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Posts Tagged ‘badgers’

Picture the scene.  It’s been dark for an hour.  I’m perched on a branch of an oak tree, fifteen feet off the ground.  I’ve long since lost any feeling in my legs but my backside feels bruised where the branch has cut into it.  I shift the weight from one buttock to another to try to relieve the pressure for a few minutes.  I’ve been staring into the dark for long enough to lose perspective.  Only the tree seems real.  I know there’s no chance of seeing any badgers now – even with the night vision scope I can only just make out the ground – but I’m hoping I’ll hear them, if and when they emerge.  The tree was easy enough to climb up in the light, but I’m wondering how I’m going to climb down in the dark when I can’t see the branches or feel my legs.

The best thing is, it’s only 6.00pm.  And this is my idea of a fun evening?

I don’t usually watch badgers this late in the season.  It’s cold and dark and there’s less chance of the interesting social interaction you get on warm summer evenings.  But I haven’t been out much this year so I’m taking every chance I get.  I’ve got warm clothes and the dark shouldn’t be a problem with my night vision scope, so why not extend the season?  Why not find out what badgers do in the winter?

And how come I’m badger watching on a Tuesday?  Well, I’ve got a few days off work this week.  Technically, I’m between jobs.  I’ve left my old job and I’m starting a new one next week, so I’m taking some time off to sort things out.  Hence, I’ve been out badger watching.

I’ve been spending my badger watching time at the main sett lately, and I now feel that I’ve answered my main questions: ‘are the badgers OK?’ (they seem fine); and ‘how many badgers are in residence?’ (three – two adults and a cub).  This being achieved, I have decided to see if I can answer the same questions at the Hawthorn Sett.  I’ve never actually seen an entire badger here, only a nose, so I also want to get to grips with it as a sett.

I arrived this afternoon at about 4.30.  I have a suspicion that the badgers here are late risers, possibly because of their proximity to the road, but I wanted to be sure.  The sett is in what appears to be an old quarry, now only a shallow depression about four feet deep, but the undergrowth makes observation difficult.  In the centre of the depression is a small oak tree that was begging to be climbed.  The oaks in most of the wood are tall maidens, fifty feet straight up to the first branch.  This little tree though, has branches at two-foot intervals, just like a ladder.  I just had to climb it.

As it happened, it wasn’t ideal.  The tree was still carrying its leaves, which limited the view and reflected the IR beam of the NV scope.  It was close to the sett too, which meant the possibility of leaving scent that could drift over the holes and disturb the badgers.  But I climbed it anyway.  I settled on what felt like a decently comfortable branch and was soon joined by a little wren flitting about the tree.  Two tawny owls started calling to each other only a couple of trees away.  So far so good.

But you know the story ends.  I gave it until 6pm but there was no sign of the badgers, so I slowly and gracelessly lowered myself down the tree.  This was an hour after I would have expected them to emerge.  The sett is obviously in use, but I can’t seem to see the badgers there.  Perhaps I disturbed them coming in.  Perhaps they really are late risers.

I’ll try to get another evening here when parenting duties allow.  I’ll pick a nice comfy spot on the ground and wrap up warm so that I can stay for as long as it takes.  If the badgers really do come out late at this sett, then I’ll just have to wait for them.

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Young badger at the west end of the sett

I suppose this is a badger, watching man...

It’s been a confusing day.  It’s October, but it’s felt like July.  The hottest day in October ever, apparently.  Mrs BWM and Scarlett are away, so I’ve been doing what any man would do – cutting the grass, tidying the vegetable beds and visiting plumbing shops.  And, what with it being such a nice day, watching badgers.

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This is late in the season for me to be badger watching, but I haven’t been out much lately so I took the opportunity.  Partly to see how the badgers are doing, partly just because it’s nice to be out in the woods.  It may have felt like a summer’s day, with the warmth and the smell of fresh-cut grass, but it is definitely autumn.  The wheat field on the way to the wood has been sown with winter wheat, and it is already a couple of inches tall.  In the wood itself the trees were alive with the scurrying of squirrels, busily gathering food for the winter.  Having now seen red squirrels I can allow myself to feel a little blase about ordinary grey ones.  The badger sett is surrounded by chestnut trees and the squirrels were working them hard.  The still evening was punctuated by a steady rain of chestnuts dropped from the treetops above.

