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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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BadgerWatching badgers, in theory, should be quite simple.  All you need to do is to find an active sett and be there (suitably downwind and out of sight) when the badgers come out in the evening.  I’ve covered the first part – finding an active sett – in an earlier post (see How to Recognise a Badger Sett).  Now I’ll say a little about the second part – when the badgers come out of their sett.

Badgers are nocturnal: they sleep during the day and are active at night.  They emerge from their sett in the evening to play, socialise and forage.  Unfortunately for the badger watcher they don’t come out at exactly the same time every evening.  They vary  the time of emergence from day-to-day and month to month.

Generally speaking, the time that badgers come out is governed by the time of sunset, earlier in winter and later in summer.  It is a little more complicated than this though, as they will often emerge while it is still light.  Badgers need enough time to find food, so during the summer when nights are short they will come out before the sun has set to give them sufficient foraging time.  In winter, when the nights are longer and the badgers are less active, they will emerge well after dark.

There are other factors that affect the time of emergence though.  Neal and Cheeseman, in the classic book Badgers, list a number of these. For example, badgers will come out later when there is more light.  Those in a sett that catches the light of the setting sun may well emerge later than those in a sett that is in shadow.  Nights when there is a bright moon may also mean the badgers come out later.

Weather plays a role too.  Badgers may come out later in strong wind or heavy rain, probably because they cannot detect danger as well in these conditions and they feel less secure.  Linked to weather is the availability of food: damp nights are better for catching worms so the badgers may come out earlier to feed.  On the other hand, a prolonged dry spell may also see them coming out earlier as they are under pressure to find food and need to spend longer foraging.  The same may be true of sows with cubs, who according to Neal and Cheeseman are often the first to leave the sett in the evening, presumably to get as much food as possible.  Lastly, human disturbance may keep the badgers underground for longer.  Setts that are subject to regular human activity tend to emerge later.

All of this means that whilst it is possible to estimate the general time that the badgers will emerge, predicting the precise time is much more difficult.

Here’s where this blog comes in.  The  main reason for writing this blog is to provide a journal for my experiences, to record details that hopefully will prove useful at some point in the future.  Since the beginning, one of the things I have been careful to record is the time that the badgers emerge from the sett.  My hope was that by keeping track of these I’d be able to find a pattern and be able to predict their movements much more accurately.  I’ve now had a chance to look back through the archives from the last two years and plot a graph of badger emergence times at different times of year.

Each point on the graph represents a time when the first badger emerged from the sett.  To show how this varies across the year I have split the graph into half-months.  I obviously don’t do enough badger watching before April and after August!

Time when badgers come out of the sett

The first thing to notice is that there is a wide range of times in each month, so there is a lot of variation in times of emergence.  In June, for instance, the badgers have come out as early as 7.00pm and as late as nearly 9.00pm.  The 7.00pm event may have been an anomaly – it was an undersized cub that acted strangely – but there’s still a big variation.

The data set for the graph is statistically too small to support firm conclusions, but it still helps to build a picture of emergence.  For instance, it does seem that the badgers come out slightly later in May and June than they do in August.  The graph also shows that in almost all cases the badgers emerged after 7.30pm and usually around 8.00pm, so it does at least allow me to judge the time I need to arrive at the sett.

Neal and Cheeseman have a much better graph in their book, based on hundreds of observations.  Anyone interested in the subject would be well advised to have a look at it.  Nevertheless, I’m quite proud of this little graph of mine.  It’s based on my own fieldwork and the records I’ve kept of my own experiences.  If you are thinking of going to watch badgers I hope it is of some use to you in planning your visits.

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Where have all the badgers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the badgers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the badgers gone?
Hiding from me, every one
When will I ever learn?
When will I ever learn?

(Apologies to Pete Seeger)

x

I promised myself that I wouldn’t go badger watching this evening.  I really did.  And yet somehow 7.45pm saw me sitting in my favourite tree looking out over the sett.  My recent visits had only whetted my appetite to find out what the badgers were doing and to check that they were OK.  Be warned – badger watching is addictive – don’t start!

The wind was in just the right direction, although a little strong, and I had high hopes that I’d see more of the badgers.  I was at the west end of the sett, facing a cluster of obviously active holes.  But the evening wore on, as they say, and no badgers appeared.  Finally, at 9.00pm exactly, I heard badgers whickering from within the undergrowth in the middle of the sett.  Even at this time of year, this tangle of nettles and elder forms an almost impenetrable screen and the holes inside it can’t be seen from any angle.  I caught a glimpse through the leaves of a couple of badgers that might, from their boisterous behaviour, have been cubs, but I wouldn’t like to bet on it.  If the badgers have taken up residence in this middle part of the sett it might explain why I haven’t seen much of them on the last two nights.

This movement of badgers within the sett is one of the big questions I have about badger behaviour, but after four years of watching and studying them I’m still no nearer to an answer.  The main sett I watch is a big one, with maybe a dozen or so active holes at any one time.  But the badgers move between these holes, not just from year to year but from week to week.  I’m sure that I could class the west end of the sett as an outlying sett to the larger east end, but it seems to have its own residents most of the time, just as the east end has too.  But are there really resident badgers in each end, or do they move randomly between them?  And sometimes, like now, the badgers will move to one end or the other.  What is it that determines which holes an individual badger uses, and why don’t they all live together all of the time?  I can understand pregnant sows moving away from the rest to have the space and security of their own burrow, but why is there this distribution across holes for the rest of them?  I suspect it has something to do with clan relationships and hierarchy, but I honestly don’t know.  Perhaps someone has done a study on it.  If I could reliably identify individual badgers I could start to understand it more, but I’m still rubbish at recognising them.

