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When Labour MP Ron Davies was asked to explain what he was doing visiting the countryside at night in a well-known gay meeting area, he famously replied that he was ‘watching badgers’.  I mused on this as I walked through our village last night.  If for some reason I had been stopped and asked to explain what I was doing, how would I explain why I was carrying a red light and a night vision scope while wearing (among other things) a camouflage jacket and a pair of ladies’ tights?  I expect I would have weakly stammered out the same reason that Ron did.  I can’t vouch for him, but in my case it happened to be true.

It has been a while since I have seen a badger.  Partly this is due to family commitments, partly because I’ve confined my badger watching to the summer months when it is possible to observe them in daylight in the long evenings.  I’ve always tried to keep the main badger sett I watch as wild and undisturbed as possible, and for this reason I’ve never used artificial lights there.  However, I bought myself a night vision scope last year, so it should be possible to watch the badgers in complete darkness.  Everything came together at the same time – I now have time to go out in the evenings, I have the means to watch the badgers in the dark, and I had an itch to see a real, live badger again.  I know from visiting the sett in the daytime that the badgers have been busy – it was time to get out and see what they were actually doing at this time of year.

This explains why I was out after dark and why I was carrying the night vision scope.  The reason I was wearing ladies’ tights was purely and simply to keep warm.  Last night was beautifully clear – the stars of Orion were shining brightly over the wood as I walked up the hill – but it was very cold and frosty with a bitter wind that seemed to be blowing straight from the arctic circle.  If you’ve ever sat still in very cold weather then you’ll know how the cold can seep into your bones after a while.  And if you’re up a tree watching badgers then you can’t even move around to keep warm.  Hence I was wearing as much warm clothing as I could.  I got the tights for an impromptu fancy dress outfit a while ago (Superman – they’re thick, blue tights) and I was struck by how warm they were.  Despite the possible cross-dressing implications I wore them under my normal trousers, and very effective they were too – warm yet lightweight.  This may become a habit…

Arriving at the wood I picked my slowly through the trees.  I use a small red LED headtorch, which is just bright enough to see by but is less intrusive than a white light.  Badger folklore says that badgers cannot see red light very well and are not as disturbed by it.  It also adds a wonderfully other-worldly feeling when walking through a dark wood.

I arrived at the sett at 8.00pm, none too stealthily, I’m afraid.  Walking through a winter’s worth of dead leaves and fallen twigs by the light of dim torch without making a noise is pretty much impossible.  As I neared the sett I could see the red eyeshine of an animal at the edge of the torchlight – a badger!  With no real stealth at all I climbed up my favourite tree to get a good view over the sett.  I set up the night vision scope and turned off the red torch.

Now, the last time I used the night vision scope it seemed to cause a reaction in the badgers (see Fieldnotes: 25th July 2009 – First night vision session).  Although the infra-red light from the scope is supposedly invisible, the badgers seemed to be spooked by it.  Last night, the exact same thing happened.  When I looked at the badger through the scope it froze, looked straight at me and bobbed its head up and down.  This is the classic sign of a nervous badger trying to scent something that it is suspicious of.  After a few seconds it turned around and fled underground.

I am now convinced that badgers can see the infra-red light from my NV scope.  Think about it – the badger was not put off by my noisy approach, it was not put off by the red light of my headtorch, nor by the noise of my climbing the tree.  It was only when I was sitting quiet and still with my torch turned off that it bolted; and this at the exact moment I shone the infra-led light on it.  I’ve spent a lot of hours watching badgers, and the way that this one looked straight at me tells me that it was aware of me, and this could only be due to the infra-red.

I sat for 40 cold minutes to see if the badger reappeared but it didn’t.  I could hear the rhythmic scuffling noises of a badger gathering bedding from the other end of the sett, but I didn’t see anything else.  It was a little frustrating:  there I was, all dressed up, and I seemed to have scared off the only badger in sight.  I can confirm that the badgers were out at 8.00pm and that there was bedding being gathered (the east end of the sett seems to be active, based on what I heard and from inspecting the sett in the daylight) but I can’t add much more than this.