I was interested to see that the western end of the sett is in active use again, as so far this year the badgers have confined themselves to the east end only.  At 6.10pm the young badger emerged from the west end, had a good scratch and a snuffle about, and went back in.  It looks very much like the cub has moved out of the parental home and set up on his or her own.

Young badger at the west end of the sett 2

Young badger at the west end of the sett

The movement of badgers within the sett continues to fascinate (and puzzle) me.  This is as clear an example as I’ve seen of this movement, made more visible by the low number of badgers this year, but I still don’t know what drives a badger to change from one hole to another.

At 6.16 a badger emerged from the east end of the sett, followed a minute or so later by another.  My best estimate is that there are only three badgers in residence this year, so here they all were – daddy badger, mummy badger and baby badger – a proper family unit.  Here’s hoping that the numbers continue to build up next year.

I sat for a while against a tree and watched the badgers foraging as the light faded, getting bitten by late mosquitoes and half-expecting to be hit by a chestnut dropped by one of the squirrels.  Despite having watched badgers for some years now, I never get tired of sitting in a wood at dusk, sharing the evening with badgers as they go about their business.

Adult badger at the east end of the sett

Adult badger at the east end of the sett

I sat and watched as one of the adults slowly snuffled closer and closer.  When it reached about 20 feet from me it stopped and sniffed the air before trotting back to the sett.  There was no wind, but it had obviously got my scent.  I took this to be my cue to leave.  So ended a pleasant evening – sitting out in just my shirt, watching badgers in October.

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On Saturday night Mrs BWM kindly offered to put Scarlett to bed, so I seized the chance to pop up to the wood.  I jumped into my camouflage clothes, crammed a crust of bread and a piece of cheese into my pocket for supper, and headed off.

Summer is marching on into autumn now.  The wheat in the wheatfield has been harvested and the whole field harrowed over.  Not only is it an absolute bugger to walk over until the footpath is trampled down, it means that the badgers have to look for other sources of food.  At the top of the field there was a fresh badger latrine that showed that not only were they still marking out the field as territory, they are making use of other food resources.

Badger dung with fruit stones

The dung is full of fruit stones.  I thought at first that these were cherry stones, but on reflection they may well be sloes, which are fruiting now.  If you’ve ever eaten a sloe you’ll know how incredibly tart they are, but since badgers will cheerfully eat wasps I am beginning to think they don’t have a sophisticated palate.  As a good (albeit very amateur) scientist I know what I need to do now.  I need to go back and get a sample of the dung and compare the fruit stones to sloes and cherries, and then I’ll have a definite answer.  It may not sound pleasant, but I feel I need to do it – another piece in my badger jigsaw.  This is why my house is well stocked with latex gloves and carbolic soap…

Now, it’s always been a principle of mine when badger watching to approach and leave the area of the sett as quietly as possible.  You never know when the badgers will be around, and even if the badgers are not in the vicinity you can still scare them by setting off a ‘chain reaction’ by scaring other animals – you approach noisily, you frighten a deer, the deer bolts past the sett and frightens the badgers.

My stealthy approach to the main sett is made easier by a large fallen ash tree (ash trees seem to have a habit of falling down – remind me never to camp under one).  I can walk along the trunk silently rather than rustling through the undergrowth.  On this evening, halfway along the trunk, I caught sight of a deer in the direction of the sett.  This is exactly the situation I mentioned above, and it calls for extreme caution.  But it got worse.  As I froze in my tracks, I noticed movement in the undergrowth at the far end of the tree.  It was the badger cub from two weeks ago – out of the sett early and foraging further afield.

There was nothing I could do but remain motionless and pretend to be a tree.  Badgers are a bit like T-Rex – they can’t see you if you don’t move (mostly).  Of course, staying still while perched on a fallen tree trunk is easier said than done, but the badger didn’t notice me.  When it moved out of sight I took my chance and very slowly sat down.

For the next 40 minutes I sat on my fallen tree as the badger snuffled around within 20 feet of so of me.  The light was bad in the middle of the wood so none of my pictures worked, but I took a short video (video works better in low light on my camera).  It isn’t great quality, and it doesn’t shed any light on badger behaviour, but it will remind me of a fascinating evening watching a badger foraging at close quarters.

The badger came closer and closer but still didn’t seem to be aware of me.  At one point it was only six feet or so away from me as it crawled under the tree I was sitting on.  It wasn’t what I planned for the evening, but a memorable encounter just the same.