Anyway, there I was, sitting in my tree and getting colder as the light faded.  I didn’t fancy staying up there until it got dark with only a limited chance of seeing the badgers.  Sod it.  If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, the badger watcher will have to go to the badgers.

I climbed down and crept as quietly as I could in a big circle around to a point where I could see the holes at the east end of the sett.  There were still not badgers in sight, but the odd yip told me they were still in the middle of the undergrowth somewhere.  The clouds were gathering and darkness was drawing in.  Defeated, I turned for home.

I am definitely not going badger watching tomorrow.  I’m going to do what normal people do for a change.  I’m going to stay at home, get a Chinese takeaway and sit and watch TV with my wife.

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I made a quick visit to the wood this evening, after work.  A pleasant, dry evening, with a cuckoo calling from the fields and a light breeze stirring the leaves.

On a hunch I sat out at the east end of the sett.  This is the less visible side of the sett, which is on a low rise in the ground so it is impossible to see right across it from this end, while the jungle of nettles and elder bushes obscures the centre of the sett.  The badgers could hardly have chosen a more private spot if they tried.  Nevertheless, there are a couple of active holes that are visible on the edge of the hill, plus a well-used ‘play area’, where the badgers have worn the ground smooth and bare of leaf litter.  I particular, they seem to like to run round and round one of the trees, judging from the polished soil.

At 8.35 an adult badger emerged from one of the holes and trotted off into the nettles in the centre of the sett.  It didn’t reappear, nor did any others.  After half an hour I called it a day and crept slowly off.  I didn’t see any cubs but at least I saw a badger – it’s been a while.  As a consolation I sat at the bottom of the pasture field and watched a fox wandering backwards and forwards hunting insects.  It was a particularly mangy individual, which is unusual around here.  I wonder if it is one of the cubs I watched last year?

Altogether a slightly frustrating evening, but enjoyable nonetheless.  There is something strangely pleasant about sitting quietly in a wood or in a field, even if you don’t see much.  I’ll go back to my usual spot at the west end of the sett as soon as I can and see if I can get a better view of things.

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After pondering the infra-red question for a week, I decided to try and get some answers in the field.  I decided to pay another visit to the sett, to observe the badgers as best as I could without using the infra-red and then, once I was sure that the badgers were comfortable and that there was nothing I was doing that was disturbing them, I would turn on the IR and observe any reactions.

It was a great plan.  The problem is, to paraphrase Helmuth von Moltke, no plan survives contact with badgers.  I made my way through the wood as stealthily as possible and arrived at the sett by 8.00pm.  Unlike last week, when the weather was very clear, the night was quite cloudy.  This meant that there was more of a glow in the sky – the horrid orange reflections of the streetlights in distant towns.  This glow was enough to make it possible to use the night vision scope in passive mode, without the infra-red illuminator.  There was just enough light for it to work properly – I could see trees, undergrowth and the spoil heaps of the sett.

Unfortunately I couldn’t see any badgers.  I waited for 40 minutes but saw and heard nothing.  If the badgers had come out I would have seen them.  Maybe they were frightened by my approach, but I don’t think so.  Maybe they had left already and were out foraging.  Maybe they didn’t emerge until after I had left.

It was a pleasant enough evening, listening to the lambs in the field and the tawny owls in the wood behind me, but I didn’t get to test my theory.  I’ll try again next week and see what happens.

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For anyone who has any questions about wildlife in Britain there is a fabulous resource that’s free and available to anyone.  This is the Wild About Britain website, and in particular the forums there.  You can ask any question and get an answer from a huge range of experts and enthusiasts.

I asked the question about badgers being able to see the infra-red light from my night vision scope, and one response seemed to match my experiences exactly.  This is from a WAB member called stripee:

Yes they can see it and always react. Some more nervously than others. I have a night vision scope with infra red. The badgers, foxes etc don’t like it shone in their eyes. I try to shine it for short periods and not directly at them.

If you look at your scope when the red light is on from the front it can be seen for a long distance at a certain angle. I had heard that badgers don’t see red light, but it just isn’t true.

This is good.  This backs up what I have observed.  It isn’t scientific proof yet, but it adds to the anecdotal evidence.

I’ll keep searching and see what else I can find out.  In the meantime I’ll also try some informal experiments  and see if I can get some more evidence.   There are more formal experiments that could be done to prove the matter one way or another (I’m thinking of a version of the Skinner Box with an infra-red stimulus) but I’d need a fairly captive population of badgers to try it on.  If any biology students are looking for an idea for a project, let me know…

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This is an open question to any and all badger experts out there.  Can badgers see infra-red?

I’ve used my night vision scope twice now (see Fieldnotes: 25th July 2009 – First night vision session and Fieldnotes: 6th March 2010 – A frosty night at the badger sett).  On both occasions the badgers have been visibly spooked, presumably by the infra-red light.  Of course, this is purely anecdotal evidence – I haven’t done any sort of scientific study – but I’ve spent enough hours watching badgers to know when one is disturbed by something, and all the ones I’ve seen through the night vision scope have indeed been disturbed.

Of course, it might not necessarily be the infra-red.  The night vision scope (it’s a Bresser, by the way) may be doing something else to frighten the badgers.  It may make a noise that is inaudible to us but audible to badgers, for instance.  I don’t know.

So, has anyone had experience of using a night vision scope to watch badgers, particularly with an infra-red torch?  Did you notice any signs that the badgers were aware of it?  Does anyone know of any research or literature on the subject?  Does anyone know if any other animals can see in the infra-red end of the spectrum?

If you have any ideas or experiences, please do let me know.  I’ll keep searching myself and let you know if I find anything.

Thanks

BWM

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