The business with the night vision scope was frustrating too.  I am sure that the badgers react to the infra-red light, and this makes it much less useful.  In fact, they seem more disturbed by the night vision scope than by an ordinary red light.  I can use the scope in ‘passive mode’ so that it gathers ambient light rather than illuminating the scene with infra-red, but it isn’t very effective in the darkness of a dark wood.

There is definitely an opportunity for more winter badger watching, but I need to sort out the night vision first…

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Badger Cubs What does a badger sett look like?  Every now and then someone asks me this question, so it’s about time that I tried to answer it properly.  This is my guide to badger setts and what to look for.  I have hesitated a little before writing this.  After all, badgers are still persecuted in some parts of the country, and I don’t want to make it any easier for someone with bad intentions to find badger setts.  On the other hand, the more people that know about the badgers in their area the better.  If people are aware of their local setts then they can keep an eye on them, and besides, badgers have been a source of pleasure for me and I’d like to share the experience with other people if I can.

I’ve illustrated this post with pictures taken on a walk this afternoon.  This is a good time of year to go out and look for badger setts.  The badgers are active and the vegetation has not yet grown up.  Believe me, trying to find badger setts in head-high nettles is a daunting prospect.

The first step to identifying a badger sett is to find a likely area where they might be living.  Badgers are surprisingly widespread and they have a fantastic ability to live under people’s noses and yet remain out of sight, so don’t rule out any patch of countryside.  They do have certain preferences though, and to narrow down the search you have to understand a little about their habits and lifestyle.  It helps to be able to think like a badger!

People think of badgers as woodland creatures, and it’s true, they mostly do live in woods and that is where to look for them.  But they don’t spend all their time there.  In the UK, the main food of the badger is the earthworm, and the best place to catch earthworms is on short grass – ideally grass that has been grazed by livestock.  So the best place to find badgers is in woodland that borders on grassy fields.  They live in the wood and that gives them shelter and security; and they can feed in the fields.

But not all woodlands are good for badgers.  Badgers live underground, so they need somewhere suitable for digging.  Damp, marshy ground is definitely out and anywhere that is liable to flood (such as river valleys) is usually avoided.  In my part of Bedfordshire the badgers prefer the nice, dry sandy soil, but they also seem quite happy in clay.  Badgers definitely seem to prefer a sloping site rather than a very flat one.  This might be the slope of a hill, the side of a disused quarry or even a large hedgerow bank.  They like anywhere where they can tunnel in sideways rather than straight down.  I suppose that it is easier to dig, easier to shift the soil, better drained and presumably easier for them to walk out of a horizontal hole rather than climb out of a vertical one.

So we are looking for a piece of woodland with sloping ground with grassy fields nearby.  Should we now go into the wood and start looking for holes?  Well no. Not yet.

Badgers will cover a territory with a radius of 300-500m from their sett.  This means that there will often be many signs of badgers in the general area of the sett.  Finding these can give you confidence that there are badgers in the vicinity and help to narrow down your search.  Fortunately badgers are creatures of habit and leave some regular indications of their presence.

If you’re walking through pasture fields, keep a lookout for badger paths, snuffle holes and dung pits.  Badgers travel on paths whenever possible (see Why do badgers use paths?) and over time these paths can be quite pronounced.  If I recall, Pablo even managed to identify badger paths from satellite photographs on Google maps.  I’ve tried this myself, and it really is possible.

Here is a series of paths over the pasture field.  The trouble with paths is that you never really know who makes them, whether it is badgers or another animal (humans being another obvious cause).  In this case I have tracked badgers across this field when there has been snow on the ground and they consistently follow these paths.

Badger Path on PastureHere’s another example.  In this case the path crosses the field and then goes under a fence.  This means that it cannot have been made by humans, livestock or deer.  Other animals such as rabbits will make regular runs, but if you see a deep path like this, start suspecting badgers.

