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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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Badger Watching MeA hare paced around the pasture field as I walked up to the wood. I don’t think I’ve seen one here before so I took it as a good omen.  As I crested the top of the hill I disturbed a flock of (I think) lesser black-backed gulls.  Odd to see them here in Bedfordshire, miles away from the sea, but apparently they are the most inland of all the gulls.

I was keen to see the badgers at the main sett.  Partly because I haven’t had time to get up to the wood lately, and I need to watch badgers.  It’s what I do.  It’s my identity.  ‘Dead-Polecat-Picking-Up-Man’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it!  More seriously, we’ve had three weeks of hot, dry weather.  This isn’t great for badgers as it makes earthworms harder to catch, so prolonged dry spells can put them under pressure to find enough food.

And to be honest, I haven’t really got a handle on the badgers this year.  In previous years they followed a broadly predictable pattern – cubs, social groups, mutual play and so on.  Maybe it’s because I haven’t spent as much time with them, but I have only seen mostly single badgers with none of the social behaviour I’ve got used to.  A couple of years ago I could count 12 badgers at this sett.  This year the most I’ve seen is 4, and that was in March.  I’ve seen no cubs. Either they’re staying hidden or the group is a lot smaller this year.

Whatever.  That’s the bigger picture.  To be honest it was nice to sit in a tree on a warm evening and listen to a woodpecker yaffling somewhere close by and the sheep bleating in the field.

At 8.20pm I heard faint sounds of badgers whickering and playing at the east end of the sett.  This was good.  It meant that there were at least two badgers and they were sufficiently happy to spend time and energy playing.  Of course, I could see nothing through the undergrowth.  I debated climbing down from my tree and trying to get closer, but there wasn’t really anywhere better to watch from.  I stayed put.

Twenty minutes later, three badgers ambled into view and foraged in a fairly relaxed way through the undergrowth.    One badger came up to the base of my tree and gathered Dog’s Mercury and dead leaves for bedding, shuffling backwards with its bundle back to the central sett entrance.  Here’s a short video:

Badgers obviously drag the bedding backwards all the way down the sett to their sleeping chamber because they tend to come out with their fur brushed backwards, showing the paler underfur.  By 9.15 the three badgers had ambled off deeper into the woods and I headed home myself.  The badgers seemed happy and healthy and not particularly stressed, which was good.  On the other hand, I only saw three of them.  I’m starting to think that there are only three or four badgers at the sett at the moment, and no cubs.  The sett hasn’t been disturbed, as far as I can tell, and I haven’t seen any dead badgers, so I don’t think they’ve met with any catastrophe.  I’ll try and get to the wood one morning so I can have a good look round without disturbing the badgers and see if I can find anything that may explain their reduced numbers.

I could be wrong, of course.  It is notoriously difficult to count the number of badgers in a sett.  I may see a dozen the next time I watch them.  But I don’t think so.  I think there really are much fewer of them this year.  What can cause a sett of 12 badgers to reduce to 3 or 4 in a couple of years?  Are they dead?  Have they moved away? Perhaps I need to have a look at the neighbouring setts and see how they’re doing.  Perhaps this mystery can only be solved by understanding the whole network of clans in the area, not simply by studying one clan on its own.

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Badger at the middle sett entranceOK.  So maybe you’re thinking that the title of this post is a shameless and none-too-subtle attempt to increase the web traffic to this blog.  Perhaps you’re right.  But read on for the full story.

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.

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Badger 3Yesterday was another beautiful warm evening.  7.45pm found me sitting contentedly up a tree at the main sett, drinking tea and making running repairs to my camouflage gloves with a needle and thread.  A more blissful domestic scene could not be imagined.

I’d taken a detour around the wood earlier in the evening to check out the badger day nests I found last month.  I’m curious to see whether the badgers are using them in this hot weather, particularly since the last time I was at the sett there were only two badgers to be seen.  Unfortunately the nests were all unoccupied and showed no signs of recent use, so there is another theory that will have to wait for another day to be proved.

At 8.35 a badger came trotting up from the inaccessible east end of the sett and disappeared into a hole at the west end.  Two more followed, and then another two.  In total, five badgers had come from the other part of the sett and gone straight back underground.

I waited for the badgers to re-appear, but nothing happened.  I would have thought they would be eager to start foraging, but they stayed underground.  Very odd.

