir of the disease is cows, and it is spread through cattle movements and a lack of proper monitoring. Culling badgers will make no difference – look at Ireland, where they tried it and Bovine TB rates didn’t change.

Anyway, the plans for the cull have been dropped, which is a relief. I don’t have to become an eco-terrorist in defence of the badgers just yet.tb

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I’ve been exploring my fascination of badgers, and why I keep getting the urge to spend perfectly good evenings sitting in a wood watching them. In Part 1, I decided that badgers are impressive beasts, and that their size and wildness make them something special in Britain.

My next reason is quite simple: badgers are fun. This may seem like a trite comment, but it isn’t. Badgers, to me, are far more interesting than a lot of the UK’s wildlife.

Badgers are social animals. They live in family groups, which is unusual for UK mammals, particularly because badgers are social carnivores. Can you think of any other carnivores that live in social groups? Lions, wolves, hyenas perhaps. Maybe wild dogs. The fact is that there aren’t that many, and certainly not in the UK.

This means that by watching badgers you can observe and study a whole range of behaviours that you do not see with other animals. You get to see how they interact with each other, how the group stays together, how dominance is established and how relationships are reinforced. You can watch the cubs grow up in the family, and the way that different badgers react to them. And this is my point – badgers do things! For someone like me who is curious about animals, no other species offers so rich and deep an opportunity for study.

Other animals, although interesting, seem a little bland by comparison. Take rabbits, for instance. I watched rabbits for a couple of hours last night, and they hopped about a bit, nibbled some grass, and occasionally stood up to have a good look round. I’m not saying that rabbits are not a worthwhile species to study – I’ve read Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit and I’m sure that they have hidden secrets – but to me they are just not as rewarding.

So there is another reason for watching badgers. Not only are they physically impressive and intriguing in their wildness, but they repay the dedicated watcher with a truly rich and detailed family life.

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Today I’ve figured out how to embed video, so there’s no stopping me!

I discussed musking on the last post, and I’ve got an example on video. This is the first video I ever took, so the quality is not brilliant, but you can get the idea.

I’d put down a small patch of peanuts and the adult badger found them first. The two young cubs then came rushing in. Badgers have a neat trick of shoulder-barging each other out of the way, and then sitting down on the food so no others can get to it.

The adult boar was having none of it. He gets up and then musks on each of the cubs in turn before moving off. Whether this was a show of dominance or fatherly affection I don’t know, but it’s a good example of the behaviour.

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The question has to be asked. Why do people watch badgers? Why do I watch badgers?

Watching badgers might be seen by some people as an odd, even eccentric, pastime. It probably is. But then other people spend their evenings and weekends watching football, and that has always seemed strange to me.

But why watch badgers? I’ve asked myself this question many times, and there is no simple answer. It is easy to say that watching badgers is mildly addictive, but there must be some reward in it for me because I keep doing it. This series of posts is an attempt to explore my reasons for going out to the woods time and again.

First of all, I’d love to be able to say that I’m going to make some startling scientific discoveries about badgers, but this probably isn’t true. As a species they have been studied by far more capable and experienced people than me, so it is unlikely that I will add any wholly new chapters to the book of badgers. I flatter myself that I may gain a few small insights into their behaviour and habits, but I don’t think I’ll be adding much to the sum total of badger knowledge.

So, to be honest, my interest is driven mostly by personal curiosity. I imagine that an interest and curiosity about nature in general is probably necessary if you are going to get excited about watching badgers.

In Britain we are lucky enough to have a whole spectrum of wildlife, from the tiniest invertebrates to the largest whales, but the badger occupies a special place for me. Badgers are secretive and relatively rare animals – most people never see them except for a quick glimpse as they run across the road – yet at the same time they live almost in our midst. The badgers I watch regularly are little more than a mile from my house, and many people are lucky enough to have badgers visit their garden. I take a strange delight in the idea that these animals are living almost unknown and unsuspected alongside us. The badger is living proof that no matter how much we have tried, we have not yet fully tamed our countryside.

This feeling is even stronger when you meet a badger face to face. To put it bluntly, they are physically impressive animals. Although not huge, they are Britain’s largest native carnivore. Their black and white face is instantly recognisable. They have presence.

Over the centuries, we have gradually exterminated most of the large animals in Britain (with the exception of deer, which, being tasty to eat, have been jealously protected). If I could travel back in time two thousand years or so, then I would find my badgers sharing their wood with wild boar, wolves, beavers and even bears. And who now remembers the Irish Elk? We’ve wiped out these animals so thoroughly that few people think of them as British species. They were here and they are gone but the badger remains. The last of the truly wild big mammals, badgers have stubbornly stayed put despite everything we have done to them. In some ways, the badger is a creature of the past. How can such a big, bold animal still be living wild in Britain’s ordered and controlled countryside? Yet here they are.

Good for the badgers, I say.  I think that this is one of the reasons why I like to watch them.

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