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Posts Tagged ‘badger sett’

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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The weather today has been much warmer than of late.  It was a cold night, but the sun came out and the temperature went up to 8 degrees or so.  It doesn’t sound much, but compared to the last couple of weeks it feels almost tropical!

Rabbit tracks in frost

Rabbit tracks in frost

I went on my usual Sunday morning dawn stroll today.  When I set off it was still very frosty.

Here’s an example of tracks that you won’t find in a tracking book.

The pavement was very frosty, although the road had been gritted.  At some point in the night a pair of rabbits had crossed the road, hopped up onto the pavement and then gone through the railings to the field beyond.

They had picked up the salt from the road on their feet, and this salt had melted the frost where their feet had touched it, leaving this perfect set of tracks in the ice.

I decided to make the most of the day and went for a longer walk than usual.  I let my feet carry me in a big loop around the woods.  The Chinese Water Deer were out again, and the local buzzard seems to have found a friend, as there were two buzzards swooping and calling over the fields.  Either that or he was having a territorial dispute with the neighbour.

I thought it was time I checked in at the sett to see how the badgers were doing.  Of course, there was no chance of them being out at 9.30am, but I wanted to have a look round.  It gave me a good chance to look at the different parts of the sett.  In summer, when I’m actively watching the badgers, I don’t like to get to close to the sett for fear of disturbing them as scent can linger for a long while.  Today though, I thought I’d have a look, since the badgers would not be active until much later in the evening.

Everything seemed to be in order at the sett.  There were two entrances that looked to be in very active use.  Here’s a picture of one of them – note the relatively clean hole, without many fallen leaves or other debris.  You can also see how the sides have been polished by the coming and going of many badgers.  This is obviously well-used at the moment.

Badger sett entrance (1)

Badger sett entrance (1)

Very encouragingly, a couple of entrances showed signs of recent digging and of having been cleared out.  In the picture below you can see a furrow pointing directly to the hole, made by badgers dragging out spoil.  This is another classic sign of an active badger sett.

Badger sett entrance (2)

Badger sett entrance (2)

In the picture below, you can see that the badgers have dug out large amounts of dead leaves from this entrance.  This is a sign that they’re clearing out an old chamber for re-use.

Badger sett entrance showing signs of clearing out

Badger sett entrance showing signs of clearing out

Why is this encouraging?  Well, badgers re-dig parts of the sett at this time of year to make ready for the birth of cubs in February.  The sow prepares a separate ‘maternity suite’ where she can get away from the other badgers and won’t be disturbed.  The signs of activity at the sett all point to there being cubs on the way!

The interesting thing is that there is clear activity at both ends of the sett – the east and west sides.  This implies that badgers are in residence at both ends.  There is re-digging going on at both ends too.  Does this mean that there will be two separate litters of cubs from separate mothers?  Has there been a split in the badgers, so that different groups have taken to living in different parts of the sett?

All the books I’ve read suggest that all the badgers in a sett should be part of one single group, with only the dominant male and female breeding.  This wasn’t the case last year, as there were at least two litters of cubs, and the signs seem to indicate that there will be separate litters again this year.

I’ve also been thinking about the number of badgers in the sett at the moment.  If all the cubs survived (and I have no reason to think that they haven’t) then there will be at least 10 badgers in residence.  Do some of them leave home at some point, or do they stay in the group permanently?  Might this account for the active use of different parts of the sett?  If they leave, what is it that determines who leaves and who stays, and where do the badgers that leave go?  Do they join another sett, or start their own?

You see, this is the great thing about badgers.  We’re only in January and already they’ve got me confused.  I’m going to start the badger watching season as I finished the last one – with more questions than answers!

This is a mystery that needs solving.  Does anyone know where I can get a cheap copy of Hans Kruuk’s The Social Badger?  Even better, if anyone knows anything about the clan structure of badger groups and how they change over time, then please do leave a comment and enlighten me.

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