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Scarlett and the BadgerSorry about the poor quality phone pic.  Badger courtesy of the Natural History Museum in Tring – a fascinating Victorian menagerie of stuffed animals.

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Walking through Woburn Deer ParkWoburn Abbey is not very far away from where I live.  Every now an then I like to go for a walk through the deer park.  I know they’re not real wild deer, but the park is a great place to watch deer at close quarters and in fairly natural surroundings. Put another way, it is 3,000 acres of grassland, trees, small copses and lakes – although it is managed habitat it offers a chance to see all manner of wildlife.

If you look back at previous years you’ll see that I make a point of visiting the Deer Park in October for the Red Deer rut, and this is truly a spectacle to behold.  I recommend it to anyone if they’re able to travel to Woburn.  But actually, the park is a good place to visit at any time, especially with the attached safari park and zoo.

It is perfectly possible to visit the Deer Park and see plenty of deer without even having to leave your car.  There is a public highway that crosses the park – you can drive through (carefully, mind) and the deer are there either side of the road.  But this isn’t the best way to see it.  There is a whole network of public footpaths that means you can leave the car in one of the neighbouring villages and stroll through on foot.  You can even work out a big circular walk on the paths that takes you well away from the road and into some lovely hidden spots.

Scarlett and I took a walk through the park to visit the monthly farmer’s market in Woburn village.  I like doing this, as it gives me a chance to combine a bit of wildlife with some local shopping, although the highlight of the day is usually in the crypt of Woburn parish church, where they serve tea and home-made cakes.   What more could you ask for in a walk?

The park is home to Red Deer, Fallow Deer, Muntjac and Chinese Water Deer, the last three species having inevitably escaped and become naturalised in the local area.  A fifth species, Pere David’s Deer, have so far remained in the park.  They have the distinction of having been made extinct in their native China but were preserved in Woburn and a few other places, so successfully that they have now been re-introduced back in their homeland.

Pere David's Deer at Woburn Deer ParkPere David’s are slightly odd-looking, vaguely cow-like deer.  They can be identified quickly by their backward-pointing antlers (the points of Red Deer antlers face forward).  In their breeding season they gather foliage on their antlers as a display, which is quite a distinctive feature.

Pere David's Deer in a pond at Woburn Deer ParkWhen we visited, the Pere David’s were congregated around and in one of the ponds, standing up to their knees in the water.  I’m not sure why – it wasn’t that hot.  Perhaps it is another of their odd behaviours.

Red Deer Stags at Woburn Deer ParkThe Red Deer are almost ready for the rut now, but the stags are still in groups.  Soon they’ll separate and start calling to attract their own ‘harem’ of females.  The ones in the picture above are still quite young.  As they grow older they will develop more points on their antlers and lose their spots.  There are some real monster stags at Woburn.

Fallow Deer at Woburn

Fallow Deer, like the ones above, were introduced to Britain by the Normans.  They are easily identifiable by their ‘palmate’ antlers (which are flat, like the palm of your hand, I suppose).  Colour is not an absolutely reliable feature for any species, as a rule, but Fallow Deer are typically much lighter than other species, being spotted or even entirely white (a pure white deer was frequently seen running wild around our village a few years ago, a bit like a deer version of Moby Dick).

The deer were the main feature of our walk, but there was plenty more to be seen.  Scarlett enjoyed seeing ducks on the ponds and rabbits on the grass.  I enjoyed finding a wasps’ nest dug out by a badger (so there are badgers about even here, in this managed park!)  But the church in Woburn deserves a mention too, from a naturalist’s point of view (and not just for tea and cakes).

St. Mary’s church is relatively modern, being built by the 8th Duke of Bedford in the 1860’s to replace the older church in the village.  It is handsome enough though, with some fantastic gargoyles.  The vicar, Steve, is a nice chap too.  For me, though, one of the most interesting features is inside: a window commemorating Mary, the ‘Flying Duchess’.  Mary is a fascinating character.  She was a noted aviator, hence the name, and she was lost without trace in a flying accident over the sea in 1937.  During the Great War she set up a hospital for servicemen at Woburn that still bears the name ‘Marylands’, although it is now in the process of being converted to luxury flats.  For more information on Mary, see Wikipedia.

OK – fascinating history lesson, BWM, but where is this actually going?  Well, in addition to her other interests, the Duchess was also a keen birdwatcher.  After her death, she was commemorated with a large stained-glass window in the church depicting St. Francis of Assisi (“Whose work was in the hospitals, whose delight was in the birds” – very fitting).

The St Francis of Assisi window in St Mary's Church, WoburnAnd this is the point I’m slowly getting to.  The artist of the window decorated it with birds found in Woburn Abbey and the park.  An idea is forming in my mind – the ‘Flying Duchess Challenge’.  If all these birds are local, then why don’t I set myself the target of seeing them and ticking them off a list?  Following in Mary’s footsteps, if you will.

