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‘Wrong estimation of the intelligence of animals, and the inability to sit without making any sound or movement for the required length of time, is the cause of all failures when sitting up for animals.’

Jim Corbett, The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag

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Oh, my hat is frozen to my head,
my feet are like two lumps of lead.
I’m stuck out here, half-drenched, half-dead,
from standing under your window.

Cold, Haily, Windy Night, trad. folk song

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The winter badger watching at the Hawthorn Sett is turning into a bit of a challenge.  I spent a couple of hours up there last night, and still didn’t see a badger.

To be honest, I don’t think my heart was in it, hence the title of the post.  I’m discovering that it takes a certain amount of mental effort to go out and sit in the cold and dark, quite different to the long, warm evenings of summer.  I left home later and planned to stay later in the hope of catching the badgers if they’re emerging late, which meant that it was dark when I set out.  It was a bit of a wrench to leave the warmth of home and go out into the cold, foggy darkness (our village has no street lighting, so it really is pitch dark).  I take a shortcut through the churchyard to get to the Hawthorn Sett, and the fog drifting through the ancient, tottering, century-shadowed gravestones gave a touch of gothic horror to the night.

I planned to stay until 9.00pm or so, but I was cold and fidgety and I couldn’t settle.  Since badger watching depends on sitting still and quietly, this is never good.  I stuck it out for a couple of hours until the church clock struck 8.00 and then I headed home through the fog-shrouded trees.  Once again, no sign of badgers.

As I’m writing this in the warmth of my living room on Sunday I’m inwardly cursing myself for packing up early.  But at the same time I have to admit that it takes effort to sit out and maintain the level of focus required.  Now, don’t get me wrong – we’re talking about watching badgers here, not climbing Everest or playing Kasparov at chess.  Nevertheless, sitting in a dark wood, keeping alert for the slightest sound while remaining motionless, does require you to be in the right state of mind.  And last night, I wasn’t.  Maybe I’ve been distracted by my new job and had too many other things on my mind.  Maybe it was just cold.

Of course, let’s keep a sense of perspective.  They’re only badgers, after all.  I wasn’t even expecting to get a very good view of them, or learn anything very new.  But the very act of just getting a glimpse of them has become a goal in itself. Perhaps this is the point of my badger watching: to give myself a challenge, intellectually and physically.  To – like Sherlock Holmes – ‘escape from the commonplaces of existence’.

Sorry about the introspective nature of this post.  Sitting alone in the dark for protracted periods in a lonely place tends to do that to you.  I’ll take a few weeks off from watching this sett.  I’ll give the vegetation time to die down so I get a better view, dig out my Swedish army parka (a wonderfully warm garment – like a duvet with sleeves) and then I’ll be back – focused, alert and warm as toast – and I’ll show these stripey fiends who the boss is!

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.

OK.  So far, I haven’t much success with the badgers at the Hawthorn Sett.  I have yet to answer the fundamental question of how many badgers there are.  If I can find this out, I can see how it changes over the year to come. It’s part of my overall master plan to understand more about the badgers in the area, and how the different setts relate to each other.

But first things first.  I’d be happy at the moment just to see the badgers.

My last trip wasn’t very successful.  I spent an uncomfortable evening in a tree without seeing the badgers emerge.  I have an idea that the badgers are late to emerge here.  I decided the best way to test this idea would be to lay siege to the sett – to sit and wait until the badgers finally came out.

This evening I came prepared.  By 5.00pm I was sitting comfortably on an inflatable cushion (on the ground!), night vision scope ready on a tripod, flask of hot tea handy for morale purposes.  I was nicely downwind of the sett and well camouflaged.  It was textbook badger watching stuff.

Unfortunately, no badgers appeared.  I had a fallow deer stag walk past, it’s broad antlers silhouetted against the sky.  I see female fallow deer quite often, but stags only rarely.  But this was the highlight of the evening.  No badgers.  I watched and waited until a little after 8.00pm.  I had planned to stay later, but it was difficult to stay alert after watching and listening in the dark for three hours, straining eyes and ears for any signs of badgers, and the light and warmth of home were beckoning to me.  Badger watching in the dark months of winter obviously needs more dedication than the summer sessions that I’m used to.

