Posts Tagged ‘badgers’

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


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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Badger - one of the mammals that practices delayed implantationAs I write this I can be quite confident that in badger setts across the country, female badgers are either giving birth or getting very close to doing so.  Up to mid-February is the peak time for badger births.

The reason I can be so confident is that badgers have amazing control over their reproduction via a process called delayed implantation.  The badgers can mate at any time of year (spring and late summer seem to be particularly favoured times) and yet give birth in February.

What happens is that the egg gets fertilised in the normal way.  Egg and sperm combine and the cells start to divide.   But the fertilised egg does not implant itself into the uterus and continue to develop as would be the case in most mammals.  Instead, the small ball of cells, called a blastocyst, stops developing and goes dormant, drawing just the small amount of oxygen and nutrition it needs to survive.  In late December the blastocyst attaches itself to the wall of the uterus and starts to develop into a full foetus, to be born in February.  This is delayed implantation.  It means that the badger mating I witnessed in August (see Fieldnotes: 8th August 2009 – Sex) could result in cubs being born now.

Delayed implantation is not unique to badgers.  It occurs in a number of other mammals such as stoats, bears, Roe Deer and Grey Seals.  The evolutionary advantages of the process are clear – it means that the young are always born at the optimal time to take advantage of the best food resources in spring.

For badgers, there a few interesting implications.  Ernest Neal speculates that delayed implantation allows the badgers to mate throughout the year, which may help to strengthen clan relationships.  Hans Kruuk makes the point that multiple matings with different males could result in multiple blastocysts, meaning that each cub in a litter could have a different father.  Badger families must get complicated sometimes!  This is even more interesting when you remember that the dominant female badger may kill the cubs of other females to maintain her position.  This control over the genetic make-up of the clan is very much a female thing.  It must be related to the fact that you can never be sure who the father is, but there’s never any doubt about the mother.

Now, I’ve been thinking about badgers, and about delayed implantation, and I’ve got my own little theory.  This is just my own idea, so if it’s wrong then I take full blame.  My line of thinking goes like this: most of the mammals that practice delayed implantation are solitary by nature.  This means that the males and females come into contact only irregularly.

Delayed implantation offers an evolutionary advantage to these species because it means that a male and female can meet up at any time of year, mate, and still have the offspring born at the best time.  It is a way of compensating for geographical and territorial dispersion.

But badgers are different.  Badgers live in social groups where males and females come into contact every day.  For clan-living badgers, delayed implantation offers no great advantages.  Why don’t female badgers simply come into season in December and have cubs via direct implantation?  Neal’s theory about the regular mating strengthening group bonds is one plausible explanation, and there may be a further advantage gained by the genetic diversity of litters sired by different fathers, but I think it tells us something about the evolution of badgers.

I think that delayed implantation is an evolutionary throwback to a time when the Eurasian Badger was a solitary animal.  I think it points to a period in the history of the badger when they didn’t live in social groups and therefore gained an advantage from it much as stoats and seals do today.  In turn, it suggests that clan living is a relatively recent development for badgers.

It isn’t as wild a theory as it sounds.  Other badgers around the world are still solitary – the American Badger, the Honey Badger, the Indonesian Stink Badger, and so on.  Even our own Eurasian Badger is solitary across large parts of its range.  In Mediterranean regions, where food is scarce, badgers are virtually solitary.  Rather than this being an adaptation to the dry conditions, it’s my belief that delayed implantation shows that this is their natural state, with clan living a relatively recent adaptation to the conditions of North West Europe.

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Badger at the middle sett entranceOK.  So maybe you’re thinking that the title of this post is a shameless and none-too-subtle attempt to increase the web traffic to this blog.  Perhaps you’re right.  But read on for the full story.

Today I finally finished the shelves that have taken up quite a lot of my time recently – ten shelves of solid oak, seven feet long, cut to size, jointed and glued into five rectangular units, oiled and now attached to the wall.  A good job, if I do say so myself.  This gave me the chance to take a stroll up to the wood in the evening to see how the badgers were doing.  It’s been the first weekend without the threat of torrential rain for a while, so it would have been a shame not to get outdoors at some point.

It was a windless evening so I settled down in my favourite tree.  There were signs of great activity at the western end of the sett.  A large heap of fresh spoil suggests the holes have been enlarged over the past few days.  I still don’t understand how or why the badgers occupy different parts of the sett at different times.  Perhaps there is no pattern?  Perhaps they just sleep where they feel like it?