This is where it gets tricky.  The picture above is a big, hi-res image so you can zoom in on the birds.  Some are common enough – magpie, tawny owl, heron and so on.  Some are much more challenging.  That looks like a chough in the top right.  I’ve seen these on Anglesey, but they vanished from southern England a long time ago.  Some birds are downright difficult.  There’s a hoopoe in there, and they’ve been recorded in Bedfordshire fewer than half a dozen times since the 1940s.  It will definitely be a challenge, firstly to identify all the birds on the window, and secondly (and more difficult still) to actually see them, particularly locally.

I like the idea of it, even if it is nearly impossible.  I’ll keep you posted.

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BadgerI may be just a grumpy old man with a sore toe, but there are some things that I can’t let pass without comment.

The government has announced that it will go ahead with the widely ill-advised badger cull.  The details of how the government proposes to go about this cull are even worse than we imagined.  They are relying on ‘ifs’ and making assumptions not based on evidence.  At least 70% of the badger population in many areas will be killed, many of them healthy. This decision comes in spite of scientific evidence which shows that culling is a misjudged effort to control bovine TB, will be of little help in reducing the disease long term and could actually make things worse!  The frustrating thing is that the science may only be proved wrong when the badgers have been slaughtered and the bovine TB (which is far more likely to be a product of poor farming practices) is still there.

The fact is, a badger cull didn’t work in Ireland.  It won’t work here.

Not only is scientific evidence against the government, the public are too.  A poll for the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-13684482) found unanimous opposition to the badger cull in all areas, rural as well as urban, including those areas worst affected by bovine TB.  The arrogance of this government saddens me, but doesn’t surprise me any more.  I think I’ll write to my MP again, except she – Nadine Dorries – is very rude and ignored me last time.

Most alarming is the government’s attempt to try to cull badgers on the cheap.  They are planning to give farmers licences to shoot badgers on their land.  The thought of essentially untrained amateurs going out and taking pot-shots at badgers is horrifying.  Shooting badgers is difficult as badgers have a very thick skull, thick skin and a very thick layer of subcutaneous fat and because of the short, squat body and the way their legs work, free-shooting means a high risk of wounding the badgers instead of killing them, causing a slow, painful death.

The RSPCA believes that badgers are being made the scapegoats for a rise in bovine TB in cattle.  They are asking supporters to express their outrage at the decision in their tagging  campaign via their main facebook page which will act as a petition of sorts.  It is vital that we all send a strong message to the government that bad science must not prevail. You can find more information at http://www.facebook.com/RSPCA.

Most of the time I’m generally upbeat about the state of wildlife in the UK.  Look at the success stories, like the buzzards, the red kites and the polecats, right here in Bedfordshire.  Look at the otters, which are now present in every English county.  I never imagined that I’d be living 10 miles away from otters, not unless I moved to the wilds of Scotland or Wales.  There are lots of encouraging signs out there that we’re finally starting to respect our natural world.

And then something like this happens.  It makes me prostrate with dismal…

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Stormy Sky with Oak Tree and SheepSunday evening started off hot, humid and still.  The brisk walk up the hill to the wood left me sticky and winded, while the dark clouds gathering overhead showed that the breathless weather would soon break.

The wheat in the wheatfield is ripening.  I was pleased to see a new badger dung pit with fresh dung, showing that once again the badgers are using this food source, and also that there are enough badgers for them to mark it out as territory.  Having had no luck in seeing badgers lately, I decided to head to the east end of the sett.  It’s a risky strategy because the sett is on top of a small rise in the ground and from this side a good 75% of it is out of sight, particularly with the luxuriant growth of nettles, elder and dog’s mercury.  Nevertheless, it was at this end of the sett that the badgers were to be found on the last couple of visits.  I may see badgers or I may not, but if I were to see one here the chances are that I would get a good view.

It was good to be back in the wood again, to be lying in damp leaf litter instead of walking the streets of the City in a pinstripe suit.  It’s a comforting feeling that the woods – the trees, the branches, the animals – are always here, come rain or shine, even when I’m not.  It’s nice to think that life goes on without me.

I’d like to say it was peaceful, but the truth it is that the wood was a real cacophony of noise.  The sheep in the pasture field baa-ed at each other, a buzzard ‘pee-arrr’-ed from a branch above me, a pair of muntjacs barked loudly at each other, and to cap it off a small flock of great tits chattered in the bushes.  This was not an empty collection of trees, but an ecosystem in full flow.  I shot a video to record the sound – it doesn’t show anything and it isn’t great quality but it gives you an idea.  I should really bring my digital recorder out with me for occasions like this.