So I still don’t have an answer to my question, and I still don’t know when these badgers come out.   But they should come out by 8.00pm, shouldn’t they?  Neal & Cheeseman report an average emergence time of c.5.45pm for early November, so for no badgers to show by 8.00pm is odd.  It’s obviously a badger sett (and I have seen a badger here before) otherwise I’d be doubting whether there are badgers at all.  I’ll maybe give it another try this year, or I may put this sett on the back burner until spring.  Perhaps in the meantime I’ll make a few trips in the daylight to get positive signs that the badgers are still in residence.

The wildlife event of the day has been our cat Mayfield, delightful little psychopath that she is, bringing a live field vole into the house.

Mrs BWM spotted the cat acting suspiciously and cornered both cat and vole in the kitchen, at which point the vole, doubtless having watched too many 1950s cartoons, ran up the inside of her trouser leg.  Mrs BWM screamed in true housewife fashion and managed to shake out the offending rodent while the cat just sat and watched.

She seems to have taken it in her stride though.  Despite the shock of the experience, she noticed enough detail to positively I.D. the species.  That’s my girl!

Picture the scene.  It’s been dark for an hour.  I’m perched on a branch of an oak tree, fifteen feet off the ground.  I’ve long since lost any feeling in my legs but my backside feels bruised where the branch has cut into it.  I shift the weight from one buttock to another to try to relieve the pressure for a few minutes.  I’ve been staring into the dark for long enough to lose perspective.  Only the tree seems real.  I know there’s no chance of seeing any badgers now – even with the night vision scope I can only just make out the ground – but I’m hoping I’ll hear them, if and when they emerge.  The tree was easy enough to climb up in the light, but I’m wondering how I’m going to climb down in the dark when I can’t see the branches or feel my legs.

The best thing is, it’s only 6.00pm.  And this is my idea of a fun evening?

I don’t usually watch badgers this late in the season.  It’s cold and dark and there’s less chance of the interesting social interaction you get on warm summer evenings.  But I haven’t been out much this year so I’m taking every chance I get.  I’ve got warm clothes and the dark shouldn’t be a problem with my night vision scope, so why not extend the season?  Why not find out what badgers do in the winter?

And how come I’m badger watching on a Tuesday?  Well, I’ve got a few days off work this week.  Technically, I’m between jobs.  I’ve left my old job and I’m starting a new one next week, so I’m taking some time off to sort things out.  Hence, I’ve been out badger watching.

I’ve been spending my badger watching time at the main sett lately, and I now feel that I’ve answered my main questions: ‘are the badgers OK?’ (they seem fine); and ‘how many badgers are in residence?’ (three – two adults and a cub).  This being achieved, I have decided to see if I can answer the same questions at the Hawthorn Sett.  I’ve never actually seen an entire badger here, only a nose, so I also want to get to grips with it as a sett.

I arrived this afternoon at about 4.30.  I have a suspicion that the badgers here are late risers, possibly because of their proximity to the road, but I wanted to be sure.  The sett is in what appears to be an old quarry, now only a shallow depression about four feet deep, but the undergrowth makes observation difficult.  In the centre of the depression is a small oak tree that was begging to be climbed.  The oaks in most of the wood are tall maidens, fifty feet straight up to the first branch.  This little tree though, has branches at two-foot intervals, just like a ladder.  I just had to climb it.

As it happened, it wasn’t ideal.  The tree was still carrying its leaves, which limited the view and reflected the IR beam of the NV scope.  It was close to the sett too, which meant the possibility of leaving scent that could drift over the holes and disturb the badgers.  But I climbed it anyway.  I settled on what felt like a decently comfortable branch and was soon joined by a little wren flitting about the tree.  Two tawny owls started calling to each other only a couple of trees away.  So far so good.

But you know the story ends.  I gave it until 6pm but there was no sign of the badgers, so I slowly and gracelessly lowered myself down the tree.  This was an hour after I would have expected them to emerge.  The sett is obviously in use, but I can’t seem to see the badgers there.  Perhaps I disturbed them coming in.  Perhaps they really are late risers.

I’ll try to get another evening here when parenting duties allow.  I’ll pick a nice comfy spot on the ground and wrap up warm so that I can stay for as long as it takes.  If the badgers really do come out late at this sett, then I’ll just have to wait for them.

Regular readers may have noticed my unhealthy interest in dead animals by the roadside.  I’m the first to admit that it isn’t always very pleasant, and probably does nothing to endear me to passers-by, but roadkill does provide a durable record of species in the area and the opportunity to examine individual animals at close quarters.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s a legitimate biological sampling method.

