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Posts Tagged ‘badger watching’

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

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I don’t know if Robert Frost ever watched badgers.  Probably not, but he knew the lure of the woods and, like me, was kept away from them.  It’s been a while since I’ve been in the woods, partly through work commitments, partly because I’ve been on parenting duty as Mrs BWM has been working weekend shifts lately (apart from last weekend, when she went for a night out with the girls).  Anyhow, it’s been a good while since I’ve seen a badger, and since Mrs BWM was home to baby-sit and I had no other promises to keep, a trip to the main sett was in order this evening.

Now, this winter badger watching is a far cry from the warm, golden evenings of summer.  It’s dark and it’s cold, with an icy wind blowing chill across the fields.  If I was going to sit still (and have an enjoyable evening) I needed to dress up warmly.  Since I’ve never done a guide on ‘what to wear when badger watching’, and as a record for myself, here’s what I wore today, from the bottom up:

  • Leather mountain walking boots  (overkill for the rolling fields of Bedfordshire, but warm and comfortable and sturdy enough to go stumbling over rough ground in the dark)
  • Two pairs of thick wool boot socks
  • Thermal long johns
  • Army surplus thick wool trousers  (c. Korean War vintage, a bit itchy but very warm and utterly silent)
  • Thermal T-shirt
  • Thick brushed cotton ‘farmer’s shirt’
  • Fleece jumper
  • Fleece jacket
  • Waxed cotton jacket
  • Fleece gloves, balaclava and headover

In addition I had my camera and binoculars, and a rucksack with the night vision scope, inflatable cushion and – to fortify the inner man – a jacket potato from the kitchen and flask of hot tea.  It is no wonder I was feeling a little warm after walking the uphill mile to the woods!

Mind you, I was glad of all the clothes when I sat down near the sett.  As I’ve said before, badger watching means always having the wind in your face, and a raw, cold wind it was too.  But I was feeling quite cosy, since the only bit of me exposed to the wind was the inch or so around my eyes.

I settled down with my back to a tree with a good a view of the sett.  The advantage of this time of year is that there is no undergrowth, so the parts of the sett normally hidden by elder and nettles were visible.  I arrived at about 4.45pm while there was still some light and sat cross-legged under my tree like a contented Buddha.  It was good to be back in the woods again, to just sit still and listen to the owls and the pheasants around me.

After 20 minutes or so a Chinese Water Deer picked its way slowly through the woods, passing within 20 feet of me without alarm.  It shows how effectively you can hide in plain sight by sitting very still with suitable clothing and a tree behind you to hide your silhouette.

The minutes ticked by until I heard more rustling in the dead leaves.  Two badgers appeared out of the gloom and stopped – again about 20 feet from me – for a short grooming session.  One of the badgers let out an odd purring sound, which I haven’t heard before.  Mind you, I’m not normally this close to them, or it may be something to do with the time of year: female badgers should be ready to have cubs in a week or two now.

To my mingled delight and horror, one of the badgers started plodding off the path in my direction.  It was looking right at me, and seemed to want to investigate further.  It got to within about five feet of me before obviously catching my scent and bolting, the other following.  This is the double-edged sword of watching badgers from the ground (as opposed to from a tree).  You get thrilling close-up encounters, but there’s always a danger that you’ll be discovered.

I obviously had been discovered, so I crept off to another tree a bit further away.  I never like disturbing the badgers.  It was 5.38pm.  Thinking the badgers wouldn’t be back for a while, I poured myself a cup of tea and took out my baked potato supper, when I heard the purring noise again.  One of the badgers had come back to the tree where I had been sitting and was sniffing around the spot I had sat on.  It didn’t like what it found and scurried off again.

With that, I thought it best to call it a day and leave the badgers in peace.  I didn’t want to risk disturbing them further.  Still, I had satisfied my urge to sit in a dark wood again and I’d got close to the badgers, so it was a good evening.  The purring noise is new to me, so I’ll have to investigate that.  I like it when I learn new things, and all before six o’clock.

And no.  I didn’t use my new camera.  Didn’t even take it out of its case.  All the gear and no idea…

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Today was the day of the long-awaited first England game of the World Cup.  All over the country, people have been putting flags on their cars, buying HD televisions and stocking up with crates of lager.  After weeks of anticipation, England faced the US this evening and everything else came to a standstill.

I’ve never much cared about football myself.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d like England to win – I’m as patriotic as the next chap – I just have other things to do instead.  Most people think I’m mad for doing what I do.  Fair enough.  I think they’re mad for getting so worked up over a game.  Let’s just agree to disagree.

The weather was warm and clear, so while everyone else was glued to their TV sets, I walked through our eerily deserted village for an evening of lurking in the woods.  My badger watching has not been very successful this season, so I was pleased when a badger came out of one of the middle holes at 8.02pm.  It disappeared underground fairly soon after though.

At 8.16 another badger came out of one of the western holes, and again went back fairly quickly.  I don’t think I disturbed them. There was very little wind, and what there was, was in the right direction.  The badgers were just not interested in hanging around.

At 8.45 I saw the elder bushes in the centre part of the eastern end of the sett shaking and rustling.  Through the binoculars I could see another badger ambling around in the cover of the undergrowth.  Shortly after 9.00, the badger from the middle hole came out and headed off eastwards, followed a few minutes later by the one from the western hole.

It wasn’t a totally wasted evening.  I saw the badgers (or some of them, at least) and I know that they’re active in all parts of the sett.  But I still haven’t seen any cubs yet, and I haven’t seen any real social behaviour from the badgers this year.  In previous years they would sit around and play and groom together, up to twelve badgers in a big group.  This year I’ve only seen individual badgers with very little interaction.  They may be doing it out of sight, or there may be something odd going on.  I don’t know.  I’m still trying to get to grips with the badgers.  In football terms, let’s call the evening a draw.  Badgers 1 – BWM 1.

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