Posts Tagged ‘badger sett’

FoxHmmm.  I notice that it is almost exactly a year since I posted on here, which means that it is also a year since I last went out looking for badgers.  I really need to get out more.

In fact, the circumstances are similar in many ways.  Last year, I took advantage of Mrs BWM and Scarlett taking a trip to Ireland.  This year they are both on a trip to Disneyland Paris.  While they are meeting the mouse, my time is my own for a few days.  Which has meant catching up with chores in the house and garden.

But this evening, like Mole in Wind in the Willows, I said “Hang spring-cleaning!”, dug out my badger watching clothes and headed off to the wood.

Spring is definitely coming.  The first leaves are out in the hedgerows, the lambs are in the fields, the primroses are blooming in the wood.  It was even sunny, although with a chill wind.  The wood hadn’t changed much in a year, a few more of the dead ash trees blown down, and there were good signs of badgers at the main sett.  There were fresh spoil heaps at both the east and west ends, and one of the fallen trees was covered in claw marks where the badgers have obviously used it as a ‘play tree’.  Badgers do seem to love climbing on and over trees – perhaps they have some of the instincts of their pine marten cousins.

I climbed my usual tree (perhaps tree climbing is a universal mammal urge) and settled down to wait.  I’ve said it before, but it is rare to get time to just sit and think these days.  At 6.30 there was a movement in the undergrowth – not a badger, but a fox.  Foxes aren’t very common around here, certainly not so common as they were when I lived in London, and as long as they aren’t after my chickens I like to see them.  A few years ago a fox reared a litter of cubs in an unused part of the sett, but this fox (a dog fox) seemed to be just passing through.


After another half hour, more sounds of stealthy movement.  This time it was a herd of fallow deer.  We have a few of these deer in the area – I used to see their tracks regularly, but again it isn’t common to see them.  There were six of them, three young and three older, and a mix of males and females judging by the antlers (or rather the antler buds).  I wonder if they were a family group, as they were all quite dark coloured.  Fallow deer can be any colour from dark brown through light brown with spots to white all over.  These were all the same dark colour.  They slowly grazed their way past, a couple of the males occasionally playing at butting antlers, despite not having any.

Fallow deer

And then, at 7.50, a badger emerged at the west end of the sett and sat down for a good scratch before wandering off.  By now it was getting too dark for photos (as well as a bit chilly).  I waited for another 20 minutes to see if any more came out, but none did.  Judging by the signs the east end of the sett is well occupied, so presumably they came out after I had left.


A pleasant evening all round.  I really shouldn’t wait another year before doing it again…

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So Mrs BWM and Scarlett are off in the west of Ireland for a long weekend, visiting a friend.  I’m left here alone in Bedfordshire.  Am I despondent?  No.  I’m doing what any other re-blooded male would do when his wife goes away and he’s suddenly relieved of family duties.  I’ve been out looking for badgers!

Coincidentally, the weather this weekend has been fantastic.  The first nice weekend of spring is always a great time in the village as people emerge after winter.  You bump into people you haven’t seen in ages and the sound of lawnmowers and the smell of freshly cut grass fills the air.

So, Friday evening.  The closest badger sett to my house is also one of the least accessible.  It is on the edge of a small private wood.  I’ve asked for permission to go there, but evidently not asked the right people yet because I haven’t got it.  However, you can sit on a footpath and look out over a small valley and watch the sett.  The only problem is that it is about 350 yards away, so it is only really possible with a telescope.  This is probably the longest range badger watching ever, and to be honest not the easiest, but for an hour or so after work it is only a very short walk and a pleasant diversion.  The badgers were not entirely obliging, two emerging at about 7.15pm and disappearing into the wood rather than staying in the open, but at least I was outside and watching badgers.

The badger sett across the valley

The badger sett in the hedge line across the valley – real long-range badger watching

On the way home I passed the village notice board, and saw an leaflet for a talk on ecology to be held in Ampthill on Saturday by the CPRE.  Being wholly without commitments this weekend, and open to a chance to learn something new, I went along – how decadent – and a fascinating talk it turned out to be.

