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Three cubs foraging

Three cubs foraging

Today was a miserable day for July, with gusting winds and intermittent rain, but I went up to the wood anyway, feeling guilty no doubt for being stuck in the house all day. Besides, I was curious to see if the badgers were back to normal after their unusual behaviour yesterday, and I was anxious to see if the cubs were all right, since they hardly put in an appearance last time.

It was a damp evening, and the wind was still gusting in odd directions. Such days are often bad ones for badger watching, as your scent carries much further on damp air. I needn’t have worried. Four of the cubs emerged from the western sett entrance at about 7.45pm, and spent the next hour or so contentedly foraging. They were utterly oblivious to me as I sat ten feet above them in my tree. I think that when they’re pre-occupied with food, badgers rarely look up. All their attention is fixed on the ground and what is at the end of their nose.

The cubs are acting all grown up now, with much less of the boisterous play fighting of previous months. At one point though they all ran off and started an all in wrestling match near the entrance of the sett. Even this seems a bit more serious, with a fair amount of biting at the neck and hindquarters. I suppose they are more actively establishing a hierarchy in the group.

I think that all six cubs were there in the end. This sounds terribly vague, but the truth is that it is very difficult to keep track of individual badgers when they are either rolling around in one big heap, or spread out and foraging over half an acre of woodland. I often found myself with badgers on all sides, and disappearing and reappearing from the undergrowth.

One highlight of the day was that I noticed an unusual facial feature one one of the cubs – a notch or nick in

Nick the badger - note the notch in the black stripe under the ear

Nick the badger - note the notch in the black stripe under the ear

the black stripe, just under the ears. This may not sound very unusual, but none of the other cubs had a similar mark, so I think I’ve found a way to identify one of the cubs as an individual. In an act of no imagination at all I christened him ‘Nick’ (although it could equally well be a Nicola). Here is a picture showing the facial markings. This badger is one of the three in the picture at the top of this post, and you can see how the nick in the stripe stands out from the others.

Having done this, I was able to go back through previous pictures and see if I could track the same individual. Here is a picture of Nick from the 16th June. Once again, I’ll keep an eye out for him (or her) in the future.

Interestingly, all the cubs came out from the western entrance again, and the sole adult to come out while I was there emerged from the centre hole. Is there a significance to this?

Nick from an earlier picture taken on June 16th

Nick from an earlier picture taken on June 16th

At 9.00pm the sky grew black, and the dusk got suddenly darker. A moment later the heavens opened in a terrific downpour. I was sitting in a chestnut tree, which I’ve always found to be a pretty good tree to be under when it rains. Not as good as a nice thick holly or a yew, but pretty good nonetheless.

The rain lashed down. I could see it bouncing off the bare earth of the sett entrance. Although I was relatively dry in my tree, the badgers were evidently none too impressed. Within a minute they’d all trotted back into the sett. I speculated that they don’t like rain because the sound drowns out the sounds of potential predators, but the truth is that they probably don’t like getting wet.

Taking their lead I sneaked off home, with all the delights of walking through a soaking wet wheat field in the rain. I really must get some waterproof trousers one of these days…

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Mutual grooming at the sett entrance

Mutual grooming at the sett entrance

As I walked up the field to the wood it was apparent that the badgers have been feeding more on the wheat in the field. From the look of it, they trample down the stalks and then strip the grain from the heads. There were small patches of bent stalks and eaten heads of wheat all up the path, with a few heads evidently carried off into the next field as a snack. There was even more grain in the dung in this field, suggesting that it forms a substantial part of the diet for at least some of the badgers. Perhaps one night when there’s a full moon I should come down here and see if I can spot them at it.

In case you feel bad about the spoiled grain, I’d point out that it represents a tiny, tiny fraction of one percent of the wheat in the field. There’s no chance that these badgers will be the ruin of any farmers.