Imagine my morbid delight then, when a couple of days ago I drove past a very unusual animal carcass lying on the verge.  I was driving down a remote country lane so there was no traffic and I was able to quickly brake and reverse back for a closer look.  It was like nothing I’ve ever seen in the area before, and thoughts of all manner of exotic species flashed through my mind.  It was only when I got close that I saw what it was.

It was a wig.  A long, blonde wig.  Fairly dishevelled, and discarded by the roadside in a lonely wooded area.

I’m wondering now just what sort of nocturnal activity goes on in these quiet lanes.  I really must find myself a more wholesome hobby…

A break for a biscuit

A break for a biscuit - the best part of any walk

A Greek legend describes how Milo of Croton performed a famous feat of strength by carrying a fully grown bull on his shoulders.  He did this by first picking up the bull when it was a new-born calf.  Every day, he would pick up the calf and carry it.  As the bull grew in size, so Milo grew in strength, and by the time it was fully grown he was still able to pick it up and walk with it.

I have tried something similar with young Scarlett (although I would never compare her to a bull, even a small one).  Ever since she was born I’ve been carrying her in my walks around the countryside, firstly in the baby sling and latterly in the backpack carrier.

Canada Geese on the lake

Canada Geese on the lake

She’s been getting bigger, and I’ve been getting stronger.  Unlike Milo, however, I’m beginning to flag a little.  She weighs about 15kg now, which is about the same as my rucksack when I used to go on winter backpacking trips, and I’m starting to feel the weight.  But I don’t begrudge it.  I really enjoy the walks we have together – it gives both of us the chance to get out and experience the countryside.

Today has been a warm, bright autumn day – far too nice to stay indoors.  We went for walk up to the lake and beyond.  I don’t come here very often, so it was a good excuse to have a look round.  Unfortunately, it is one of those ironies that bright sunny days are not the best for seeing wildlife – that seems to happen in the dark, the rain or the cold, when no-one else is around.  But warm days are so much nicer for a walk.

Robin in Crab Apples

Robin in Crab Apples

There are signs of badgers in the area round the lake – paths, latrines and snuffle holes – but I’m damned if I know where they’re coming from.  There must be a sett somewhere, but it must be away from the paths somewhere.  The ground seems too low-lying and damp to me, but the badgers must be here somewhere.  The lake is a noted birdwatching spot, but there was not much here today.  Some Canada Geese paddled serenely near the far bank, and a pair of buzzards circled overhead.  A robin was singing heartily from the top of a crab apple tree.  Nothing special, but good to see nonetheless.

Nesting Ladybirds

Nesting ladybirds on a hazel leaf

The signs of autumn are all around.  One unusual thing I noticed was a cluster of ladybirds on the underside of a hazel leaf, presumably getting ready for winter.  I always thought all ladybirds hibernated on our window frame, but now I know their natural habitat.  Do they stay there when the leaf falls off, I wonder?

As it was a nice afternoon, I kept on walking.  I followed the path for a few miles, through the woods and into the next parish where the paths are strange to me.  It is wonderful how many footpaths there are in Britain, so that I can be only a couple of miles from my home and yet be in unfamiliar country.  There’s definitely scope for more exploring over the coming months.

We had an interesting meeting of the Bedfordshire Badger Network this week.  In addition to the usual badger matters, we were joined by a Police Inspector – the Wildlife Liaison Officer for Bedfordshire.

Police Wildlife Liaison Officers are responsible for all wildlife-related crime, which thankfully is rare in Bedfordshire.  There has been the odd incident of illegal sett blocking or badgers being shot, but no large-scale persecution.  Illegal disturbance during building and development is a far greater threat.  Still, it is good to think that the watchful eye of enthusiastic amateur badger watchers is backed up by a dedicated (in both senses of the word) police officer.

As for myself, I used it as an opportunity to get my excuses in early.  After all, it isn’t every day that I talk to a Police Inspector.  I had a quiet word with her.  “Listen”, I said, “if ever the police get reports of a suspicious character dressed in a camouflage jacket and hanging around the village after dark, it’ll probably be me.  Can you put in a good word for me please?”

