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Posts Tagged ‘badgers’

So Mrs BWM and Scarlett are off in the west of Ireland for a long weekend, visiting a friend.  I’m left here alone in Bedfordshire.  Am I despondent?  No.  I’m doing what any other re-blooded male would do when his wife goes away and he’s suddenly relieved of family duties.  I’ve been out looking for badgers!

Coincidentally, the weather this weekend has been fantastic.  The first nice weekend of spring is always a great time in the village as people emerge after winter.  You bump into people you haven’t seen in ages and the sound of lawnmowers and the smell of freshly cut grass fills the air.

So, Friday evening.  The closest badger sett to my house is also one of the least accessible.  It is on the edge of a small private wood.  I’ve asked for permission to go there, but evidently not asked the right people yet because I haven’t got it.  However, you can sit on a footpath and look out over a small valley and watch the sett.  The only problem is that it is about 350 yards away, so it is only really possible with a telescope.  This is probably the longest range badger watching ever, and to be honest not the easiest, but for an hour or so after work it is only a very short walk and a pleasant diversion.  The badgers were not entirely obliging, two emerging at about 7.15pm and disappearing into the wood rather than staying in the open, but at least I was outside and watching badgers.

The badger sett across the valley

The badger sett in the hedge line across the valley – real long-range badger watching

On the way home I passed the village notice board, and saw an leaflet for a talk on ecology to be held in Ampthill on Saturday by the CPRE.  Being wholly without commitments this weekend, and open to a chance to learn something new, I went along – how decadent – and a fascinating talk it turned out to be.

The speaker was Hugh Warwick, hedgehog expert, who spoke about the issue of fragmenting habitat and its impact on a range of species.  He is a very entertaining and informative speaker, so if you ever get the chance to hear him, do so.  As well as some solid ecological science and wonderful wildlife anecdotes he had some interesting observations on badgers.  For instance, the folk tale that if you have a lot of badgers in the area then you won’t have a lot of hedgehogs is confirmed by research.  But it isn’t just that badgers eat hedgehogs.  It is more complicated.  It seems that if resources are plentiful then the two species co-exist in  competition, but if resources dip below a certain level the relationship becomes predator-prey.  Interesting stuff!  I bought a couple of his books from him too, so I’ve got some good reading to look forward to.

Inspired by this I went up to the badger sett on Saturday evening.  There was evidence of activity – fresh spoil and the like – but I only saw one solitary badger that emerged at 7.40 and ambled off straight away.  At least it was a badger though, and I can’t complain, seeing as how I haven’t been up there for almost a year.  I really should get here more often…

Badger in the distance

There is a badger in here, if you look closely!

Sunday was too nice a day to waste too.  After working the garden for most of the day I took a stroll to the lake in the evening, just to be out in the spring countryside.  One of the local buzzards was making the most of the fine weather too.

Buzzard

Buzzard in the blue sky

The lake was home to a flock of geese – Greylags and some Canada Geese – nothing rare but good to see nonetheless.  There’s been a flock of these in the neighborhood lately, so the lake is obviously their current haunt.

Greylag Geese on the lake

Greylag Geese on the lake

Here’s something I haven’t noticed before.  These are holes in a dead ash tree.  I’m assuming they were made by a woodpecker (they were 25 feet off the ground).  Do they nest in these holes?  They’re too big to be just in search of food.

Woodpecker holes

Woodpecker holes, I presume

I lingered around a bit after sunset in the hope of catching the Barn Owl that lives around here, but with no luck.  And it’s chilly after the sun goes down!  It was just me in a field with just Chinese Water Deer for company – six of these little deer, all dotted around in the growing cereal.  Oddly, they didn’t seem to interact with each other at all, they all kept separate.

Chinese Water Deer

Chinese Water Deer – they always look slightly startled

It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t the most exciting walk in terms of wildlife seen, it was nice to just be out and about on a nice spring day.

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Alert BadgerIt’s the Whitsun Bank Holiday weekend, and the weather has been glorious.  The village open-air swimming pool opened for the summer today, and it’s been warm enough for Scarlett and me to have a splash around.  In fact, it’s the first weekend for ages that it’s been both light enough in the evenings and pleasant enough weather to go out.