The speaker was Hugh Warwick, hedgehog expert, who spoke about the issue of fragmenting habitat and its impact on a range of species.  He is a very entertaining and informative speaker, so if you ever get the chance to hear him, do so.  As well as some solid ecological science and wonderful wildlife anecdotes he had some interesting observations on badgers.  For instance, the folk tale that if you have a lot of badgers in the area then you won’t have a lot of hedgehogs is confirmed by research.  But it isn’t just that badgers eat hedgehogs.  It is more complicated.  It seems that if resources are plentiful then the two species co-exist in  competition, but if resources dip below a certain level the relationship becomes predator-prey.  Interesting stuff!  I bought a couple of his books from him too, so I’ve got some good reading to look forward to.

Inspired by this I went up to the badger sett on Saturday evening.  There was evidence of activity – fresh spoil and the like – but I only saw one solitary badger that emerged at 7.40 and ambled off straight away.  At least it was a badger though, and I can’t complain, seeing as how I haven’t been up there for almost a year.  I really should get here more often…

Badger in the distance

There is a badger in here, if you look closely!

Sunday was too nice a day to waste too.  After working the garden for most of the day I took a stroll to the lake in the evening, just to be out in the spring countryside.  One of the local buzzards was making the most of the fine weather too.


Buzzard in the blue sky

The lake was home to a flock of geese – Greylags and some Canada Geese – nothing rare but good to see nonetheless.  There’s been a flock of these in the neighborhood lately, so the lake is obviously their current haunt.

Greylag Geese on the lake

Greylag Geese on the lake

Here’s something I haven’t noticed before.  These are holes in a dead ash tree.  I’m assuming they were made by a woodpecker (they were 25 feet off the ground).  Do they nest in these holes?  They’re too big to be just in search of food.

Woodpecker holes

Woodpecker holes, I presume

I lingered around a bit after sunset in the hope of catching the Barn Owl that lives around here, but with no luck.  And it’s chilly after the sun goes down!  It was just me in a field with just Chinese Water Deer for company – six of these little deer, all dotted around in the growing cereal.  Oddly, they didn’t seem to interact with each other at all, they all kept separate.

Chinese Water Deer

Chinese Water Deer – they always look slightly startled

It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t the most exciting walk in terms of wildlife seen, it was nice to just be out and about on a nice spring day.

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I’ve just returned from a very pleasant Easter break with my parents up in Cheshire.  We’ve had a great time, with Scarlett having plenty of space to run around in, Timmy the dog to play with, and a visit to Chester Zoo to see the elephants and tigers (and the Giant Otters are highly recommended).  All in all a very nice few days.

Even with all this going on, I found time for some badger-related activity.  I was lucky to have the local knowledge of my parents to guide me, and I was able to visit a few different setts.

The first sett is instructive.  Here it is – a splendid entrance inside a hollow tree in a hedgerow, with a big spoil heap of sandy soil.  Badgers seem to like to have sett entrances in or under trees, either for support or protection.  Perhaps it’s a little close to the farm buildings behind, but still a very nice place for a hedgerow sett.

Cheshire Badger Sett in Hollow Tree

Cheshire Badger Sett in Hollow Tree

But – if I show you the full picture, the scenario changes.  Here’s the sett and the spoil heap in the middle of the picture:

Cheshire Badger Sett by the Road

The Hollow Tree Badger Sett - next to the Road!

As you can see, it is right on the road.  Not a big road or a busy one, but right on the road.  It shows just how adaptable badgers can be, and that not all badgers are to be found in the depths of secluded woodland.

I spent a few hours on Saturday evening sitting out by a large sett in a patch of woodland near Delamere Forest.  Unlike the roadside sett, this particular site is well off the beaten track, so I had high hopes of spotting the residents.  It was not to be, however, proving that the badgers in Cheshire can be just as awkward as those back home in Bedfordshire.  The sett was clearly active, with deep paths and four holes with big, fresh spoil heaps outside.  It was a good site to watch too, with the holes in the side of a steep ravine.  I could sit on the other side and get a clear view as if across an arena.

I watched until dusk (8.20pm), but I had no night viewing aids (binoculars or NV scope) with me, so I didn’t stay too late.  Perhaps the badgers were using other holes round the corner.  Perhaps Cheshire badgers are just late risers.

It was still a good evening.  I listened to the alarm calls of Blackbirds and watched as a Tawny Owl – the target of their alarm – crossed the trees in front of me.  I spotted a Goldcrest flitting about in a low tree, which is a new bird for me.  Unfortunately, autofocus lenses can’t pick out a bird from a tangle of branches, so the photo isn’t great.  You can see the bright yellow stripe on its head though.  I know it’s there, anyway.