More badger dung with cereal

More badger dung with cereal

It turns out that the badgers were in an odd mood this evening. To explain what went on I need to paint you a picture of this particular sett. The sett is evidently quite an old one. The main part of the sett is a mass of mounds and craters, resembling an overgrown first world war battlefield, that has evidently been produced by the spoil heaps and collapsed tunnels of many generations of badgers.

This part of the sett is on the east of the site, and although it has been the main scene of activity in previous years, it appears not to be used at the moment. The badgers this year having been using another cluster of three entrances about 60-70 yards to the west, and also a single entrance in between the two sites. For simplicity, I’ll refer to the east, west and central holes in my diary. There may be an underground link between the west and central holes, but it is difficult to say for sure. It seems that all the badgers use both the west and central holes at times, with the west being the most popular at the moment.

After my experience with the little cub last week I arrived early, and was sitting comfortably in a tree well before 7.00pm. Usually the cubs have been the first to emerge, but this time it was an adult from the central hole. This badger seemed to have a light patch of fur on its hindquarters, but whether this is a permanent feature I don’t know. It trotted off to the east, where in addition to the unused sett there is the main latrine site for the group, and then returned a few minutes later and disappeared underground again. Perhaps it was just an urgent call of nature.

For the next hour and a half nothing happened. I watched the local rabbits and a squirrel, and the buzzard came swooping through the wood, but there were no badgers.

One of the cubs emerged from the west entrance at about 8.45, followed shortly after by another. They seemed to be sticking close to the sett entrance. A few minutes after this, three adults came out of the central hole, and sat around for a few minutes having a bit of a mutual grooming session.

All the badgers seemed a bit on edge. I wonder if they’d caught a sniff of my scent. The wind was quite strong, but it was gusting from all directions, now one way, now the other, so it was possible that my scent was being carried around. Not enough to make them bolt, but enough to make them wary.

The light was fading too, so I decided to call it a night. As usual, I’ve come away with more questions than answers. Why were the badgers all out late tonight? Where has the little cub gone? Is there a reason why the adults were coming out of one hole and the cubs another? I guess I’m going to have to put some more watching time in to try and answer these.

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The tiny badger cub foragingOn the face of it, it wasn’t the best of days. The wind was gusty and the dark clouds threatened rain, as if a summer storm was brewing. But it had been a couple of weeks since I’ve been down to the wood, so I went anyway. A short (but very enjoyable) walking holiday and the inevitable long hours at work have conspired to keep me away until this evening.

One of the fields I walk through on my way to the wood has wheat in it this year, and there are signs that the badgers are already starting to feed on the ripening grain. Feeding on cereals is often seen as something that badgers do in drought conditions when worms are hard to come by. This year hasn’t been especially dry, so I imagine the worms must still be fairly plentiful, yet they seem to be eating the corn anyway. Perhaps it is just an easy source of food. Perhaps they just like it.Badger dung showing cereal diet

The best indicator of cereal eating in badgers is to examine their dung. I’ve never stooped so low as to start poking around in it, but you can tell a lot about what the badger has been eating just by looking at it. I took this picture this evening. The dung is green and full of cereal grains, in clear contrast to the brown, earthy dung you typically get with an earthworm diet.

The wind was blowing from an odd direction, so I had to approach the sett from a different way to usual. I’ve mentioned before that you should always approach a sett quietly and from downwind. This proved to be very true today, since one of the badgers was out and about early. I arrived at about 7.00pm, and since the badgers have usually been emerging about 8.00pm or so, this one was very early.

With my best attempt at cat-like stealth I crept up behind a tree about 20 yards from the sett. I was downwind, so I was pretty safe from discovery, and if I didn’t make any noise the badger was unlikely to notice me.