Badger Path through FenceIncidentally, if you ever come across a path under a fence, check the bottom strand of wire to see if any hairs have been caught.  This can give you a positive i.d. of the animal that made the path.  Badger hairs are grey or black and have a squarish cross section.  When you roll a badger hair between your fingers it feels irregular rather than round.

Snuffle holes are the holes made by badgers digging for food.  They are a good sign of badger activity, but other animals can leave similar holes and cause confusion.  Rabbits will often dig shallow scrapes, but rabbit scrapes are usually oval whilst badger snuffle holes are more conical.

Badger Snuffle HolesDung pits are a particular feature of badger territories.  Badgers do not deposit their dung just anywhere, they use special pits.  Badgers use dung as a territory marker, so you will often find dung pits on badger paths around the edge of their territory.  Dung pits look very much like snuffle holes, but with dung in them.

Badger Dung PitBadger dung is usually a dark greyish-green, which shows that they have been feeding on earthworms.  Badgers will cheerfully eat many other things too, so it is always interesting to inspect the dung pits and see what they have been feeding on.  Here’s the dung of badger that seems to have been gorging on cherries (I have no idea where it got them in February!)

Badger Dung Pit with CherriesWhere the territories of two badger clans meet the dung pits can be quite extensive as each side marks its territory.  Here’s a large latrine with many pits that badgers have somewhat inconsiderately dug into a main footpath in the wood.

Badger Latrine SiteSigns like these tell you that there are badgers in the area and that they are active.  Now you can start to look through the wood and try to find their sett.  Rather than looking at random, there are a couple of things that will help you.  Remember that badgers prefer a slope, so concentrate on areas of sloping ground, particularly on the outskirts of the wood.  The other thing you can do is look for paths and follow them.  Sooner or later a path will lead you to a sett.  It can be great fun to try to follow paths, as they usually twist and turn through the wood, sometimes clear and obvious, other times fading out altogether.  A frustrating but fun way to spend an afternoon.

Here’s a particularly clear badger path.  Note how generations of badgers have worn a deep path into the soil.

Badger Path in Wood

One way to tell that you are following a badger path is to look for tracks – often a difficult challenge in a wood.  Alternatively, here’s something you might see.  The path goes over a fallen tree and badgers have left clear claw marks as they climbed over.

Badger Claw Marks on a Fallen Tree

So what does an actual badger sett look like?  The obvious thing to look for is holes in the ground.  Depending on the size of the sett there may be anything between a single hole and twenty holes spread over a hundred yards or so.  Many animals live in holes, but there are some features of badger setts to look out for.

Badger setts are very extensive underground.  Some have up to 300m of tunnels – far more than rabbits or foxes.  The badgers have to shift a lot of soil, and this means that badger setts usually have substantial spoil heaps outside.  Over time these spoil heaps can literally change the shape of the landscape, creating large shelves or platforms outside the holes.  The main sett that I watch is obviously an old one, as the whole area is pock-marked by holes and hummocks so that it resembles a First World War battlefield.  Active setts are easy to spot because there will usually be fresh spoil outside.  Badgers are compulsive diggers, and although much digging is done in spring before the cubs arrive, they will tend to dig all year round.  Here is an entrance to a sett.  Notice the large spoil heap and the obvious path coming in from the right.

Badger Sett with Spoil Heap and PathThe spoil heaps will often contain dried grass or bracken that the badgers had dragged in as bedding and then subsequently cleared out at a later date.  In my experience this happens when they are preparing an old chamber for re-use, for instance when preparing for cubs.

The actual holes of a badger sett have a characteristic shape, usually referred to as a sideways D.  The key feature is that they are broader than they are tall.  This makes sense if you think of the shape of a badger – fairly wide and low-slung.  Rabbit holes, by contrast, are an oval shape that looks like an O.  Here is a classic badger sett entrance that shows the typical shape.

Badger Sett EntranceHere’s another sett entrance where the badgers have dug under a fallen tree, either by accident or on purpose, creating a nice sturdy lintel.  There are a couple of holes under trees like this at this sett, which makes me wonder whether it is a deliberate choice.  I’ve also seen a few setts that are in the roots at the base of a large tree.  Again, this gives the badgers the protection of a wooden roof, at least for the entrance to the sett.  Perhaps this is a widespread design feature.

