Posts Tagged ‘badger path’

Alder tree by the brookThe snow has finally melted.  Today has been a balmy 7 degrees and beautifully sunny.  It may not sound very warm, but compared to the past weeks when the temperature didn’t rise above freezing for days on end it feels positively spring-like.  I took advantage and headed out for a stroll in the (slightly soggy) countryside.

I had no particular aim in mind, but with a vague idea of looking at the birds I headed over to the lake.  I don’t go there very often, but there is always the chance of visiting waterfowl.  As it happened the lake was still iced over with not a bird in sight, but the hedges were alive with blue tits, great tits, chaffinches and sparrows.   My personal favourites were a flock of long-tailed tits working their way through the trees.  These are delightful birds but absolutely impossible to photograph.  They are always on the move, flitting about from branch to branch as they forage, never staying in one place for long.  One of these days I’ll be in the right place and get a picture as they travel past.

Talking of ambitions, there is one animal that I’ve been quietly trying to photograph for a while now, and that is the black squirrel.  The black squirrel is the melanistic (black) version of the common grey squirrel.  There are populations of black squirrels in a number of places around the country, and some experts believe that the black coat is genetically dominant and will eventually replace the ordinary grey colour.  This hasn’t happened yet, or shown any signs of doing so, so black squirrels are still fairly uncommon.

There is a known population of black squirrels centred on Woburn in Bedfordshire.  I’ve only seen one once before, and it was very striking – a squirrel, but with a black coat.  Ever since then I’ve wanted to get a picture of one.  Today, I got my chance.

Black Squirrel

The almost legendary Black Squirrel of Woburn

Unfortunately the squirrel was quite distant so it was at the very limit of my camera zoom, but it is unmistakeably a black squirrel. I feel a little bit like those people who photograph Bigfoot, only to get home and find the picture only shows a dark blur in the distance, but at least I know it was there.

Black Squirrel

NOT a Bigfoot, but a black squirrel...

I walked home along the brook.  Halfway down I came across a clear animal path running from an old, disused little quarry into the fields.  Now, this looked to me like a classic badger path.  The old quarry was a perfect spot for a badger sett – they love places like this where they can dig sideways into the side of a bank, and the soil is usually dry and well-drained.  There were signs of digging and spoil heaps in the quarry, so something was burrowing there.  In short, it looked exactly like a badger path, except it ran across a 6″ deep fast-flowing brook.

Brook crossed by a badger path

The brook crossed by a badger(?) path

Could this really be a badger path?  Would the badgers really wade across the brook every night to get to the fields?  There were no really conclusive tracks so it is difficult to be sure either way.  Something had made the path, but I don’t know what.  Since the brook is close to my house it looks like an ideal place to make a track trap – to spread some sand and see what tracks I can get.  If it is a badger path then I’ll be back in the summer to see if I can stake it out and get a picture of an aquatic badger.  Remember, you heard it here first!

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Badger cub

Badger cub

Thinking about the badger sett has got me thinking about badger paths.

Badger paths are an absolutely classic sign of an active sett.  Badgers are well-known to be creatures of habit, and will follow the same route night after night and even generation after generation until the vegetation is worn away and quite deep paths are formed.   The urge to follow paths is obviously very strong.  There are many examples of fences being erected across badger paths and the badgers simply barging through.

But why is this so?  Why do badgers follow such regular paths?

To understand why, you have to stop thinking like a human and think like a badger for a while.

I’ve already mentioned the senses of the badger (see About Badgers).  Badgers have poor eyesight, but a very good sense of smell.  Unlike humans, who rely on visual information to navigate, the badger ‘sees’ the world as a landscape of scents and smells.  This makes perfect sense for an animal that is active in the hours of darkness.

Badger paths then, are not visual paths, but scent paths.  Each path carries the scent of the badgers that have used it.  When a badger is following a path, it is literally following the badgers that have gone before.  As a system it is simple and effective – the badger can find its way around a completely dark wood by using these trails, and in times of danger it can always follow them back to the sett.  It is difficult for humans to understand a landscape of smells, but to the badger, these paths must stand out like a bright shining road would to us.

But nothing with badgers is ever simple.   Many mammals have interdigital glands.  These are glands between the toes that leave scent when the animal walks.  Cats have them,  for instance.  When a cat scratches a tree it is not sharpening its claws.  It is leaving scent from its interdigital glands to mark its territory.

It seems likely that badgers also have interdigital glands.  This means that every time a badger uses a path it is not only leaving a signpost for itself and for other badgers, it is using the path to mark out the territory of the clan. Badgers use scent to identify members of their own clan, so a badger can easily tell which paths belong to them, and which belong to the neighboring clans.

So badger paths are not just the result of ingrained habits or an easy way for the badgers to get from one place to another.  Seen in conjuction with other territorial markers such as the latrine sites and scratching trees, paths are a sophisticated part of the social behaviour of badgers.

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