It was a badger cub, and from the size of it, it was the tiny cub I had noticed last time. It was busy foraging, pushing its nose into the leaf mould and grubbing about; indeed the ground all around was pock-marked with dozens of little snuffle-holes where it had rooted out worms or bugs. I don’t know if it is the runt of the litter. Do badger litters have runts? Is its small size connected to the fact that it was out early, and obviously feeding with some enthusiasm? Perhaps it is a younger cub from another litter and has some catching up to do before the lean months of winter. I have a lot of questions, but no answers yet.

I peered out from behind my tree and took a quick video. It became clear to me now I was here that the wind was entirely wrong for any decent badger watching tonight. There was nowhere downwind that offered me any cover and yet allowed a view of the sett. The only cover available was virtually on top of the sett, or nearly as bad, right next to the main badger paths. If I stayed there until the rest of the family came out I was certain to disturb the badgers in one way or another, so reluctantly I backed away and left the little cub to it.

Click here to visit YouTube and click on ‘watch in high quality’ for a better view.

It was frustrating not to get my fix of badger watching for the night, but that’s how it goes. There was no point in staying and trying to make the most of a bad situation.

As a consolation I sat in the field for a while and watched the local buzzard performing acrobatics, swooping and diving in the strong wind. All buzzards are quite spectacular birds, looking as they do like little eagles, but this individual is quite a show off. I’ve watched it before as it’s flown through the wood itself, swerving and dodging around the tree trunks and crying out its mewing call, and that’s a sight to see.

I watch the buzzard slowly disappear eastwards, and for a change I walk home while it is still light.

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My wife was unexpectedly working late, so I seized the chance for a quick trip to the woods. I’m glad I did,One of the cubs because it turned into one of the best evenings of badger watching I’ve ever had.

My aim was to try and spot the badger with the white patch behind his ear and see if I could recognise him again. In the event I didn’t, but I got to see a whole lot more.

I arrived at the wood quite late, and worried that the badgers would be out already, I stalked the last few hundred yards to the sett so I wouldn’t disturb them if they were. There is an art to walking silently through a wood, and although I’m not perfect at it I’ve definitely improved over the years. In the event it proved unnecessary, but you can never be too careful. I’ve made that mistake in the past – strolling along to the sett confident that badgers would still be underground, only to come face to face with an early riser.

Two of the cubs emerged first, just before 8.00pm. They spent the next 40 minutes happily scuffling about, noses firmly to the ground. They don’t seem to be going great distances yet, but they have got the hang of foraging around the vicinity of the sett.

After a while they were joined by the adult I think of as their mother, a long, lean badger. Of course, she’s unlikely to be the mother of all the cubs (and she may not even be female) but she seems to show more interest in them than the other adults. Shortly after, the three of them were joined by another four cubs.

Wait a minute, there are five cubs at the sett. I’ve said so in the past. Well, it seems I was wrong. There are definitely six. One of them seems smaller than the others, so it may be a separate litter and have come out later, but it was foraging along happily so it has obviously been out many times before. I may well have missed it when the whole family has been at the sett entrance. I guess I don’t know everything about these particular badgers – not by a long way!

The \'mother\' with two of the cubsIn a very short space of time I had eight badgers wandering about under my tree. I was not more than 8-10 feet away from them. If I had dropped a peanut from my pocket I could have hit a badger on the nose. Being so close meant that I had a great view of different behaviours. There was the usual musking going on, both from the ‘mother’ to the cubs, and strangely, from one of the cubs onto another adult. I don’t know what that means for the hierarchy.

I saw another social behaviour up close. The ‘mother’ would go up to the cubs, and it looked like she was biting them on the neck. It was actually social grooming of some sort, and the interesting thing is that she went methodically from cub to cub, grooming each of them for about ten seconds and then moving on. I’ll have to check up on what this means.

All the badgers were feeding constantly, grubbing around in the undergrowth. For the first time I saw theCubs Foraging creation of ‘snuffle holes’ close up. Snuffle holes are classic signs of badger activity. They are conical holes in the earth, anything up to six inches deep, caused by the badger rooting out food. The badgers would push their nose into the soft leaf-mould and dig a little with their claws, and within seconds they had dug a perfect little hole.