Goldcrest (in there somewhere...)

The evening was livened up by the antics of a squirrel in the tree opposite.  One of the good things about my new camera is its quick shutter compared to my old bridge camera, which had a delay of a second or so between pressing the button and taking the picture.  It makes it easier to get proper ‘action squirrel’ mid-air shots like this:

Leaping Squirrel

Leaping Squirrel

So no badgers, but it was a good weekend all round.  A nice family break, a visit to the zoo and some new wildlife.  Happy Easter everyone.

Grandad BWM and Scarlett at Chester Zoo

Grandad BWM and Scarlett at Chester Zoo

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Road Casualty Badger

Well, Mrs BWM and Scarlett are still on holiday in Anglesey, braving the gales, but I’m back in Bedfordshire.  I’m here alone with just a somewhat neurotic cat for company.

Anyway, I have another badger road death to record.  I came across this one on the way to work this morning, in a wooded area to the south of the village.  I didn’t have time to look closely (especially not in my best suit), but it was a fully grown adult.

I’ve never seen any signs of badgers in this area before, but it’s a badgery sort of place – woods and fields and no houses.  My long-term plan of logging badger deaths in the area is meant to give me a record that I can refer back to and look for patterns, but it also helps to track badger setts too.  If my mapping of territories is correct, badgers around here control an area with a radius of 350-500m from their home sett.  This means that every time you see a dead badger on the road, there is probably a sett within 500m.  Makes you think, doesn’t it?

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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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The dunghill or manure heap

The dunghill at the local stables

What a beautiful weekend.  Never mind spring, we’ve had a couple of days that wouldn’t have been out of place in summer.  Lovely warm sun, the birds singing and the countryside coming alive.

And how did I spend this gorgeous weekend?  I’ve been digging manure from a dung heap at the local stables that resembled the Matterhorn in size and shape and transporting it to the vegetable garden again.  My rural lifestyle seems to involve an awful lot of dung, in one way or another.  If I’m not clearing it out from the chickens I’m going out and getting more for the veg.

Mrs BWM was working the late shift this weekend, so the evenings have been babysitting rather than badger watching for me.  But the weather was so nice I couldn’t resist taking Scarlett out for a walk.  Another sett survey was in order, before the vegetation gets too high.

The reason for this flurry of looking for new setts is that I want to build a better understanding of the badgers at the main sett, and this means – paradoxically – understanding the badgers at the neighbouring setts.  By getting familiar with other nearby setts I’ll be better placed to understand any changes at the main one, and also to judge the general well-being of badgers in the local area.

I’ve focused on the the east of the main sett so far, where the Beech Tree sett is.  I’ve started to doubt that the Beech Tree sett is active, but the signs all point to badgers in the area so there must be another sett nearby.  To the west of the main sett, the next one is the Pine Tree sett, which seemed to have only one badger in residence for the last year or two.  Today, I decided to go further south-west to the next sett along.  It needs a name, so let’s follow tradition and name it after a tree.  Let’s call it the Hawthorn sett.

The Hawthorn sett is 500m south of the Pine Tree sett and 900m south-west of the main sett, as the badger walks.  It is another sett that I’ve been aware of for a while but never examined closely.  I might have been missing out, because it seems very active at the moment.  I counted six active holes in a small area, plus well-used paths and latrines.  The soil is very sandy and the badgers have been digging lately, leading to some impressive spoil heaps.

Spoil heap outside badger sett

Here’s another classic sign of an active badger sett in the picture below – old bedding that has been dug out and discarded with the spoil.  The use of bedding is a distinctive badger behaviour that you can use to tell a badger sett from a hole used by rabbits or foxes.

Badger sett with discarded bedding

If there was any doubt that badgers are in residence, here’s another good sign.  See the claw mark in the centre of the picture below, made by the badger as it dug out the hole?  This can only have been done in the last day or two – these marks wouldn’t last long in such soft, sandy soil so they must be recent.

Badger sett with claw marks

It was only a quick visit to the sett but there was enough time to see that it is home to a decent-sized group of badgers.  The next step is to pay a visit one evening and see if I can count the numbers.  It’ll take time to build up a full picture of these neighbouring setts but it’ll hopefully give me another piece of the puzzle.