I haven’t been out lately, due to family commitments.  Badger watching time coincides neatly with bedtime for a three year old, so that’s curtailed things a little.  But today was too nice to miss.  Mrs BWM wasn’t working, so I asked her to take my parenting duties and headed off to the wood to see if the badgers were still around.  After successfully breeding last year I’m less worried about them, but I still wanted to get out.  The bluebells are out, cuckoos are calling and it’s generally a nice time to be in the woods.

https://badgerwatcher.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/foraging-badger-11.jpgHaving been away from the sett for half a year I didn’t know what to expect.  There were signs of active digging at both the east and west ends, but the badgers still surprised me.  At 7.30pm five badgers popped out of an unremarkable hole at the south side of the middle of the sett.  I haven’t seen any serious badger activity at this hole before, but it is the same hole in which the fox reared a litter of cubs four years ago (see https://badgerwatcher.com/2009/05/10/fieldnotes-10th-may-2009-more-fox-cubs/).  Blimey, four years, hasn’t time flown…

Badger foraging under fallen logs

Anyhow, I counted five badgers, including at least one cub.  Why do I say ‘at least one’ cub?  Well, as always, badgers are damn difficult to count.  They don’t stay still, they hide in undergrowth so you can only see part of them, and they’re constantly nipping off and coming back again.  Hence I can be sure there was one cub, but there may have been more.  The maximum number of badgers I saw at one time was five, so that’s what I’m calling.

The badgers were relaxed and happy.  There was a lot of grooming, playing and play fighting.  This got quite funny and endearing, for instance two badgers chasing each other around the trunk of a tree, or one badger climbing on a fallen tree and jumping on another as it walked underneath.  I know that play has a serious purpose in training animals for the real world, but badgers often seem like they’re playing for the sheer joy of it

Badger foraging in leavesAfter half an hour or so the play stopped and serious work began.  The badgers were collecting a lot of bedding, shuffling backwards with paws full of dead leaves.  It occurred to me that this is the first dry spell we’ve had for a while, so they may have been taking advantage of the warm weather to get a clean, dry bed.

As well as the bedding, they spent a lot of time foraging for food.  This is always fascinating to watch.  The badgers were snuffling in the leaves, digging out the soil and turning over dead wood to get at insect underneath.  In the soft leaf mould they often seemed to be ploughing furrows with their noses to get at choice morsels.

I was treated to some good close-up views.  I was sitting in a tree with badgers snuffling around and underneath me – Badger - view from abovehence the unusual top-down view!

As the church clock struck nine the badgers moved off.  Time for me to go too.  It’s good to know that the badgers are healthy and happy, and very good to spend time with them again.

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A professional case of great gravity was engaging my own attention at the time…

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Case of Identity

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Badger cubsWell, I’m back.

I’ve been neglecting my badgers again lately.  I can’t believe I haven’t been to see them since April.  Partly this has been due to a demanding schedule at work.  In the last couple of months my work has taken me from the heat of Saudi Arabia to the cool opulence of a boardroom by the lakeside in Zurich and the offices of the United Nations in Vienna.  It’s been good work and nice to see the world, but it’s also good to take time to reflect every now and then.  Partly it’s been due to an even more demanding two and a half year old daughter, who is now old enough to prefer playing with her toys to being taken out into fields, and who is also quite capable of saying so.  Throw in Mrs BWM’s shift schedule and holidays and social events, and there has been no time to get out to the woods.

But tonight I had a free evening, so it was time for a long-overdue trip to the badgers.  The day had been sunny and warm but with a threat of rain.  I don’t get to pick and choose the days of my visits at the moment, so I picked up my (now repaired) umbrella and was off.

To refresh the memory, the main sett I watch has had a bit of decline over the past couple of years, going from at least twelve badgers down to just three.  But on my last trip I saw a new cub, so it looked like the numbers were increasing again.  Would there be more cubs to be seen this time?

The sett is in it’s full summer undergrowth, so it is impossible to see all of it.  There were signs of activity (fresh spoil and discarded bedding) at the west end where I saw the cub, so that’s where I sat.  But there was also a lot of fresh spoil at the east end, so it looked like multiple holes are in occupation.

