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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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Chinese Water Deer

Chinese Water Deer

I’ve bought a new car.  All that remains is to siphon out the diesel from the old one, Mad Max-style, and it can go to the big scrapheap in the sky.

I made a quick trip to the wood on Sunday.  I decided to visit the main sett and see if there was any sign of more badgers.  I’m becoming certain that there are a lot fewer badgers in residence this year and not having been here for a while I wanted to make sure they were OK.  The dry spell has ended – it seems like we’ve had torrential rain and thunderstorms every other day this week – so at least the foraging should be easier for them.

I arrived at the sett just before 8.00pm, only to find my path blocked by a Chinese Water Deer browsing through the undergrowth.  I like watching deer and they’re great fun to try to stalk in a wood.  This one presented a challenge though.  It was very close to the sett, so if I frightened it, it would probably frighten any badgers that were above ground.  This is how it works with wild creatures: any disturbance to one tends to create a reaction in others, which is why it is so important to move stealthily even when you’re some distance from the animals you want to watch.

Predictably, despite my cautious approach the deer eventually caught sight of me and bounded off.  Interestingly, it had a big split in one of its ears, which should make it possible to identify in the future.  I can only assume that this was caused by a fight with another Chinese Water Deer.  The males have long teeth.  I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet they fight each other over territory or females, despite their cute appearance.

I don’t know if the deer frightened off any badgers, but there weren’t any in sight.  I sat in my tree and watched for half an hour as the light gradually faded.  At 8.37 a badger emerged from the western end of the sett, showing that they’re back in residence at this end.  It wandered to and fro, foraging in the damp wood.  For a while it sat under my tree, directly underneath me (too dark for pictures, unfortunately).  It seemed healthy and happy, not bothered by any traces of my scent in the area.

After a while it ambled off into the gloom of the wood.  I gave it five minutes head start and left for home.  It was good to see the badger, but it was only one badger on its own.  There’s nothing so far to suggest that my idea that the badgers are much reduced is incorrect.

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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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I must confess that I’ve been taking advantage of the long, warm evenings to sneak out after work for a quick walk around the field behind my house.  I’ve been hoping to find stoat tracks or, even better, catch a glimpse of the stoat itself.

Unfortunately I’ve had no luck with the stoat, nor with the tracking.  The ground is baked too hard for me to make out any clear tracks.  I’m pretty hefty, and even I barely leave a mark on the rock-like clay.  I can find patches where the dust has been disturbed but I have no idea what has passed by.  Something as small as a stoat would leave very little trace.

But one of things about a field like this is that there’s always something to be seen if you look.  I mentioned that the field is on the regular beat of a badger.  I haven’t seen its tracks lately, but I did find one of its feeding signs – a dug-out wasps’ nest.  Badgers are (as far as I know) the only animals that will do this.  They aren’t after the adult wasps, but the juicy, protein-rich larvae.  Dry spells, like the one we’re in now, aren’t good for badgers.  It’s harder for them to find and dig up worms so they need to look for alternative sources of food.  Wasps’ nests are ideal.

Wasps nest dug out by a badger 1This one must have been dug out last night.  I walked past here yesterday evening and there was nothing to see.  There were still some wasps in the nest, but it had been quite comprehensively dug out.

Wasps nest dug out by a badger 2I didn’t get too close.  I have no desire to be stung by a wasp.  I suffer from an allergy to wasp stings that makes me swell up like a balloon, which accounts for why I hate the little horrors.  Badgers obviously have no such problems.  Some people have speculated that their thick fur protects them from stings to some extent.  As far as I’m concerned, they can eat all the wasps they want…

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“I think you’d better wear your waterproof jacket” said my wife as I headed out of the door this evening.  It was good advice.  It had been a beautiful, warm day but there were ominous banks of black clouds piling up in the west.  I hurried up to the wood as it grew darker and darker.  The weather forecast was for thunderstorms, and so far it seemed to be accurate.

There’s an old country rhyme about which trees are safe to shelter under during a thunderstorm:

Beware the Oak, it draws the stroke
Beware the Ash, it draws the flash
But under the thorn, you’ll come to no harm

I thought about the rhyme as I walked through a mixed wood of mature oak and ash trees on the top of the tallest hill in the area.  I hoped it wasn’t true.

I settled down at the east end of the sett from a spot where the outer holes are visible across a small ravine.  The spot isn’t perfect – it’s not possible to see the holes in the undergrowth at the top of the small rise on which the sett lies, and it’s quite far away so you really need binoculars – but it’s the best place to get a view of this end of the sett.

I sat in the gathering gloom, with only the mosquitoes for company.  Mosquitoes don’t bother you when you’re in a tree, only when you’re on the ground.  I don’t think mosquitoes fly upwards very well.  My normal summer badger watching clothes include a thick moleskin shirt, thick cotton trousers and head net.  They can get a little warm, but they’re mozzie proof.  The trouble is, the little horrors go for exposed areas such as ankles and hands.  They even bite through socks and the thin camouflage gloves I usually wear.  I regularly wear wellies and thick fleece gloves in summer, not to keep warm but to protect myself from the mosquitoes.*

In a spirit of scientific recording (and having nothing else to do at the time) I photographed a mosquito biting me through my camouflage gloves.

Mosquito bitingAnd then I squished it.

At 8.16 a badger appeared from one of the visible holes.  It trotted quickly to the large latrine site and then hurried back underground.  By this time it was too dark for photographs.  At 8.30 another badger came out of another hole and did the same thing.  Ten minutes or so later, both badgers (or different ones) came out together.  There was still no real social behaviour: the badgers seemed distracted or on edge somehow.

At that moment the heavens opened with a downpour of epic monsoon proportions.  Both badgers disappeared underground, sensible beasts that they are.  I had no desire to stay in this sort of rain, so I left too.  At least there was no need for stealth – the noise of the rain drowned out any sounds I made.  I was feeling a little smug to be wearing my jacket but I still got soaked.  The footpath goes through a field of oilseed rape, which is chest-high and flopping over the path.  You don’t so much walk along the path as swim through the rape.  After the downpour it was like walking through a huge, green, soaking scrubbing-brush.  Soaked to the skin from the waist down I plodded home as the thunder rumbled overhead.  Never mind – I’m a rough, tough badger watcher and I can cope with getting a little wet.  Besides, it’s probably time my badger watching clothes got a good wash…

*In British colonial times, officials in India and Africa were issued with canvas ‘mosquito boots’ for just this purpose.  Perhaps I’ll see if they’re still made anywhere.

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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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