The badger was clearly foraging, but I couldn’t make out what it was feeding on.  I could hear loud cracking, crunching noises every now and then, as if it was chewing on dry sticks.  This was puzzling.  It was louder than the noise of a snail shell breaking, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.  When the badger had moved off I eased my cramped legs off the tree and went for a look.   The tree overhead was a hazel, and spread around the area were broken hazelnut shells.

Broken hazelnut shells, possibly eaten by a badger

Now, I can’t prove that this is what the badger was crunching on, but it seems likely.  A badger’s jaws are certainly strong enough, and hazelnuts are nutritious.  There are references in the literature to badgers eating hazelnuts (in 1935!)  However, the shells could have been there before the badger came – squirrels crack hazelnuts and they’re plentiful in the area.  I tried to find evidence that the badger was responsible – a shell with fresh badger spit on it, for instance, but there was nothing definite.

All in all, a fascinating evening and one that provoked all sorts of thoughts about badgers’ diet.  I can’t prove the badger was eating hazelnuts but there’s no reason why not.  What with the sloes and the nut shells I can see some sort of badger dung analysis project to keep me active through the autumn.  This is what I like about badgers.  Even though they’re a common species, living side by side with humans, there is still a chance to add something, however small, to what we know about them.  Just don’t tell Mrs BWM.

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Primroses in the wood

Primroses in the wood

What a difference a couple of weeks makes!  I’ve been busy with various (non-badger) things for a couple of weeks so I haven’t been able to get out until last night.  But things have changed since I last went out to the wood.  The leaves on the trees are starting to show, the blackthorn is in full flower and the woodland flowers are blooming.  The weather is noticeably warmer (i.e. not freezing!) and the birds are starting to sing as they begin their search for a mate.

The wheat field that I walk through on the way to the wood is not a wheat field any more.  This year it is planted with oilseed rape and the first yellow flowers are already out (the field behind my house is rape too, and the scent this evening when I went out to feed the chickens is marvelous.  It can become overpowering later in the year but at the moment it smells like spring and its nice).  This field has been wheat for the last two years, and it’s been a food source for (I think) at least three different clans of badgers.  I wonder how it will affect them now the food source has gone?  I imagine that the badgers won’t be so keen to try to annexe it as territory, but I’ll see what happens.  Unless badgers each oilseed rape, of course…

I arrived at the sett at about 7.45pm.  The tawny owls hooted and ‘ke-wicked’ and the first woodpecker of the year yaffled away somewhere behind me.  It’s good to get back into the wood.  I spend so much time rushing about at work that it’s a real luxury to just sit and listen and watch and do nothing.

It is a good time of year to be watching badgers at the moment, for two reasons.  Firstly because the undergrowth has not yet grown up.  Later in the year the nettles and elder will block a lot of the views at this sett, but for now it is possible to look across the whole area.  Secondly, and more importantly, this year’s cubs will be emerging about now.  I can tell myself that I want to see cubs because it allows me to judge the success of the clan, but if I’m honest I want to see them because they’re cute, especially when they’re finding their feet outside the sett for the first time.

There were six active sett entrances visible from where I was sitting, so the badgers are still active.  At 8.15pm an adult badger emerged at the east end of the sett, followed a few minutes later by a second.  They groomed themselves and each other for a moment and then wandered slowly around the area.  Ten minutes later they were joined by another badger from the east end and two more from the west end – all adults, no cubs.  It was too dark for pictures but light enough to see well with binoculars.

I didn’t stay long.  I had to go to work the next day so I couldn’t stay late.  The badgers seemed relaxed and happy, and at least I know that there are at least five adults still in residence.  The next few weeks will be busy for me too, but I’ll try to get out again soon.  The evenings are lengthening and I hope there will be cubs out in the next week or two.

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Spring is definitely here.  The weekend has been clear, sunny and warm.  The vegetable garden is coming along nicely, the trees and hedgerows are coming into bud, and last night was the first of the year when you got that lovely smell of vegetation and growing things in the air.  But we shouldn’t forget that we’re still in what my Dad calls the ‘blackthorn winter’, the cold snap that often accompanies the flowering of the blackthorn.  On Friday I scraped the ice of my car before I set off to work.  Tonight I went out to the badger sett and nearly froze myself.

My days follow a consistent pattern at the moment.  Every evening at 7.00pm I give Scarlett her bath, feed her and put her to bed.  The days have grown sufficiently long now for me to be able to follow my usual routine and walk the mile or so up to wood before it gets dark.  And that’s what I did tonight.  I wanted to try the night vision scope again and check the effects on the badgers.