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When Labour MP Ron Davies was asked to explain what he was doing visiting the countryside at night in a well-known gay meeting area, he famously replied that he was ‘watching badgers’.  I mused on this as I walked through our village last night.  If for some reason I had been stopped and asked to explain what I was doing, how would I explain why I was carrying a red light and a night vision scope while wearing (among other things) a camouflage jacket and a pair of ladies’ tights?  I expect I would have weakly stammered out the same reason that Ron did.  I can’t vouch for him, but in my case it happened to be true.

It has been a while since I have seen a badger.  Partly this is due to family commitments, partly because I’ve confined my badger watching to the summer months when it is possible to observe them in daylight in the long evenings.  I’ve always tried to keep the main badger sett I watch as wild and undisturbed as possible, and for this reason I’ve never used artificial lights there.  However, I bought myself a night vision scope last year, so it should be possible to watch the badgers in complete darkness.  Everything came together at the same time – I now have time to go out in the evenings, I have the means to watch the badgers in the dark, and I had an itch to see a real, live badger again.  I know from visiting the sett in the daytime that the badgers have been busy – it was time to get out and see what they were actually doing at this time of year.

This explains why I was out after dark and why I was carrying the night vision scope.  The reason I was wearing ladies’ tights was purely and simply to keep warm.  Last night was beautifully clear – the stars of Orion were shining brightly over the wood as I walked up the hill – but it was very cold and frosty with a bitter wind that seemed to be blowing straight from the arctic circle.  If you’ve ever sat still in very cold weather then you’ll know how the cold can seep into your bones after a while.  And if you’re up a tree watching badgers then you can’t even move around to keep warm.  Hence I was wearing as much warm clothing as I could.  I got the tights for an impromptu fancy dress outfit a while ago (Superman – they’re thick, blue tights) and I was struck by how warm they were.  Despite the possible cross-dressing implications I wore them under my normal trousers, and very effective they were too – warm yet lightweight.  This may become a habit…

Arriving at the wood I picked my slowly through the trees.  I use a small red LED headtorch, which is just bright enough to see by but is less intrusive than a white light.  Badger folklore says that badgers cannot see red light very well and are not as disturbed by it.  It also adds a wonderfully other-worldly feeling when walking through a dark wood.

I arrived at the sett at 8.00pm, none too stealthily, I’m afraid.  Walking through a winter’s worth of dead leaves and fallen twigs by the light of dim torch without making a noise is pretty much impossible.  As I neared the sett I could see the red eyeshine of an animal at the edge of the torchlight – a badger!  With no real stealth at all I climbed up my favourite tree to get a good view over the sett.  I set up the night vision scope and turned off the red torch.

Now, the last time I used the night vision scope it seemed to cause a reaction in the badgers (see Fieldnotes: 25th July 2009 – First night vision session).  Although the infra-red light from the scope is supposedly invisible, the badgers seemed to be spooked by it.  Last night, the exact same thing happened.  When I looked at the badger through the scope it froze, looked straight at me and bobbed its head up and down.  This is the classic sign of a nervous badger trying to scent something that it is suspicious of.  After a few seconds it turned around and fled underground.

I am now convinced that badgers can see the infra-red light from my NV scope.  Think about it – the badger was not put off by my noisy approach, it was not put off by the red light of my headtorch, nor by the noise of my climbing the tree.  It was only when I was sitting quiet and still with my torch turned off that it bolted; and this at the exact moment I shone the infra-led light on it.  I’ve spent a lot of hours watching badgers, and the way that this one looked straight at me tells me that it was aware of me, and this could only be due to the infra-red.

I sat for 40 cold minutes to see if the badger reappeared but it didn’t.  I could hear the rhythmic scuffling noises of a badger gathering bedding from the other end of the sett, but I didn’t see anything else.  It was a little frustrating:  there I was, all dressed up, and I seemed to have scared off the only badger in sight.  I can confirm that the badgers were out at 8.00pm and that there was bedding being gathered (the east end of the sett seems to be active, based on what I heard and from inspecting the sett in the daylight) but I can’t add much more than this.