At 8.20pm the weather broke and the rain started – big heavy drops.  I was sitting under an ancient sycamore coppice, which is as dry a spot as you’re likely to find, so it wasn’t too bad.  Within minutes the warm, still air had been replaced by a freshening wind that was strong enough to move the trees around me.  Quite surprising how quickly the weather can change.

At 8.40 a badger appeared.  Annoyingly it was at the north-east end of the sett, while I was at the south-east, so no chance of pictures.  Still, it was good to see a badger in the flesh again.

At 8.50 I heard the sounds of badgers yipping in the impenetrable undergrowth of the sett.  This was good, as it meant that at least two badgers were playing happily, albeit invisibly.

By 9.10 no other badgers had appeared and I called it a night.  I had to be in work the next day after all.  With the wind and rain muffling my movements I headed off.  And then, just as I was leaving the wood, I disturbed a badger no more than 20 feet away.  We both stopped, surprised, before it crashed off into the undergrowth.

That makes at least three badgers at the sett, which is good.  And you know what, I’d swear the badger I disturbed was a cub.  I can’t be sure, as I find it very difficult to make snap judgements of badger size when they’re on their own.  It’s easy when they’re in a group and you can compare sizes, but on their own it’s more difficult.  I always get a little suspicious when I talk to people and they say ‘I saw a badger cub in the field last night’.  I’ve spent many hours watching badgers and I still find it difficult to tell a reasonably-grown cub from an adult.  But perhaps that’s just my lack of perception.  Anyway, I digress.  This badger looked cub-like in its size and it’s fluffy grey coat.  It may be wishful thinking on my part, but I hope that it was.

I walked home in the rain, very happy despite the weather.

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Definitely a Badger

There have been rumours that, given my lack of success with badgers this year, I’ve been resorting to crudely faked pictures.

Definitely a Badger

I deny this completely.  I think this picture speaks for itself…

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Another dead polecat?

I was driving to work early this morning, and there, at the side of the road, was what looked very much like a dead polecat.  It is true that most people don’t get excited by dead polecats, but I’m not like most people and this one was just a few hundred yards from my home.  It was on the main road, just across from the field behind my house where I go for my little tracking walks and where I’ve seen possible polecat signs over the last year.

I get excited because polecats have gone from being extinct east of the Welsh Marches to re-colonising large parts of England.  They still aren’t common though, so to have one (admittedly dead) on my doorstep is good news.  The only good thing about roadkill animals is that where there is one, there’ll be other live ones nearby (with the possible exception of the dead wallaby a friend of mine came across in Buckinghamshire once – they’re probably quite rare).

There has to be a question mark over this polecat because although the size, shape and colour looked right, I didn’t actually get out of the car and examine it.  I was on my way to work.  I had a train to catch and I was in my best suit.  I was booked in to carry out psychological assessments on senior executives from two well-known companies today, and it would not have been good to have turned up at the day job with a lingering aroma of dead polecat about me.

If it’s still there when I get home from work tomorrow I’ll go and have a proper look.

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OK.  I may be busy at the moment, but that doesn’t of course mean that I’m not perfectly aware of what the government is planning to do to England’s badgers.  Not only is the proposed cull wholly unscientific, they’re planning to do it on the cheap by asking farmers to shoot the badgers on their land.  The entire business has the makings of a complete shambles, and all for no appreciable benefit other than political maneuvering.   That’s the annoying thing.  If a cull was necessary for some reason then it would be understandable, but this is just nonsense.

All of which means that I’m very happy to reproduce the e-mail I received today via the Bedfordshire Badger Network.  I’ll be writing to my MP again soon (Nadine Dorries – she never did reply to my last e-mail, by the way) and I urge others to do the same.

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RSPCA  - We need you to tell the government to Back off Badgers!
Dear Supporter,

We urgently need your help to convince the government that badger culling is wrong.

The coalition government has announced a public consultation on whether a badger cull should go ahead. The public has been given until Wednesday, 8 December to express their views.

The RSPCA remains firmly opposed to any plans for a widespread cull based on current science, welfare concerns and practicality. The government proposal says that the cull would need to involve the killing of badgers over an area of 150km² and, within the cull area at least 70 per cent of the badger population would need to be eradicated, including thousands of healthy animals.

The consultation proposes that farmers and landowners be given full responsibility for funding and carrying out culling and/or vaccination measures and we are concerned that this would make the welfare issues involved with killing badgers worse and would be near impossible to monitor.

Scientific evidence suggests that culling badgers in an area initially increases bTB infection in cattle in the surrounding areas, and achieves only a limited reduction within the area targeted. It concluded that, “badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain”.

We believe that the government should listen to public opinion (the previous consultation on a badger cull showed 95 per cent of respondents were opposed to a cull) and focus instead on the use of an approved TB vaccine for badgers along with other control methods.

There are a number of ways that you can voice your opposition to a badger cull:

Many thanks for your support,

RSPCA Campaign Team

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