Badger cub

I arrived at 7.45pm and settled down, and at 8.20 the first badger emerged from the west end, joined quickly by two more.  One adult and two cubs!  This was good news, as it meant the cub I saw back in April has a brother or sister.  Things are looking better for the clan.

The three badgers did all the proper badger things – scratching, grooming, play-fighting and collecting bedding.  Despite watching badgers for some years now I still enjoy watching a relaxed family group like this.

At 8.30 the sound of whickering drew my attention to the east end.  There, by the new spoil heap were one, two, three, four badgers – two adults and two cubs.  This was even better news!  They were too distant for photos in the dim light, but clear enough through binoculars.  The badgers at the west end disappeared underground, and shortly afterwards I counted seven badgers at the east end.  I’m inclined to believe that this was the west end badgers joining the social group, having made their way their by some devious underground route (I know the west end holes are linked to the centre holes of the sett – the tunnels may well go further).

The adult badger and cubs at the west end of the settIt was a fine display of badger behaviour, with all seven snuffling and playing and scratching.  I crept down from my tree and stalked over for a closer look, but it was still impossible to get decent photos.  I watched for half an hour until the rain finally started and then headed home.

All in all, a good visit.  There are at least four cubs this year, which makes the clan stronger and more stable – hopefully a good sign for the future.  Interestingly, the cubs are clearly from two separate litters; and more interestingly, the mother of one litter has obviously separated herself to the outlying west end but without and sign of being distant from the rest of the clan.  Fine badger watching, and another aspect of badger behaviour for me to ponder.

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I’ve just returned from a very pleasant Easter break with my parents up in Cheshire.  We’ve had a great time, with Scarlett having plenty of space to run around in, Timmy the dog to play with, and a visit to Chester Zoo to see the elephants and tigers (and the Giant Otters are highly recommended).  All in all a very nice few days.

Even with all this going on, I found time for some badger-related activity.  I was lucky to have the local knowledge of my parents to guide me, and I was able to visit a few different setts.

The first sett is instructive.  Here it is – a splendid entrance inside a hollow tree in a hedgerow, with a big spoil heap of sandy soil.  Badgers seem to like to have sett entrances in or under trees, either for support or protection.  Perhaps it’s a little close to the farm buildings behind, but still a very nice place for a hedgerow sett.

Cheshire Badger Sett in Hollow Tree

Cheshire Badger Sett in Hollow Tree

But – if I show you the full picture, the scenario changes.  Here’s the sett and the spoil heap in the middle of the picture:

Cheshire Badger Sett by the Road

The Hollow Tree Badger Sett - next to the Road!

As you can see, it is right on the road.  Not a big road or a busy one, but right on the road.  It shows just how adaptable badgers can be, and that not all badgers are to be found in the depths of secluded woodland.

I spent a few hours on Saturday evening sitting out by a large sett in a patch of woodland near Delamere Forest.  Unlike the roadside sett, this particular site is well off the beaten track, so I had high hopes of spotting the residents.  It was not to be, however, proving that the badgers in Cheshire can be just as awkward as those back home in Bedfordshire.  The sett was clearly active, with deep paths and four holes with big, fresh spoil heaps outside.  It was a good site to watch too, with the holes in the side of a steep ravine.  I could sit on the other side and get a clear view as if across an arena.

I watched until dusk (8.20pm), but I had no night viewing aids (binoculars or NV scope) with me, so I didn’t stay too late.  Perhaps the badgers were using other holes round the corner.  Perhaps Cheshire badgers are just late risers.

It was still a good evening.  I listened to the alarm calls of Blackbirds and watched as a Tawny Owl – the target of their alarm – crossed the trees in front of me.  I spotted a Goldcrest flitting about in a low tree, which is a new bird for me.  Unfortunately, autofocus lenses can’t pick out a bird from a tangle of branches, so the photo isn’t great.  You can see the bright yellow stripe on its head though.  I know it’s there, anyway.

Goldcrest

Goldcrest (in there somewhere...)

The evening was livened up by the antics of a squirrel in the tree opposite.  One of the good things about my new camera is its quick shutter compared to my old bridge camera, which had a delay of a second or so between pressing the button and taking the picture.  It makes it easier to get proper ‘action squirrel’ mid-air shots like this:

Leaping Squirrel

Leaping Squirrel

So no badgers, but it was a good weekend all round.  A nice family break, a visit to the zoo and some new wildlife.  Happy Easter everyone.