Badger Sett EntranceAgain, notice that the hole is still wider than it is tall.

Active holes will show signs of recent digging, but if you are lucky you can find badger tracks at the entrance to a sett.  This is the best evidence you can get that the hole is inhabited by a badger.  Note the mass of tracks at this hole, suggesting that a number of badgers are present.

Badger Sett Entrance with Badger TracksLastly, have a look around the immediate area of the sett.  Badgers will have a main latrine site nearby – like the dung pits on the edge of their territory but larger and more concentrated.  At many setts there will be patches of leaf mould that have been dug up and scuffled about as the badgers look for food.  There will often also be clear patches where the soil has been worn smooth.  These are ‘play areas’ where the badgers congregate, play and groom each other.  Sometimes there may be ‘play trees’ – tree stumps or fallen trees that the badgers climb and play over.  These are sometimes worn smooth too – the result of whole generations of badgers using them as a playground.

So now you know what to look for.  Look for the right sort of habitat – woodland near pasture, ideally with sloping ground.  Look out for the peripheral signs of badger activity – paths, dung pits and snuffle holes.  Through a combination of following paths and sensibly interpreting the landscape you will hopefully be able to find the sett and confirm that there are badgers in residence.  Of course, the best way to tell whether there are badgers present is to actually see one of the beasts, so once you have identified an active sett you can sit up and watch.  And that’s where it really starts to get interesting.

Good luck finding badger setts, and good luck watching!

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Badgers in a social group- but why?Following my thoughts on the evolutionary significance of delayed implantation, Pablo asked the very good question why (if my theory is correct)  badgers stopped being solitary and started living in clans.  Fortunately, I think I can answer this one.   What follows is not my own thinking, but based on the work of Hans Kruuk, a giant of badgerology upon whose shoulders I gratefully stand.  His The Social Badger is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in the subject.

Kruuk looked at the evolutionary advantages for badgers of living in social groups.  Social living is relatively common in mammals.  The usual benefit it gives is increased vigilance against predators (think of meerkats or rabbits – one or two individuals can keep watch while the others feed).  Social carnivores are more rare.  Lions, wolves, dogs and hyenas gain an advantage from hunting in packs – wolves and hyenas, for instance, can bring down prey much larger than themselves by attacking as a group.

Badgers don’t fit neatly into this scheme.  They are social carnivores but they do not hunt in packs.  In fact, for social animals they are actually not very sociable at all.  Badgers live together in a sett, and they will play and groom and interact with each other outside the sett, but once they leave the immediate area of the sett they forage as individuals.  For most of the time they are above ground they are alone, gaining the advantages of neither mutual vigilance nor pack hunting.  So why do they live in clans?

Kruuk’s theory is based on defending territory.  Badgers, in the UK at least, are omnivores.  They predominantly eat earthworms but will happily feed on anything from wheat and barley to rabbits and dead lambs.  Kruuk observed that badgers take advantage of different sources of food depending on weather conditions and time of year.  Success, for a badger, means making full use of these different ‘food patches’.  In order to have a guaranteed supply of food, the badger must have access to a wide enough range of food patches so that if one is not productive there will be others that are.

In order to have access to these food patches, the badger needs a large territory.  The problem is, a territory large enough to be productive is too large for a single badger to defend.  Hence, so the theory goes, badgers join together so that collectively the clan is able to defend a territory large enough to cover sufficient food patches.  Each badger plays a part in marking and patrolling the boundaries.  This makes perfect sense – many people have found a relationship between the size of badger territories and available food resources.  The territories in my fairly lush Bedfordshire landscape of woods, arable and pasture seem to be quite small, reflecting the good supply of available food.  Those in more sparse areas (such as Scotland, where Kruuk did a lot of his work) are much larger.