At 7.55pm a pair of badgers emerged from the middle sett entrance.  This is new.  The badgers haven’t used this part of the sett much at all this year.  Soon there were five badgers by the entrance, engaged in some energetic mutual grooming.  They were a picture of a happy, healthy badger group.  I guess that life is good at the moment, what with the corn ripening in the fields and the wet weather making it easy to catch worms.

After ten minutes or so of grooming, the interaction started to get a little more, shall we say, intimate.  To put it more bluntly, two of the badgers started mating.  The boar swiftly mounted the female, biting her on the back of the neck to keep her in position.

I’ve seen badgers mating a few times.  Badgers can mate at any time of year, although the cubs are always born in spring.  This happens because of delayed implantation; the fertilised egg (blastocyst) lying dormant until December.  Mating seems to vary in intensity.  Sometimes the female resists and it is hard to tell whether they’re mating or fighting.  This time was much less vigorous, with only the occasional ‘yip’ from the sow when the boar bit her too hard.

As I’ve mentioned before, Ernest Neal made the distinction between short- and long-duration mating, with only the long-duration mating being a serious attempt at reproduction.  This was definitely long-duration mating – a little over 35 minutes by my watch.

The interesting thing for me was the behaviour of the other badgers.  Most ignored the mating couple but one in particular – a fairly young boar – took a much more active interest.  Although a bigger (and probably older) boar was already mounted on the sow, the smaller one would also bite her neck as if he wanted to mount her too.  This resulted in a few sharp snaps from the larger badger at times.  Such was the younger badger’s eagerness that at one point he mounted the larger boar while the larger boar was mounted on the sow.  Apparently frustrated by his lack of success, the smaller badger also mounted another passing sow, so that there were two badger couples mating side by side at one point.

[You see, not only am I watching badgers mating, I’m watching badgers as they engage in all sorts of deviant sexual activity – there’ll be complaints soon, mark my words!]

The video below shows a selection of events from the mating.

As I said, the coupling lasted for a little over 35 minutes.  As soon as it was over and the badgers separated, the smaller boar immediately mounted the female and the process began again.  This second mating went on for at least 20 minutes.  It was still going strong in the darkness when I left for home.

This second mating by another male is unusual behaviour for a hierarchical animal.  Many social animals have evolved mechanisms so that only the dominant ones are allowed to breed.  For a larger male to let a smaller male mate with the same female immediately after he has done so goes against this pattern.  However, reading through Ernest Neal when I got home, it seems that it is not uncommon in badgers.  Female badgers in oestrus seem to be very promiscuous, and it seems that it is the female that will often initiate these multiple matings with different males.  Badgers do have other ways of controlling breeding by non-dominant individuals, notably the dominant female killing the cubs of others, so perhaps the actual act of mating is less important.

Apart from being slightly voyeuristic (again!) it was a fascinating evening.  It was good to see the whole mating process and to capture it on video.  As I always say, it’s the complex social life of badgers that makes them so interesting to study.

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I’ve been busy building shelves today so I didn’t have time for badger watching in the evening.  However, this did give me the perfect excuse to go out after dark and try out my night vision scope.

Having used it out in the field I’m now in a better position to evaluate it.  Like most NV scopes it enhances the natural light, so on a moonlit night it should be pretty effective, and for darker nights (like tonight) it has a built-in infra-red torch which really does make a difference.  The manufacturer’s claimed range of 100m seems quite accurate.   Actually using it took some getting used to.  The image is fairly bright, so although it does allow you to see in the dark it pretty well destroys your night vision at the same time.

I decided to see if I could spot any badgers feeding, so I went up to the pasture field.  I know there are badgers here every night, so it seemed a good place to try out the scope.  I went to my favourite haunt – the stag-headed oak at the top of the hill.  The wind was blowing in my face as I looked towards the wood, so I was well placed to watch any badgers as they came out onto the field.

Night Vision TreeThe church clock was just striking eleven when I saw the first badger.  Success!  It was in a hurry, and trotted past me quickly.  I found out another limitation of the scope, and that is the relatively small field of view.  I lost sight of the badger when it went behind the tree, and try as I might I couldn’t find it again.