The business with the night vision scope was frustrating too.  I am sure that the badgers react to the infra-red light, and this makes it much less useful.  In fact, they seem more disturbed by the night vision scope than by an ordinary red light.  I can use the scope in ‘passive mode’ so that it gathers ambient light rather than illuminating the scene with infra-red, but it isn’t very effective in the darkness of a dark wood.

There is definitely an opportunity for more winter badger watching, but I need to sort out the night vision first…

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Badger Cubs What does a badger sett look like?  Every now and then someone asks me this question, so it’s about time that I tried to answer it properly.  This is my guide to badger setts and what to look for.  I have hesitated a little before writing this.  After all, badgers are still persecuted in some parts of the country, and I don’t want to make it any easier for someone with bad intentions to find badger setts.  On the other hand, the more people that know about the badgers in their area the better.  If people are aware of their local setts then they can keep an eye on them, and besides, badgers have been a source of pleasure for me and I’d like to share the experience with other people if I can.

I’ve illustrated this post with pictures taken on a walk this afternoon.  This is a good time of year to go out and look for badger setts.  The badgers are active and the vegetation has not yet grown up.  Believe me, trying to find badger setts in head-high nettles is a daunting prospect.

The first step to identifying a badger sett is to find a likely area where they might be living.  Badgers are surprisingly widespread and they have a fantastic ability to live under people’s noses and yet remain out of sight, so don’t rule out any patch of countryside.  They do have certain preferences though, and to narrow down the search you have to understand a little about their habits and lifestyle.  It helps to be able to think like a badger!

People think of badgers as woodland creatures, and it’s true, they mostly do live in woods and that is where to look for them.  But they don’t spend all their time there.  In the UK, the main food of the badger is the earthworm, and the best place to catch earthworms is on short grass – ideally grass that has been grazed by livestock.  So the best place to find badgers is in woodland that borders on grassy fields.  They live in the wood and that gives them shelter and security; and they can feed in the fields.

But not all woodlands are good for badgers.  Badgers live underground, so they need somewhere suitable for digging.  Damp, marshy ground is definitely out and anywhere that is liable to flood (such as river valleys) is usually avoided.  In my part of Bedfordshire the badgers prefer the nice, dry sandy soil, but they also seem quite happy in clay.  Badgers definitely seem to prefer a sloping site rather than a very flat one.  This might be the slope of a hill, the side of a disused quarry or even a large hedgerow bank.  They like anywhere where they can tunnel in sideways rather than straight down.  I suppose that it is easier to dig, easier to shift the soil, better drained and presumably easier for them to walk out of a horizontal hole rather than climb out of a vertical one.

So we are looking for a piece of woodland with sloping ground with grassy fields nearby.  Should we now go into the wood and start looking for holes?  Well no. Not yet.

Badgers will cover a territory with a radius of 300-500m from their sett.  This means that there will often be many signs of badgers in the general area of the sett.  Finding these can give you confidence that there are badgers in the vicinity and help to narrow down your search.  Fortunately badgers are creatures of habit and leave some regular indications of their presence.

If you’re walking through pasture fields, keep a lookout for badger paths, snuffle holes and dung pits.  Badgers travel on paths whenever possible (see Why do badgers use paths?) and over time these paths can be quite pronounced.  If I recall, Pablo even managed to identify badger paths from satellite photographs on Google maps.  I’ve tried this myself, and it really is possible.

Here is a series of paths over the pasture field.  The trouble with paths is that you never really know who makes them, whether it is badgers or another animal (humans being another obvious cause).  In this case I have tracked badgers across this field when there has been snow on the ground and they consistently follow these paths.

Badger Path on PastureHere’s another example.  In this case the path crosses the field and then goes under a fence.  This means that it cannot have been made by humans, livestock or deer.  Other animals such as rabbits will make regular runs, but if you see a deep path like this, start suspecting badgers.

Badger Path through FenceIncidentally, if you ever come across a path under a fence, check the bottom strand of wire to see if any hairs have been caught.  This can give you a positive i.d. of the animal that made the path.  Badger hairs are grey or black and have a squarish cross section.  When you roll a badger hair between your fingers it feels irregular rather than round.

Snuffle holes are the holes made by badgers digging for food.  They are a good sign of badger activity, but other animals can leave similar holes and cause confusion.  Rabbits will often dig shallow scrapes, but rabbit scrapes are usually oval whilst badger snuffle holes are more conical.