The theory accounts for why badgers live in clans today.  If my thinking is right, this clan living is a relatively recent evolutionary adaptation.   This does raise the question of why it should occur in the comparatively food-rich environment in Britain whilst badgers in other, poorer environments are solitary.  One would imagine that the advantage of defending food resources would be more pronounced where the is less food available.  Instead, the opposite seems to be the case.

Sorry Pablo – the answer to your question ended up a bit longer than I thought.  As ever, once I start to think that I understand badgers, I realise that actually I really don’t.

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Alder tree by the brookThe snow has finally melted.  Today has been a balmy 7 degrees and beautifully sunny.  It may not sound very warm, but compared to the past weeks when the temperature didn’t rise above freezing for days on end it feels positively spring-like.  I took advantage and headed out for a stroll in the (slightly soggy) countryside.

I had no particular aim in mind, but with a vague idea of looking at the birds I headed over to the lake.  I don’t go there very often, but there is always the chance of visiting waterfowl.  As it happened the lake was still iced over with not a bird in sight, but the hedges were alive with blue tits, great tits, chaffinches and sparrows.   My personal favourites were a flock of long-tailed tits working their way through the trees.  These are delightful birds but absolutely impossible to photograph.  They are always on the move, flitting about from branch to branch as they forage, never staying in one place for long.  One of these days I’ll be in the right place and get a picture as they travel past.

Talking of ambitions, there is one animal that I’ve been quietly trying to photograph for a while now, and that is the black squirrel.  The black squirrel is the melanistic (black) version of the common grey squirrel.  There are populations of black squirrels in a number of places around the country, and some experts believe that the black coat is genetically dominant and will eventually replace the ordinary grey colour.  This hasn’t happened yet, or shown any signs of doing so, so black squirrels are still fairly uncommon.

There is a known population of black squirrels centred on Woburn in Bedfordshire.  I’ve only seen one once before, and it was very striking – a squirrel, but with a black coat.  Ever since then I’ve wanted to get a picture of one.  Today, I got my chance.

Black Squirrel

The almost legendary Black Squirrel of Woburn

Unfortunately the squirrel was quite distant so it was at the very limit of my camera zoom, but it is unmistakeably a black squirrel. I feel a little bit like those people who photograph Bigfoot, only to get home and find the picture only shows a dark blur in the distance, but at least I know it was there.

Black Squirrel

NOT a Bigfoot, but a black squirrel...

I walked home along the brook.  Halfway down I came across a clear animal path running from an old, disused little quarry into the fields.  Now, this looked to me like a classic badger path.  The old quarry was a perfect spot for a badger sett – they love places like this where they can dig sideways into the side of a bank, and the soil is usually dry and well-drained.  There were signs of digging and spoil heaps in the quarry, so something was burrowing there.  In short, it looked exactly like a badger path, except it ran across a 6″ deep fast-flowing brook.

Brook crossed by a badger path

The brook crossed by a badger(?) path

Could this really be a badger path?  Would the badgers really wade across the brook every night to get to the fields?  There were no really conclusive tracks so it is difficult to be sure either way.  Something had made the path, but I don’t know what.  Since the brook is close to my house it looks like an ideal place to make a track trap – to spread some sand and see what tracks I can get.  If it is a badger path then I’ll be back in the summer to see if I can stake it out and get a picture of an aquatic badger.  Remember, you heard it here first!

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Monitoring Badger Setts near Ampthill

Monitoring Badger Setts near Ampthill

According to the news it was the UK’s worst storm this year.  Heavy rain and gale force winds, gusting up to 70mph and causing damage in exposed places.  This was the weather forecast for Saturday, coincidentally the date of the long-planned field trip of the Bedfordshire Badger Network.

In the event, the rain eased off on Saturday morning, and although the wind was still strong it was a bright, clear day.  The plan for the field trip was to visit and monitor the badger setts in a wood near the town of Ampthill.  Unfortunately the wood is on top of a high ridge and exposed to the full force of the wind, which meant that there was a significant risk of falling branches.  In fact, members of the network had been visiting this wood under similar conditions on a field trip last year, when a full-sized oak tree had come crashing the ground.  They wisely decided to beat a retreat.