Standing up, I saw two more badgers by the edge of the wood, but as I watched they went back into the trees.  Since the wind was in my favour I decided to get closer so that I could spot them as they came out again. Ten minutes later another badger appeared from the other side of the field.  Like the others, this one turned and trotted off almost as soon as I focused on it.

Now I was getting concerned.  All the badgers I’d seen had run off pretty quickly.  This wasn’t supposed to happen.  The idea of having an NV scope wasn’t so I could see in the dark (I’ve got a perfectly good torch for that, and it only cost £10 from Tesco), it was so that I could see in the dark without disturbing the wildlife.  So far it seemed that the badgers were fairly disturbed.  Can badgers see infra-red light?  The IR torch on the scope gives out a dim red visible light, but surely not enough to scare a badger?  I’ve shone red torches on them before and they didn’t seem to mind as much.

Perhaps I had committed some basic error of fieldcraft.  Perhaps the badgers could see me silhouetted against the paler sky.  I returned to the tree so I would be less conspicuous, poured a cup of tea from my flask, and gave the badgers time to settle down again.

Ten minutes later I scanned the field again.  There was another badger, and once again it ran off when I focused the scope on it.

I didn’t want to disturb the badgers’ feeding, so I decided to head down to the wheat field and see if I had any more luck.  Sure enough, when I got there I saw two more badgers just inside the field.  Both scampered off quickly but they were downwind of me, so this is perhaps excusable.  I waited a while but they didn’t return.

The church clock rang midnight and I decided to call it a night.  I didn’t want to disturb the badgers any further, and besides, even badger watchers need to sleep at some point.  I kept the scope on though, and at the bottom of the field I came across yet another badger who promptly disappeared into the corn.

In some ways it was a good night.  I’ve seen more badgers away from the sett than ever before.  The bad news is that I’ve only seen their backsides as they’ve turned and ran.  Rather than opening up a new dimension in my study of badgers, the scope has so far only helped me on my way to becoming an expert on badger tails!  It was frustrating to be in a field full of badgers but not to get a good look at them.

So was it the scope, or was it something I did wrong?  Can badgers see infra-red, or was it just one of those nights?  I need to make a few more trips before I can really answer this.

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Last night I went for a walk around 11.00pm to see if I could spot the badgers foraging in the pasture field, although if I’m honest with myself this was just an excuse to get outside.

There is something truly magical about being outdoors on a summer night.  It was a beautiful, clear, warm night with a nearly full moon – it was the perfect night to be out and about.  Few people, I suppose, deliberately go out in the dark these days, but they’re missing out.  Just to be out in the countryside on a night like this is special in a way that I simply cannot put into words.

By 11.30 I was sitting with my back to the great old stag-headed oak on the top of the hill in the pasture field.  It seemed that I could look out over the whole of Bedfordshire – the woods and fields, houses and roads – stretching out before me in the moonlight.  Once again the whole world was asleep while I was joyously awake and alive.

At 11.45 a badger came trotting up behind me.  Poor thing.  I was sitting facing the wood with the wind in my face because for some daft reason I expected the badgers to come out of the wood, even though they would have started foraging hours ago.  This badger must have been out in the field already, and it must have come across my scent being blown behind me and decided to hurry past.  Ah well, let it go.  No point in disturbing it further.

On my way back home I came almost face to face with another badger in the cornfield at the bottom of the hill.  I know they use this field and they feed here, but this was the first time I’ve caught one in the act.

I had my camera with me but I didn’t take any pictures.  Taking pictures would have meant using the camera flash.  To have suddenly lit up the scene with a harsh, artificial light seemed somehow crass and insensitive and sacrilegious, almost like shouting in a cathedral.  I was content to sit and watch and to be a part of the night myself, to share the night with the creatures around me.

Perhaps the magic of a summer night can only be experienced first hand, and not captured and brought home.

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Things have been busier than usual at work and around the house lately, hence I’m late in writing up my notes.  It’s been a gloriously hot bank holiday weekend, and I’ve been taking the opportunity to thrash the garden into shape.  Where there was a jungle there are now neat rows of vegetables and trimmed hedges – what a difference a few days can make.

And by the way, this blog is now a year old, so happy birthday to me!  The main reason for writing it is to keep a diary so that I can check back on things and compare my experiences over the years.   It’s working already.  I can see from my records that this time last year was cold and wintry, so I’m starting to build up an archive of what has happened.  Besides, keeping a diary online is much more fun than doing it on paper.