It seems that most of these holes were dug in search of worms. At one point the ‘mother’ unearthed a huge worm. As she lifted her head, with the worm dangling like a piece of spaghetti, one of the cubs rushed in, took from her and ate it. She didn’t seem too upset. I’ve seen this before, and I’m not sure whether it is the adult feeding the cubs, or perhaps the adult is teaching them how to find food. Perhaps she was just a little slow and the cub stole her titbit.

There were badgers all around me by this point, and the undergrowth was full of scuffling and scratching. There were badgers in front of me, badgers behind me and badgers on each side. One even tried to climb the tree I was in! I was in the centre of a maelstrom of badgers. An owl hooted in the distance. I looked at my watch – 9.20pm. A new thought struck me. How was I going to get down from my tree? My number one rule of badger watching is ‘Do not disturb the badgers’, yet if I tried to get down I would literally be on top of them. It looked like I was stuck there for the duration.

At that moment a couple of adult badgers by the sett entrance started fighting. This was much different to the usual play-fighting of the cubs; a lot of biting around the neck, accompanied by a constant whickering. At least, I thought they were fighting. Neither seemed in a hurry to get away. When social animals fight, the loser normally backs off quickly. No-one is hurt and the hierarchy is maintained. It occurred to me that these badgers were perhaps not fighting, they were maybe getting amorous with each other.

I’ve never seen badger courtship before, but if that’s what it was, it didn’t look very gentle. This is something else I’ll have to check up on, and see if can find out what they were really doing.

After a while the cubs moved off to the east, and the two fighting/courting adults went back in the sett. I don’t know whether it was a case of ‘not in front of the children’ or whether one of them just wanted some peace. It gave me a chance to get down from the tree and stalk carefully off, relieved at getting away without disturbing them. I’d had a great couple of hours of absolutely pure and undisturbed badger antics – the best you could wish for – and the least I could do was to leave them in peace to carry on with it.

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Despite the threatening rain clouds I decided to pay a visit to the wood on Friday evening. It’s a good way to unwind after the working week. Like most people, I spend my time rushing everywhere: rushing to work, rushing to meetings, rushing home. Watching wildlife forces you slow down, to stop and listen and think.

The slight wind was blowing in an unusual direction. Wooded valleys seem to have an uncanny influence on the wind. It is not uncommon to have the wind blowing one way outside the wood, and in another direction entirely when you’re actually inside it. The practical upshot of this was that all of my usual trees would put me upwind of the badgers. This would not do at all, so I circled around the sett and sat on the ground with my back to a large oak.

The first thing I noticed was how many nettles there were. I was sitting on a few, but being a rough, tough badger watcher I couldn’t let myself be too put off by that. The nettles also grew around the sett entrance, putting a bit of a screen between me and the badgers. Not good for a clear view, but good for keeping the badgers relaxed.

The cubs came out at about 8.15pm. They are getting very independent now, and seem perfectly happy foraging around the area of the sett. The adults emerged about 45 minutes later. The whole group seems very relaxed and content at the moment. I suppose that life must be good for a badger just now. The wet weather means that the worms that make up most of their diet are plentiful and easy to catch, and that must take some of the pressure off the food gathering.

One of the advantages of being on the ground was that I was closer to the badgers than usual, which gave a new perspective on things. I sat there for a good hour and a half, my legs slowly going numb underneath me and a small cloud of mosquitoes gathering about my head, but with a great view of the sett.

The downside of being on the ground was that I was more likely to come into contact with the badgers. As I’ve said before, one of my rules for badger watching is to avoid disturbing the animals. Sitting in front of the tree it was surprising how little notice the badgers took of me. I was wearing full camouflage gear including gloves and face net, so I should have been quite inconspicuous. However, eventually the inevitable happened. One of the foraging badgers circled round and approached me from the side. From this position my silhouette must have been visible, because it stopped, stared and then trundled quickly back to the sett.