Common sense prevailed again this year.  Instead of visiting the wood we elected to drop down off the high ridge and visit the known setts in the more sheltered valley below.   This area is well known to the committed members of the network as it was the site of their large-scale bait marking study, which over ten years mapped the territories of badger clans across a wide area (see the Bedfordshire Naturalist 2007 for details, available from the Bedfordshire Natural History Society).  The full story of the study, and how the badger territories changed over time, makes fascinating reading and is a tribute to the hard work that went into it.

If the setts in the area are well known, why did we need to visit them?  Well, for me it was a chance for a walk in the countryside, to get some fresh air and talk about badger-related matters.  On a more serious note, although badgers will stay in the same territories and setts for hundreds of years, they are rarely static.  Setts become more or less active over time as the populations change and shift.  Regular monitoring helps you to understand these changes.

We visited a dozen or so locations and looked for evidence of recent activity.  New setts and new holes were mapped using GPS (this is real high-tech badger watching), and other evidence such as dung pits was examined.  Individually, each observation doesn’t mean much, but the network has been monitoring the area for years and these little snippets build up into an impressive record of badgers in the environment.

We enjoyed the bracing wind and clear skies for most of the morning until, as we headed home, the clouds rolled in and the torrential rain came down (or rather sideways).  Nevertheless, it was a very good way to spend a day, and it was good to get back amongst badgers again.

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Yet another road casualty

When I drove to work on Wednesday there was another dead badger on the road through the woods on the outskirts of the village, almost exactly the same spot as the casualties of October last year and April this year.  I had a train to catch so I couldn’t stop to check the sex, but it looked fully grown.  When I came home at the end of the day it had been moved from the road (hopefully just onto the verge, but you hear odd rumours of people taking dead badgers away.  I don’t even want to think what for…)

This makes three badgers in a year killed here, almost certainly from the same sett.  I hope the sett is big enough to withstand the losses.  It must be a fairly active one – I’ll have to see if I can locate it when I get time.

So it goes…

I’m aware that anyone visiting this site will be confronted by depressingly regular tales of dead badgers.  I’m sorry about this.  It isn’t my intention to focus on unpleasant matters just for the sake of it.  What I want to do is to build up an archive of badgers in my local patch.  By recording the road casualties here in my diary (and I only include the ones in or immediately around my village), it means that I’m saving the information.  Perhaps it is just the scientist in me, instinctively collecting data, but in years to come it may reveal a pattern.  Nevertheless, if we get many more road deaths I may need to find a less public way to record them.

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So, my plan was a simple one.  Spend the evening down at the north entrance of the Pine Tree sett, photograph the resident badger, and match the pictures of its distinctive facial markings with those of ‘Nick‘ from the main sett last year.  If the markings are the same then there’s a good chance that the lone badger at the Pine Tree sett is in fact one that has moved away from the main sett.  This will be great evidence for movement of individuals between neighboring setts.

Here's Nick from last year again - look at the notch in the stripe behind the ear

Here's Nick from last year again - look at the notch in the stripe behind the ear

Sunday was a beautiful day and a lovely warm dry evening – just right for a lazy session of badger watching.  All I needed was one clear picture.  With such a simple plan, what could possibly go wrong?

The wind at the sett was blowing from east to west, which meant that I couldn’t sit on the bank and look down at the hole – the wind would blow my scent straight to the badger.  Instead I settled down on the other side of the sett, behind a large bank of nettles.

To increase my chances of getting a picture I broke my own rule and put out some food for the badger.  I didn’t plan to do this, but I walked past a crab apple tree on the edge of the wood and I picked up a half-dozen or so ripe fruits off the ground.  I know I’ve said I don’t like feeding badgers because it takes away their natural behaviour, but in my defence I wasn’t here to study, I was just here for a picture.

At precisely 7.30pm a stripey nose poked out of the hole.

Badger 1

The badger came out slowly, snaffled up the crab apples and wandered around the area for a few minutes.

Badger 2

I could see the distinctive notch on its facial stripe, but could I get a clear picture of it?  The picture below is as clear as I got – you can see the notch in the stripe, just behind the ear, but it isn’t a great picture of the badger’s face.