Grandad BWM and Scarlett at Chester Zoo

Grandad BWM and Scarlett at Chester Zoo

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Spring lambs

Spring lambs

Today has turned out to be a glorious, sunny spring day.  A day for being outdoors, if ever there was one.  Mrs BWM kindly took parenting duty and I headed off up to the wood.

It’s definitely spring now.  The first leaves are on the trees, the lambs are playing in the fields and the primroses are in flower in the glades in the wood.  We’ve had a week of warm, sunny weather, and everything seems to be bursting into life.

By way of a contrast to my usual pictures of badger poo, here’s some fox poo instead.  At the top of the wheat field there is a large stone, presumably thrown there after being uncovered by the plough.  It’s a very handy stone for knocking the mud off your boots after the walk up the field.  A fox has chosen it as a place to deposit its poo.  Like badgers, foxes use scat as a territory marker.  Unlike badgers, who put their dung in holes, foxes invariably choose prominent places such as stones, molehills or tufts of grass.  More extrovert, I suppose.

Fox poo

Fox poo on a stone

The wood itself was busy, with muntjac and fallow deer, plus a hare that I startled out of cover.  Hares are usually thought of as a species of open fields and grasslands, but I’ve seen them quite a few times in the middle of woodland now, and they seem perfectly happy there.

The badger sett also seemed to be doing nicely, with signs of activity at five of the holes at least, including one with a huge new mountain of a spoil heap at the east end.  I’m hopeful that there’ll be cubs this year, so this sort of excavation is a good sign.

At 6.20pm a good hour or so before dusk,  a badger appeared across the ravine at the east of the sett and was soon lost among the trees.  A good start.  At 6.54 another badger appeared briefly by the big new spoil heap.  It sniffed for a minute or so before vanishing back underground.

Badger by the big spoil heap

Badger by the big spoil heap

At 7.40 the badger reappeared, accompanied by another.  One badger trotted off to forage; the other stayed by the hole.  So far, so good.  All three badgers at the sett ticked off, albeit at a distance and quite briefly.

Badger on the move

Badger on the move

One minor mystery remains.  All three badgers were in the east end of the sett.  The west end holes, however, showed clear signs of activity, with fresh spoil and dung pits visible.  Does this mean that one of the badgers is spending time here as well as at the other end?  Or might another badger be in residence?  This goes right to the heart of my ongoing questions about movement within a sett, but as always, only time will tell.

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Beaver Scouts looking for BadgersI admit that most of have my wildlife adventures have been solitary ones.  This isn’t because I am by nature a  loner, although sitting on your own outdoors is quite soothing, and it is true that one person can be a lot stealthier than a group.

No, one of the main reasons for me being on my own is that I haven’t yet successfully persuaded anyone else to come out with me.  OK, the idea sounds attractive to people, but when it comes to it, the grim reality of sitting in the cold dark of the woods, waiting for an animal that may or may not make an appearance, or getting up at dawn to traipse through a muddy field looking for tracks, suddenly loses its appeal.

Not today though.  This evening I had a whole gang of helpers along with me.  Twenty-five of them, to be precise, and all very keen.  I had agreed to help the local Beaver Scouts with a session of tracking and looking for badgers.

With 25 loud and enthusiastic 6-8 year olds, dressed in hi-viz clothing, you can work out for yourself the chances of seeing any badgers.  But we had a great little walk.  I put together a short ‘I-Spy’ leaflet for everyone with pictures of the tracks of common animals (badger, fox, muntjac, fallow deer, rabbit etc) for them to tick off and we headed to the field behind my house.

We had great fun finding deer tracks and dog tracks and ticking them off the list.  It was good to see the Beavers getting stuck into the tracking game, and the adult helpers too.  Mind you, the highlight of the walk was the badger latrine site, with real badger poo!  It never fails to impress…

In fact, it was a thoroughly enjoyable little trip.  And it was good to take a group of children out and show them a little of the wildlife in our own village, and perhaps build on their enthusiasm and encourage them to take a look around for tracks and signs the next time they’re out.

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

Robert Frost Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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