Badger Snuffle HolesDung pits are a particular feature of badger territories.  Badgers do not deposit their dung just anywhere, they use special pits.  Badgers use dung as a territory marker, so you will often find dung pits on badger paths around the edge of their territory.  Dung pits look very much like snuffle holes, but with dung in them.

Badger Dung PitBadger dung is usually a dark greyish-green, which shows that they have been feeding on earthworms.  Badgers will cheerfully eat many other things too, so it is always interesting to inspect the dung pits and see what they have been feeding on.  Here’s the dung of badger that seems to have been gorging on cherries (I have no idea where it got them in February!)

Badger Dung Pit with CherriesWhere the territories of two badger clans meet the dung pits can be quite extensive as each side marks its territory.  Here’s a large latrine with many pits that badgers have somewhat inconsiderately dug into a main footpath in the wood.

Badger Latrine SiteSigns like these tell you that there are badgers in the area and that they are active.  Now you can start to look through the wood and try to find their sett.  Rather than looking at random, there are a couple of things that will help you.  Remember that badgers prefer a slope, so concentrate on areas of sloping ground, particularly on the outskirts of the wood.  The other thing you can do is look for paths and follow them.  Sooner or later a path will lead you to a sett.  It can be great fun to try to follow paths, as they usually twist and turn through the wood, sometimes clear and obvious, other times fading out altogether.  A frustrating but fun way to spend an afternoon.

Here’s a particularly clear badger path.  Note how generations of badgers have worn a deep path into the soil.

Badger Path in Wood

One way to tell that you are following a badger path is to look for tracks – often a difficult challenge in a wood.  Alternatively, here’s something you might see.  The path goes over a fallen tree and badgers have left clear claw marks as they climbed over.

Badger Claw Marks on a Fallen Tree

So what does an actual badger sett look like?  The obvious thing to look for is holes in the ground.  Depending on the size of the sett there may be anything between a single hole and twenty holes spread over a hundred yards or so.  Many animals live in holes, but there are some features of badger setts to look out for.

Badger setts are very extensive underground.  Some have up to 300m of tunnels – far more than rabbits or foxes.  The badgers have to shift a lot of soil, and this means that badger setts usually have substantial spoil heaps outside.  Over time these spoil heaps can literally change the shape of the landscape, creating large shelves or platforms outside the holes.  The main sett that I watch is obviously an old one, as the whole area is pock-marked by holes and hummocks so that it resembles a First World War battlefield.  Active setts are easy to spot because there will usually be fresh spoil outside.  Badgers are compulsive diggers, and although much digging is done in spring before the cubs arrive, they will tend to dig all year round.  Here is an entrance to a sett.  Notice the large spoil heap and the obvious path coming in from the right.

Badger Sett with Spoil Heap and PathThe spoil heaps will often contain dried grass or bracken that the badgers had dragged in as bedding and then subsequently cleared out at a later date.  In my experience this happens when they are preparing an old chamber for re-use, for instance when preparing for cubs.

The actual holes of a badger sett have a characteristic shape, usually referred to as a sideways D.  The key feature is that they are broader than they are tall.  This makes sense if you think of the shape of a badger – fairly wide and low-slung.  Rabbit holes, by contrast, are an oval shape that looks like an O.  Here is a classic badger sett entrance that shows the typical shape.

Badger Sett EntranceHere’s another sett entrance where the badgers have dug under a fallen tree, either by accident or on purpose, creating a nice sturdy lintel.  There are a couple of holes under trees like this at this sett, which makes me wonder whether it is a deliberate choice.  I’ve also seen a few setts that are in the roots at the base of a large tree.  Again, this gives the badgers the protection of a wooden roof, at least for the entrance to the sett.  Perhaps this is a widespread design feature.

Badger Sett EntranceAgain, notice that the hole is still wider than it is tall.

Active holes will show signs of recent digging, but if you are lucky you can find badger tracks at the entrance to a sett.  This is the best evidence you can get that the hole is inhabited by a badger.  Note the mass of tracks at this hole, suggesting that a number of badgers are present.