Badger 3

Each time I took a picture, the badger disappeared behind a nettle.  Spot the difference between the picture above and the one below (I’ll give you a clue – where’s the crab apple?)

Badger 4

This was obviously a camera shy badger.

Badger 5

You’d think I could line up one decent shot between the nettles, wouldn’t you?

Badger 6

I could have laughed out loud – all I wanted was one good picture.  Badgers have an uncanny knack of bringing you back down to earth with a bump.

So was it Nick from the main sett?  I like to think so, although I can’t be absolutely positive.  There is a big similarity in the facial markings, and the fact that I haven’t seen Nick at the main sett this year seems to point in this direction.  It looks like I may have got some evidence for a young male badger moving out to a neighboring sett.

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Badger tracking

Badger tracks

Badger tracks

You may recall that I dealt with a roadkill badger a couple of weeks ago.  I was concerned that the badger had been killed next to a field that forms part of my usual Sunday morning tracking/ birdwatching walk, and I hoped that the dead badger wasn’t the one that I had become accustomed to tracking.

Well, I went for my usual Sunday walk this morning, and I’m pleased to say that the badger is alive and well and still making tracks.

Tracking really is a fascinating activity.  I spent an hour totally absorbed by the animal tracks in a hundred yards of footpath up one single field.  Over the last 24 hours a badger, a fox, several Chinese Water Deer and a small herd of fallow deer had all walked up this path.  It was a tracker’s heaven!

We’ve had a combination of rain showers and sunshine recently, so the normally hard-packed clay in this field is soft in places, but still firm in others.  Many of the tracks showed up only as smudges in the fine silt on top of the clay.  In a strange way it is more satisfying to find and follow these faint images.

Here’s another set of badger tracks.  Note the claws on the front paw on the right.

Badger tracks 1

Here’s where the fox and badger walked side by side (actually, the fox was there first – on the next set of prints I found that the badger’s track overlay the fox’s)

Badger and fox tracks

The badger’s front paw print is on the top left, its rear paw on the bottom left and the fox on the right.

Who would have thought that a short stretch of path could prove so interesting – and so informative.  If you’ve never tried tracking then give it a go next time you’re out and about.  It really does add an extra dimension to your knowledge of the wildlife in your area.  And it’s great fun too!

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I think it’s time I got back to some serious badgerology.

I was up at the wood on Saturday, and an interesting evening it was too. Firstly, the badgers have started feeding on the wheat in the wheat field.  This seems to become a regular food source as soon as it ripens.  The badgers seem to have a simple way of getting at the wheat – they trample down the stalks and then pull off the grain.  You can see the patches where they have been feeding.

Badger feeding signs in wheat

Badger feeding signs in wheat

These feeding signs are accompanied by fresh dung, full of wheat.  In this case, there is quite an impressive amount.

Badger dung in wheat

Badger dung in wheat

The badgers use this field all year (I see their tracks), but the latrines only appear when they are feeding on the wheat.  Now, it could be that wheat has an effect on their digestion that makes latrines necessary, but my guess is that it is probably territorial.  The wheat fields are a major food resource, so it makes sense that each badger clan will try and claim it as their territory, marking it out with latrine sites.  When there is no food, there is no need to mark it, hence the latrines only occur when the wheat is ripe.  I must get round to some more of the latrine sites to see which ones contain wheat.  That would be interesting, to find out which badgers have been feeding here.

When I arrived, the local buzzard was flying from tree to tree, calling all the time.  I could see it through binoculars, perched high up on a branch.  I don’t know why buzzards call like this.  It is too late for mating, so perhaps it is a territorial display.

I tried to record the sound using the video function on my camera.  You can’t actually see the buzzard on the video, but turn the volume up and you should hear its cry.  It kept this noise up for over an hour!