Not wishing to put the badgers off their foraging, I slowly straightened my cramped legs and crept away as quietly as I could. After 30 yards I turned round and I could see the cubs ambling about, so they seemed happy enough.

All in all an interesting evening. I think I still prefer my trees. They offer so much more concealment.. There’s been many times when I’ve had badgers scuffling around the roots of the tree I’ve been sitting in, and they’ve never suspected.

One good thing from the night is that I think I’ve finally got an individual badger I can recognise. The coats of most badgers are greyish-black, with a reddish-brown tint beneath, but the fur of this one was quite white underneath the grey. He also had a patch of white fur visible below his left ear. I say he, because he looked well-built like a boar, but I could be mistaken. I’m no expert on sexing badgers, except when I see them with cubs or exposing their undercarriage as they scratch. I shall look out for this particular badger on subsequent visits.

My efforts to build up a video archive of the badgers continue. I’ve discovered how to set my camera to take high quality video, but it only does it for 15 seconds at a time. I’ve spliced all the footage for the evening into one montage. I’ll have to read the camera manual, but I guess in the meantime I’ve got a video that is ideal for people like me with 15 second attention spans!

For a better look at the video, click here to go to YouTube and select ‘Watch in high quality’.

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The question has to be asked. Why do people watch badgers? Why do I watch badgers?

Watching badgers might be seen by some people as an odd, even eccentric, pastime. It probably is. But then other people spend their evenings and weekends watching football, and that has always seemed strange to me.

But why watch badgers? I’ve asked myself this question many times, and there is no simple answer. It is easy to say that watching badgers is mildly addictive, but there must be some reward in it for me because I keep doing it. This series of posts is an attempt to explore my reasons for going out to the woods time and again.

First of all, I’d love to be able to say that I’m going to make some startling scientific discoveries about badgers, but this probably isn’t true. As a species they have been studied by far more capable and experienced people than me, so it is unlikely that I will add any wholly new chapters to the book of badgers. I flatter myself that I may gain a few small insights into their behaviour and habits, but I don’t think I’ll be adding much to the sum total of badger knowledge.

So, to be honest, my interest is driven mostly by personal curiosity. I imagine that an interest and curiosity about nature in general is probably necessary if you are going to get excited about watching badgers.

In Britain we are lucky enough to have a whole spectrum of wildlife, from the tiniest invertebrates to the largest whales, but the badger occupies a special place for me. Badgers are secretive and relatively rare animals – most people never see them except for a quick glimpse as they run across the road – yet at the same time they live almost in our midst. The badgers I watch regularly are little more than a mile from my house, and many people are lucky enough to have badgers visit their garden. I take a strange delight in the idea that these animals are living almost unknown and unsuspected alongside us. The badger is living proof that no matter how much we have tried, we have not yet fully tamed our countryside.

This feeling is even stronger when you meet a badger face to face. To put it bluntly, they are physically impressive animals. Although not huge, they are Britain’s largest native carnivore. Their black and white face is instantly recognisable. They have presence.

Over the centuries, we have gradually exterminated most of the large animals in Britain (with the exception of deer, which, being tasty to eat, have been jealously protected). If I could travel back in time two thousand years or so, then I would find my badgers sharing their wood with wild boar, wolves, beavers and even bears. And who now remembers the Irish Elk? We’ve wiped out these animals so thoroughly that few people think of them as British species. They were here and they are gone but the badger remains. The last of the truly wild big mammals, badgers have stubbornly stayed put despite everything we have done to them. In some ways, the badger is a creature of the past. How can such a big, bold animal still be living wild in Britain’s ordered and controlled countryside? Yet here they are.

Good for the badgers, I say.  I think that this is one of the reasons why I like to watch them.

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