So without further ado, here’s the compressed diary entries for the weekend.

Saturday 23rd May

Being busy in the garden, I only had time for a quick trip up to the woods.  I set myself up at the western side of the sett, mostly because it is clearer here and the view is better.

At 8.00pm exactly a badger left the eastern side of the sett and ambled over the western entrances.  Five minutes later it wandered back again.  A social visit, I presume.  The eastern end of the sett is where I’ve seen the only cub of the season so far, so I’ve been keeping an eye on it to try and see some more.

The vixen and the fox cubs came out at 8.20.  There are five of them.  They suckled their mother for a few minutes before she suddenly ran off across the wood, five little cubs in tow.  For a moment there were fox cubs everywhere, but they soon sorted themselves out.  Perhaps she is starting to teach them to hunt, or just encouraging them to be more independent.

I could hear badgers at the eastern end of the sett at 8.35, but the undergrowth hid them from me.  I still want to find out if there are any more cubs, so it looks like a trip to this end of the sett is called for.

Sunday 24th May

The eastern end of the sett presents a challenge, as there are no easily climbable trees nearby so you have to sit on the ground.  It is also on a slight rise, so to get any sort of view you need to be pretty close.  It was time for some extreme stealth badger watching!

Getting close to truly wild badgers is difficult because they are very nervous.  I did everything I could to prepare.  I brought my full camouflage outfit – my new camo shirt, gloves and two face veils.  I even made sure that the shoes I wore had dark soles!  The face veils are very important, as your face really does stand out.  In particular it is useful to cover your eyes.  Animals (and birds) seem to have an uncanny knack of knowing when you’re looking at them, and I think a lot of this comes from seeing your eyes.  The ability to recognise eyes is built into almost all animals – a human baby will smile at two dots on a piece of paper if they are the same size as its mother’s eyes.  One company in the US even makes camouflage sunglasses; these may seem like a gimmick but I’m convinced they are useful because they disguise your most noticeable feature.

Here’s what I look like in full camo gear – needless to say I don’t pop into the pub dressed like this.

The Badger Watching Man in full camouflage clothing

The BWM in full camouflage

All my badger watching clothes are washed in hot water without soap, and to make sure I get rid of any possible washing powder scent I soak them in the rainwater butt overnight and then let them dry outside.  I myself took a shower in hot water without soap, but I’m afraid I didn’t jump in the rainwater afterwards.  I draw the line at some things.  Never mind, I was as scent-free as I could possibly make myself.

All this camouflage may seem excessive, but I think it does help.  It certainly gives me confidence to get close to the badgers.

Taking note of the wind direction I crept slowly up to the sett and sat with my back to a tree to hide my silhouette.  I sat absolutely still, like a statue or a piece of wood.  The local mosquitoes came out in force and bit my hands and ankles (the only vulnerable places) but I kept still.

At 8.00pm or so two badgers emerged – an adult and a cub.  I was sitting in full view no more than 12 feet or so away.  What a fantastic sight!  I felt I could almost reach over and touch them.  No chance of any pictures, of course.  If I’d have moved even an inch they would have been scared off.

They sat and groomed and scratched for ten minutes or so as I sat and watched, hardly daring to breathe.  When they ambled off I crept away as quietly as I could.

It was a great experience.  Apart from the sheer boyish pleasure of dressing up and creeping around in a wood I had one of the best views of the badgers ever.

Still only the one cub though.  Could it be that there is only one this year?

Monday 25th May

Back again at the western end of the sett.  Two badgers came over from the eastern side at 8.25pm, and were joined by others from the western entrances.  At 8.35 the mother and cub came over from the eastern sett.  This was the first time I’ve seen the cub joining the adults over here.

The badgers were all very busy.  At least three of them were engaged in some energetic digging in two separate entrances.  Interestingly, one of these was a badger from the eastern side.  It seems that it was living in a separate part of the sett yet it was still helping to excavate over here.  Very community-spirited!  You could tell the badgers that had been digging because they were a muddy red colour from the soil rather than the usual grey and black.

Other than that it was a typical relaxed badger evening.  All the badgers sat around grooming contentedly, and the air was filled with scratching noises.  Occasionally one badger would musk another, or help out with some mutual grooming.  In short, it was a happy scene of a badger clan at ease.