I settled down at the base of a tree.  Badger watching means always having the wind in your face.  Tonight, there was a bitterly cold wind knifing through the leafless trees.  It was one of those evenings when I put on my camouflage face veil; not to keep out of sight, but merely to try to keep warm.  At 8.21pm a badger trotted over from the eastern end of the sett and went down into a hole in front of me.  A few minutes later it reappeared, and soon there were four badgers scratching and rolling and play-fighting in front of me.

(One of the main reasons for writing this blog is to document and journal my badger watching experiences so that I can look for patterns.  One of the things I always try to record is the time at which the badgers emerge from the sett. Interestingly, if I look back in the archives to last year, I see that I visited this sett on the 10th April 2009, almost exactly a year ago.  On that occasion the badgers emerged at 8.20pm, almost exactly the same time.  When I get a chance I’ll have to make a chart of emergence times and see if there is a consistent pattern across the year.)

There was still just enough light to see by, but I turned on the NV scope and watched for a reaction from the badgers.  There was none.  They carried on playing and grooming happily.  I gave them a few minutes and then turned on the infra-red illuminator.  Again, no reaction.  I could see the badgers eyeshine from the infra-red, but they didn’t seem in the least bothered.  At random intervals for the next ten minutes I turned the NV and infra-red on and off, but the badgers carried on regardless. After a while the badgers romped away out of view, and I took this as my cue to leave.  I had seen what I wanted to and I was happy to head back towards the light and warmth of home.

Based on tonight’s watching, the badgers did not react to either the NV scope or the infra-red.  In fact, the NV scope proved to be a very useful aid to watching as it grew dark.  This was the opposite of my earlier experiences. Does this mean that I was mistaken about the badgers being spooked by the infra-red?  I don’t think so.  I’ve been watching badgers too long for that.  Let me try a few more evenings like this and I’ll see if I can come to some sort of conclusion.

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Normally I don’t have much to do with politics.  At best I look on the whole process with a sort of idle, morbid curiosity.  However, I have noticed that general elections seem to coincide with politicians paying some interest to the views of the people they represent (put it this way, the last time I heard anything from my MP was during the last election.  Go figure!)  Perhaps there is some chance that we will be listened to at the moment.  Perhaps not, but it is a good time to try.

Today, I received an e-mail from the Badger Trust.  It seems that the Conservative Party has promised to carry out a cull of badgers if they are elected.  The Trust has asked all of its members to contact their Conservative Party candidate to ask them to clarify their position and to request that they re-examine their policy.  They have thoughtfully put together a summary of the science behind the issue if you are not sure what to write.  Drop me a line at badgerwatchingman@googlemail.com if you’d like a copy.

I think that this is an excellent idea.  I have taken the opportunity to e-mail Nadine Dorries, our MP here in Mid Bedfordshire, and I urge others to do the same to their candidates.

Dear Nadine

You very kindly offered on your website to listen to what people have to say, so I hope you can answer my question.  I’m sure you’re busy at the moment, what with the election and everything, but as one of your of Mid Beds constituents this is important to me.  I’m writing to ask what is the Conservative policy (and your own personal opinion) on the proposed badger cull in an effort to control bovine TB (bTB).

The thing is, I’ve spent a good few years now studying the badgers of Mid Bedfordshire.  Like you, I keep a blog.  Mine is about badgers (www.badgerwatcher.com).  I am concerned that the Conservative Party has promised to go ahead with another badger cull if they are elected.  Perhaps you could confirm or deny this?

I am obviously concerned for the welfare of our native wildlife, but I am more concerned that an ill-conceived cull will be launched against the weight of scientific evidence.  A 10-year £50million taxpayer-funded research programme  by the Independent Scientific Group (ISG) concluded that a badger cull would have no meaningful impact on the bTB epidemic and that on a comparatively local scale it could make matters worse (as happened when reactive culling was carried out as part of the randomised badger culling trial).  bTB has continued to rise despite previous badger culls (the example from Ireland is relevant here), and at best, a badger cull would be an expensive, senseless slaughter that will do little to alleviate a problem perpetuated (if not caused) by questionable modern farming practices.

So please could you take the time to let me know whether the Conservative Party intend to go ahead with a cull, and what your personal stance on the matter is.  I am sure that my readers will be interested to know.