Well, you never know when I’ll need a friend who can vouch that “I’m badger watching” isn’t just a lame excuse…

Young badger at the west end of the sett

I suppose this is a badger, watching man...

It’s been a confusing day.  It’s October, but it’s felt like July.  The hottest day in October ever, apparently.  Mrs BWM and Scarlett are away, so I’ve been doing what any man would do – cutting the grass, tidying the vegetable beds and visiting plumbing shops.  And, what with it being such a nice day, watching badgers.

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This is late in the season for me to be badger watching, but I haven’t been out much lately so I took the opportunity.  Partly to see how the badgers are doing, partly just because it’s nice to be out in the woods.  It may have felt like a summer’s day, with the warmth and the smell of fresh-cut grass, but it is definitely autumn.  The wheat field on the way to the wood has been sown with winter wheat, and it is already a couple of inches tall.  In the wood itself the trees were alive with the scurrying of squirrels, busily gathering food for the winter.  Having now seen red squirrels I can allow myself to feel a little blase about ordinary grey ones.  The badger sett is surrounded by chestnut trees and the squirrels were working them hard.  The still evening was punctuated by a steady rain of chestnuts dropped from the treetops above.

I was interested to see that the western end of the sett is in active use again, as so far this year the badgers have confined themselves to the east end only.  At 6.10pm the young badger emerged from the west end, had a good scratch and a snuffle about, and went back in.  It looks very much like the cub has moved out of the parental home and set up on his or her own.

Young badger at the west end of the sett 2

Young badger at the west end of the sett

The movement of badgers within the sett continues to fascinate (and puzzle) me.  This is as clear an example as I’ve seen of this movement, made more visible by the low number of badgers this year, but I still don’t know what drives a badger to change from one hole to another.

At 6.16 a badger emerged from the east end of the sett, followed a minute or so later by another.  My best estimate is that there are only three badgers in residence this year, so here they all were – daddy badger, mummy badger and baby badger – a proper family unit.  Here’s hoping that the numbers continue to build up next year.

I sat for a while against a tree and watched the badgers foraging as the light faded, getting bitten by late mosquitoes and half-expecting to be hit by a chestnut dropped by one of the squirrels.  Despite having watched badgers for some years now, I never get tired of sitting in a wood at dusk, sharing the evening with badgers as they go about their business.

Adult badger at the east end of the sett

Adult badger at the east end of the sett

I sat and watched as one of the adults slowly snuffled closer and closer.  When it reached about 20 feet from me it stopped and sniffed the air before trotting back to the sett.  There was no wind, but it had obviously got my scent.  I took this to be my cue to leave.  So ended a pleasant evening – sitting out in just my shirt, watching badgers in October.

Village Cider Collective 2011It seems that autumn is here, despite the warm weather of the last few days.  The leaves are turning on the trees and hedgerows, most of the harvest is in (we’ve been gorging on blackberries for weeks!) and there’s a definite chill in the morning air.  The summer seems to have flown by.

But every season has its own special treats.  Autumn, in our village, means cider.  On Sunday the village cider collective convened for the third year of chopping, pulping and pressing and juicing.

The idea of the collective is simple.  Lots of people have apple trees.  Very few eat all the fruit.  Making cider is a good way of using up the surplus, but for most people it isn’t worth buying and storing the kit required.  So what we do is get together and pool apples, equipment, bottles, labour and knowledge – a cider collective.  Everyone who contributes gets a share of the spoils.

We’re getting quite good at it.  The whole thing is run like a well-oiled machine.  But to be honest, apart from the gruelling hard labour, Cider Day is more about getting together with the neighbours for a jolly day out.  The cider is a bonus.

Mostly a bonus.  Sometimes it’s a bit of an acquired taste.  We’re still learning the art of cider making.  This year we produced 20 gallons of apple juice for cider, plus fresh juice for everyone (fresh apple juice is delicious – darker and murkier than anything from the supermarket, but absolutely delicious).  We’ve adopted a scientific approach this time.  The cider has been split into four batches, each of a slightly different recipe and strength.  These range from simple scrumpy (OG 1050) to the sinister and potentially lethal ‘Nick’s Brew’ (OG 1080, plus crab apples for an extra tannin bite).  We’ll see how each brew turns out, and hopefully replicate the good ones in years to come.

I’ll make a note of how it goes.  Right now I need to check the 10 gallons of cider bubbling away under my dining room table…