Badger Sett Entrance with Badger TracksLastly, have a look around the immediate area of the sett.  Badgers will have a main latrine site nearby – like the dung pits on the edge of their territory but larger and more concentrated.  At many setts there will be patches of leaf mould that have been dug up and scuffled about as the badgers look for food.  There will often also be clear patches where the soil has been worn smooth.  These are ‘play areas’ where the badgers congregate, play and groom each other.  Sometimes there may be ‘play trees’ – tree stumps or fallen trees that the badgers climb and play over.  These are sometimes worn smooth too – the result of whole generations of badgers using them as a playground.

So now you know what to look for.  Look for the right sort of habitat – woodland near pasture, ideally with sloping ground.  Look out for the peripheral signs of badger activity – paths, dung pits and snuffle holes.  Through a combination of following paths and sensibly interpreting the landscape you will hopefully be able to find the sett and confirm that there are badgers in residence.  Of course, the best way to tell whether there are badgers present is to actually see one of the beasts, so once you have identified an active sett you can sit up and watch.  And that’s where it really starts to get interesting.

Good luck finding badger setts, and good luck watching!

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After all this high-level, scientific badgerology I felt the need to get back down to earth.  On Sunday I took Scarlett on her first trip to see a badger sett.  I also wanted the chance to see how they are doing after the cold weather and whether they are preparing for spring.  Donning the baby carrier and camouflage umbrella I set off into the drizzle.

Now, I had planned to turn this trip into a photo-guide on what to look for at a badger sett, as a guide to people who want to know if they’ve got badgers in their local area.  Unfortunately, after snapping pictures of everything in sight – holes, paths, dung pits etc – I got home to find that my camera settings had mysteriously changed and none of the pictures I took show anything at all.  Damn it.

Never mind.  It gives me an excuse to go back next week.  Scarlett enjoys these walks, and I do to.  For the record I can say that the badgers seemed to be positively thriving.  The dung pits were all full, showing a lot of feeding.  The sett was very active, with no fewer than six of the holes showing significant signs of fresh digging and tracks.  This is a good sign, as sow badgers will take up residence in their own part of the sett to give birth and rear their young, so at least one or two of these holes are probably ‘maternity suites’.

Stay tuned for next week, when I’ll hopefully be back with a fully-illustrated guide to badger setts.

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Monitoring Badger Setts near Ampthill

Monitoring Badger Setts near Ampthill

According to the news it was the UK’s worst storm this year.  Heavy rain and gale force winds, gusting up to 70mph and causing damage in exposed places.  This was the weather forecast for Saturday, coincidentally the date of the long-planned field trip of the Bedfordshire Badger Network.

In the event, the rain eased off on Saturday morning, and although the wind was still strong it was a bright, clear day.  The plan for the field trip was to visit and monitor the badger setts in a wood near the town of Ampthill.  Unfortunately the wood is on top of a high ridge and exposed to the full force of the wind, which meant that there was a significant risk of falling branches.  In fact, members of the network had been visiting this wood under similar conditions on a field trip last year, when a full-sized oak tree had come crashing the ground.  They wisely decided to beat a retreat.

Common sense prevailed again this year.  Instead of visiting the wood we elected to drop down off the high ridge and visit the known setts in the more sheltered valley below.   This area is well known to the committed members of the network as it was the site of their large-scale bait marking study, which over ten years mapped the territories of badger clans across a wide area (see the Bedfordshire Naturalist 2007 for details, available from the Bedfordshire Natural History Society).  The full story of the study, and how the badger territories changed over time, makes fascinating reading and is a tribute to the hard work that went into it.

If the setts in the area are well known, why did we need to visit them?  Well, for me it was a chance for a walk in the countryside, to get some fresh air and talk about badger-related matters.  On a more serious note, although badgers will stay in the same territories and setts for hundreds of years, they are rarely static.  Setts become more or less active over time as the populations change and shift.  Regular monitoring helps you to understand these changes.

We visited a dozen or so locations and looked for evidence of recent activity.  New setts and new holes were mapped using GPS (this is real high-tech badger watching), and other evidence such as dung pits was examined.  Individually, each observation doesn’t mean much, but the network has been monitoring the area for years and these little snippets build up into an impressive record of badgers in the environment.

We enjoyed the bracing wind and clear skies for most of the morning until, as we headed home, the clouds rolled in and the torrential rain came down (or rather sideways).  Nevertheless, it was a very good way to spend a day, and it was good to get back amongst badgers again.

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