Many thanks

BWM

Like I said, I rarely get involved in politics and I certainly don’t want to turn this blog into a political forum.  I have no particular allegiance to any political party. Nevertheless, like most people, I’m feeling the frustration of being governed by politicians who are wholly out of touch with the views of the people they are supposed to represent and besides, this is an issue close to my heart.

I’ll keep you posted if and when I get a response.

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Thanks very much to everyone who has commented on the badgers and infra-red debate.  I’m sorry I haven’t had the time to reply to you individually, but your comments really are appreciated.

To tell the truth, I’ve been busy lately with work, social events and general pater familias stuff.  In particular, I’ve been busy knocking my poor neglected vegetable garden into shape.  Let me be more specific – I’ve been dashing out and working in the garden in between the freezing downpours, only to dash indoors again when the next one comes along.  It may officially be spring, but we’ve had a lot of cold, nasty, squally weather lately.  But tonight I braved the weather to go to the badger sett, and I’m pleased that I did – I had a great experience to kick off the badger watching season.

I arrived at the wood at about 8.20pm, by which time it was getting dark.  The wet weather has turned the ploughed fields into sticky, sucking mud.  I started the walk looking like a dapper country gent.  I entered the wood looking like a First World War soldier returning from a gruelling stint in the trenches.  Never mind, it’s still nice to get outdoors.

Regular readers will know that I prefer, when possible, to watch badgers from a tree.  It gets you above them and you get a better view without having to worry as much about scent or badgers blundering into you.  To be honest, though, climbing a tree in the dark while wearing muddy wellies is a complete pain, so I elected to sit at the base a tree, facing the sett with the wind in my face so my scent wouldn’t be carried to the badgers.

My plan was to try to observe the badgers using the night vision (NV) scope, both in passive mode and with infra-red, and see if there was any pattern to their responses.  At 8.50pm I heard the unmistakable sound of scratching from the sett that meant that a badger was above ground.  There was still a little light, so I was able to use the NV scope without the infra-red.  There, by the sett, was a badger.  Success!  A moment later it ambled off.  So far, so inconclusive.  It may have been disturbed by the NV scope, it may have just been a badger with things to do.  I sat and waited.

About 10 minutes later there was a scuffling noise from the sett.  I raised the scope to see what it was.

(At this point, I should confess that I have a strange and irrational fantasy fear about using the NV scope.  I worry that one day I’ll be sitting happily in a dark but otherwise peaceful wood.  I raise the scope to my eye, and there, sitting no more than 10 feet away, is a tiger – of which I was previously blissfully unaware.  It’s wholly irrational, I know, but sitting alone in a dark wood does strange things to your mind after a while.  Once the thought entered my mind I couldn’t seem to get rid of it.)

In this case, I raised the scope to see three badgers running full pelt directly towards me.  You have to understand that I’m used to watching badgers from a tree, not from the ground.  I’m not used to seeing badgers from this angle – full frontal, face to face and eye to eye – let alone three of them, nose to tail and running full speed at me.  It was a new experience, and a very impressive one.

At the last moment, just when I thought the badgers would run straight into me, they stopped.  They were no more than three feet away and clearly visible in the twilight.  I hardly dared to breathe.  Two of the badgers started having sex right in front of me (what is it with me, badgers and sex!?), while the third starting sniffing towards my wellies.  If I had leaned forward I could have tickled any one of them behind the ears.  After 30 heart-stopping seconds they sensed my presence somehow and dashed off towards the sett, except one brave fellow who came back to within a few feet of me and circled round, sniffing, before running off.

What a fantastic experience!  I think this is the closest I’ve ever been to a live badger, and it was absolutely breathtaking.  In one way I had broken my cardinal rule of badger watching – I had let the badgers become aware of my presence.  These badgers are absolutely wild and unaccustomed to humans, and I’ve taken pains to keep them this way. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Despite all my scientific theorising, I still find the sight of badgers to be both thrilling and compelling.  I’ve said it before, there is something about an encounter with badgers that has an effect on people, and this was a very close encounter.  It was a great way to start the badger watching year.

And the effect of the NV scope on the badgers?  The scope was on (in passive mode) during the whole encounter and the badgers showed no signs of noticing me until the very last moment, to the extent of returning to check me out more closely.  This was nothing like the fear I’ve observed when using the infra-red at a far greater distance, which suggests that the scope itself doesn’t bother them.  I’ll need to experiment further to see if the infra-red provokes any consistent responses.  After my close encounter I didn’t have the heart to risk disturbing the badgers any more tonight, and I quietly left them to go about their business.

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