As I was waiting another muntjac deer wandered onto the scene.  I’ve waited ages to get a good view of a muntjac, and now it’s happened twice in consecutive trips.  I’m getting a bit blasé now – the muntjac will have to start performing tricks if they want me to film them in the future!

After a little while I heard badger noises from the east end of the sett, whickering and the short, high-pitched bark that badgers make when play fighting has got out of hand.  Once again, this area is now an impenetrable mass of vegetation – elder, nettles and bracken.  The sounds were confirmed when three badgers came into view at the very far east side of the sett and started foraging through the wood.  These three plus the five I’d seen at the west end makes at least eight badgers, which is good.  I was worried because I’d only seen two last time.

A few minutes later a fox trotted past with a baby rabbit in its mouth, unfortunately too far away to photograph in the fading light.  I think it was the vixen that had the cubs here, but it could conceivably be one of the cubs themselves.  They’ve certainly grown up and left home now.  The fox loped off to the east end of the sett.  The fact that it was taking food there implies it has a den in the area.

The five badgers at the west end of the sett remained underground until 9.30 when I had decided to pack up and was in the process of climbing down the tree, at which point they emerged and gave me a hard stare.  Absolutely typical!

It was an interesting night for the variety of wildlife that was about, but it was also interesting because it showed a pattern.  Last year, the badgers started off in the west end of the sett and then moved to the east as the summer progressed.  This year they’ve done the same, although at least some badgers are using the west end for at least some of the time.

There is obviously something going on here.  Something makes the badgers move between parts of the sett.  If only I could recognise individual badgers I’d be in a better position to understand this, but despite staring at film and pictures they still look pretty much alike to me.  In the meantime I’ll keep making notes of what I see and hope it all makes more sense in the future.

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Here’s a short video of the muntjac buck I saw on the 28th June.

Watching the video again brings it home just how shy and wary these deer are.  Watch how the buck is constantly raising its head to check for danger, while those big ears swivel around to catch the slightest sounds.

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If you read my last post you’ll know that I’m being unfaithful to ‘my’ badgers and investigating the neighboring sett – the Pine Tree sett.  This sett seems to have three main holes spread widely apart.  Last night I watched the southernmost hole without a sign of any badgers.  Tonight I decided to have a look at the northern hole.

This hole is at the bottom of short but steep bank, about 8′ high.  Because of the wind direction I elected to lie in the grass on the top of the bank and peer over the edge, with the wind blowing directly up the bank towards me.  To begin with this was quite a luxury – badger watching while lying in grass, instead of sitting on a thin tree branch or in a patch of nettles.  After an hour of lying motionless though I had pins and needles in my legs and the blood was pooling uncomfortably in my head.  And I do this for fun?

At 8.35pm the stripey head of a badger popped out of the hole.  Success!  So there are badgers here after all!  A few seconds later it popped back down again.

I was sure it hadn’t scented me, as I’d been very careful to take the long way round when I walked in so the sett was always upwind.  I was also pretty sure it hadn’t spotted me, partly because I was fully camouflaged and hidden behind the grass, but mostly because a badger that sees something suspicious will usually try and sniff the air to make sure, and this one just disappeared.  There was nothing for it but to wait and see.

About 10 minutes later the badger reappeared, and to my horror it started climbing the bank towards me.  Another few feet, I thought to myself, and you’re going to get a surprise!  Luckily the badger wasn’t climbing to the top of the bank.  It was gathering grass for bedding, pulling it out with its mouth and shuffling back to the sett once it had got a reasonable load.  I always enjoy watching badgers doing this, there’s something strangely endearing about it.

Here’s a brief video of the badger:

The badger made three bedding trips in all and then stayed underground, no doubt arranging things in its chamber.  I decided not to push my luck and sneaked off.  It had been a great close-up view, but I didn’t want to spoil things on my first visit to the sett.

As ever, questions remain.  I only saw one badger.  Are there more in this part of the sett?  Is it just a solitary bachelor in residence?  Why are the holes in this sett so far apart?  How do the badgers from each hole interact?   The paths between the holes suggest that they do, but the behaviour seems very different from the communal get-togethers I’ve observed at the other sett.

I shall do what I always do – go back to the textbooks and keep watching!

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I’ve spent the evening watching the fox cubs by the sett.  I counted five of them (I think) and they’re great fun.

Here’s a short fox cubs video compilation.  Altogether now – “Awwww!”

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