Here’s a short video to give you a flavour of the evening:

And what about the cubs?  Well, there was only the one.  It played alongside the adults, but it was very much an only child.  I’m coming to the conclusion that there is only this one cub this year.  Is this because of the hard weather we had at the start of the year?  Is it because we had a lot of cubs last year?  Let’s see if an answer presents itself.  In the meantime, it’s good to be out in the woods on a warm evening in the company of badgers.

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Sniffing the air after leaving the sett

Sniffing the air after leaving the sett

I still haven’t managed to get a good look at any badger cubs this year, so once again I climbed the hill to the woods.

The badgers had obviously been busy around the western part of the sett, so I set myself up there and waited.  The wait was made easier by a great-spotted woodpecker that worked its way up the trees in the area.  I’ve been hearing woodpeckers for weeks, but this is the first time I’ve managed to see one.

At 8.14pm a pair of badgers came out of one of the eastern entrances, followed quickly by a third.   Frustratingly, this part of the sett is hidden in undergrowth, so although I could get glimpses of black and white faces, I couldn’t tell if any of them were cubs.

For the next half hour or so I sat and listened to the badgers happily playing and whickering just out of sight.  Then my attention was diverted elsewhere.

Remember the fox I mentioned a few posts ago that was living in one outlying

The fox cubs (damn that autofocus!)

The fox cubs (damn that autofocus!)

hole of the sett?  Well, it seems that ‘he’ is a ‘she’, because at 8.40 two adorable fox cubs appeared outside the hole.  These little chaps were very cute indeed!  Difficult to photograph, but still very cute.  Sod the badgers, I thought.  If they’re going to play hard to get then I’ll watch the foxes instead.

As if in answer, two badgers ambled over to the western sett entrance and in quick succession another six emerged from the hole.  In no time there were eight badgers grooming and playing in front of me.

A few things stand out from the evening.  Firstly, there were no cubs.  All the badgers seemed adult size with adult behaviours, so unless this year’s cubs are very quick to mature then these are all last years.  The main reason for keeping this diary is so that I can compare notes, and looking at the pictures from the end of May last year there is no way the cubs would be so grown up.  The cubs (I’ve only seen one) must still be out of sight.

The badgers were in a playful mood – running, play-fighting and climbing trees.  There is a tree at the sett that grows at an angle of 45 degrees, and I’ve seen the badgers climb up it a few times.  The end of the tree is about 12 feet off the ground yet they don’t seem bothered.  I walked up it once and it scared the hell out of me.

There was a lot of social behaviour going on.  I noticed that as each new badger emerged from the sett it would musk (scent mark) the others, which implies that musking is a group behaviour and not just done by dominant individuals.  I took some video, but the evening was a little too dark for it.  Nevertheless, I’ve uploaded some because there’s a good example of musking going on.  Watch how the badger coming in from the right lifts his tail when he rubs against the others.  He (or she) is marking them with scent from the sub-caudal gland.

Talking of dominant individuals, I was treated to another fine display of badger sex.  I really should stop watching things like this, but since the badgers in question were surrounded by six of their fellows and didn’t seem embarrassed, then neither should I be.  The mating was interesting, because it was the first time I’ve ever been sure of the gender of individual badgers.  It also implied that the badgers doing the mating were dominant in the clan, so these are obviously badgers of importance to watch out for in the future.  I tried to see any distinguishing features so I could recognise them again, but they looked the same as any other badgers, dammit!

Ernest Neal distinguishes between short- and long-duration mating in badgers, where the long variety is a more serious attempt to breed.  My pair were at it for 10 minutes, which seemed quite long, although Neal records instances of up to 90 minutes.  Badger mating seems to involve a certain roughness, with the male biting the neck of the female to stop her running away, and she in turn trying to bite him when he gets too agressive.

Another thing of note was that a number of badgers rolled on the ground in exactly the same spot.  This seemed like more than just coincidence.  Do badgers scent-mark the soil, and then other badgers pick it up?  Another thing to look out for in the future.

After an hour or so the badgers wandered off to begin the night’s foraging.  By 9.45pm the sett was quiet again and I gracelessly climbed down from my tree.  It was a fine evening, and the playfulness and the complexity of the social behaviour reminded my why I enjoy watching these remarkable creatures.

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