At 8.30 a badger emerged briefly from the western sett entrance and then almost immediately went back underground.  Ten minutes later the cub did the same.  They seemed nervous.  It sounds strange, but badgers seem to be afraid of buzzards.  A buzzard would have no chance of carrying off even a half-grown badger, yet I’ve seen an entire family of badgers dive for cover when one passed overhead.

Five minutes later a badger came out and trotted off to the west, followed five minutes later by another, and then another and another, all at five minute intervals.  None of them stayed near the sett entrance.  This means that there were at least four badgers in this half of the sett.

Another ten minutes passed and badgers five and six emerged from the same hole.  As they did so, the badgers at the east end of the sett came out into a clearing, foraging, playing and, amusingly, trying to climb trees.  I counted five badgers in the group, which, plus the two at the west, gave a total of seven badgers visible at the same time.

One noteworthy behaviour was a fight that developed between two adult badgers.  Badgers will usually engage in some rough and tumble play or play-fighting, but this was more serious.  It ended with one badger running off, hotly pursued by the other.  I could hear their noises at least a hundred yards off; for them to go this far meant it was serious.  Perhaps this was an issue about dominance being acted out.

The other interesting event of the night was a fox that trotted past.  This must one of the cubs from earlier in the year.  I tried Pablo’s trick of calling in a fox by making a high-pitched squeaking noise (see here for a very impressive video), and blow me, it worked!  The fox changed direction and came trotting up to the base of my tree!

It obviously felt that something wasn’t right, but I was sitting very still and was well camouflaged.  So the fox did a very cunning thing – it walked round my tree in a big circle.

I’ve read about this behaviour but never seen it before.  It happens when an animal such as a fox is not sure about you, so they circle round to get downwind  so they can check you out.  Clever little fox!  Since I was in a tree and there was virtually no wind I must have passed the test, for the fox carried on wandering about.  It was too dark for pictures, but I watched through the binoculars.  The fox was young – its coat sleek and perfect, quite unlike the scruffy urban foxes we got in London.  I know that foxes aren’t everyone’s friend, and I know the damage they can do, but they’re still beautiful creatures when you see them in their element.

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It’s been a busy week, what with my new job, rushing around buying new suits and train tickets, painting the house and making jam.  Nevertheless, I made time for some R&R today.

First on the agenda was the Bedfordshire County Show.  This is more of a country fair than a proper agricultural show – there were no competitions for best cow, parsnip, sheepdog etc – although they did have a rabbit show and an exhibition of dancing sheep (don’t ask!).  Like any country show it was a great day out, although I was a little disappointed that the ferret racing wasn’t on the schedule this year.

The Bedfordshire Natural History Society was very well represented, with a whole marquee of exhibits, including a fine display by the Badger Network.  I’m very impressed with the quality of the work the society does.  Many of the members are real experts in their fields and everyone is very happy to share their experience and knowledge.  I learnt a great deal, not only about badgers, but also about local birds, moths and how to identify bat species.

It was good to talk to them.  My hobby is considered eccentric (if not downright mad) by many people, so it is refreshing to meet like-minded folk.  They’re the sort of people that understand when you talk about your experiences of standing by the side of the road in the dead of night, photographing the reproductive organs of a dead badger.  Not many people can relate to that…

After spending time in the company of such enthusiasts, it was only natural that I went up to the wood in the evening.  Despite the black clouds and the threat of heavy rain it was pleasant enough.

Last week, it seemed as if the badgers had moved to the east end of the sett.  Today presented a different story.  Three badgers came out of one of the western entrances at about 8.20pm.  So, at least some of them are still in residence there.  I still don’t know what the badgers are doing, or what (if any) significance there is to their moving between the different parts of the sett.

I had spoken to members of the society about my difficulty in sexing badgers.  The advice they gave was ‘if you’re not sure, then it’s a female’.  The accuracy of this statement was revealed to me when one of the badgers started grooming.  In fact, that wasn’t the only thing that was revealed.  As the badger sat there with its legs in the air, it showed itself to be quite definitely male!

I shot a little bit of video.   The quality isn’t great due to the near darkness, but if you’ve ever wanted to see what a badger’s testicles look like then watch closely.  This is your chance!

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