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Posts Tagged ‘badgers’

Today I bought a new camouflage shirt to wear in the summer when my jacket gets too hot.

Everyone knows that your clothes should be a drab green or brown (or in my case a mixture of the two with pictures of leaves on) so that you blend into the background and the wildlife can’t see you.

While I was out I also bought some batteries for my red LED torch, because everyone knows that badgers cannot see red light.

Hang on a minute.  These two statements don’t really go together.  If badgers don’t see the colour red, does that mean that red is the best colour for badger watching clothes?  Why didn’t I just buy a red shirt and trousers?  I’d be invisible to badgers then.  I wonder if anyone has ever tried this?

The truth is that camouflage is a complicated subject, and I’m sure a lot of it comes down to personal preference.  Is camouflage really necessary for watching badgers and other wildlife?  I honestly don’t know.  All I can say is that I wear it because I feel more confident that I can’t be seen, and that confidence is important if you’re going to spend hours in a tree waiting for a wary animal to show itself.

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This started off as a reply to a comment on my last post, but it got a bit long so I thought I’d convert it into a post of its own right.  It is an interesting subject, and this isn’t really a reply to the comment so much as the train of thought it triggered off in me.

I talked about trying to keep hidden from the badgers.  As Undergrowth commented,  I’m sure that the badgers are perfectly aware of my presence, even if it is just from coming across my scent as they forage in the wood.  I live in hope that one day they’ll get used to me being there!

And it would be perfectly possible to use food to get the badgers to accept me.  You can train animals to do just about anything with food.  The famous psychologist B. F. Skinner once trained a cat to play the piano.  Skinner trained animals to do all sorts of things – he created the world’s first guided missile using trained pigeons to home in on the target (thankfully never used, not least for the sake of the pigeons!)

I’ve seen how badgers make full use of available food resources, and I’m sure that regular feeding would get them literally eating out of my hand.  I know that many people feed badgers.  The extra food can be a real benefit to the badgers as well as providing some great views for the watchers.  When you think about it, it’s no different to feeding the birds, and I certainly do that.

But the problem is that once you start feeding animals, you lose the natural behaviour.  I’m not saying it’s wrong to feed them – lord knows we’ve messed around with our wildlife in far more serious ways – but I don’t want to go down that route.  I have put out some peanuts for the badgers in the past, but I’ve stopped doing it now.  I want to be able to see the badgers in their natural state.

In other words, I don’t want to just watch them, I want to understand them.  I want to understand what they do, and how they live.

This is also why I go to so much trouble to stay out of sight.  Even though the badgers are sure to know that I’ve been there, I still want to make as little impact as possible.  I don’t want the badgers to associate me with fear or danger.  If they come to associate my scent with someone crashing about the undergrowth or blundering into view, then they’ll learn to avoid me in the future.  I don’t want them to become friendly with me, just kind of neutral.

It sounds like a lot of trouble, but it means that ‘my’ badgers are truly wild.  What I see is as close to natural behaviour as possible.  That’s important for me.

As always, these are my own views.  I know that some people will disagree and that’s fine.  There are many situations where feeding badgers is a good thing for all concerned.  Just not for me any more and not at this sett.

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I’ve said it before.  Badgers are fascinating creatures.  Almost everyone who comes into contact with them finds them compelling and slightly addictive.  Our countryside is certainly a better and richer place for having badgers.

And yet surely there are many perils in the world for badgers.  They are affected by development and loss of habitat.  They are killed on the roads in large numbers.  Most sickeningly, there is still a small minority of people who set out to deliberately harm them.

This is why anyone who gives up their time and energy protecting badgers is worthy of support.

The Kirklees Badger Protection Group are just such people.  Like many groups, they work hard behind the scenes to help the badgers in their local area, and their passion for the animals is obvious.

What is even better is that you too can get involved.  The KBPG is looking for volunteers to help monitor setts.  If you live in the West Yorkshire area and you’ve ever fancied the idea of getting out and watching badgers, then this is a great opportunity.

Don’t worry if you’ve never been badger watching before and you’re not sure what to do – everything will be explained.  Not only will you get an introduction to these wonderful animals, but you’ll be helping to protect them too.

Check out the website for more details – Kirklees Badger Protection Group

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Do badgers hibernate?

A badger in summer

A badger (in summer!)

I’ve been asked this question quite a lot recently.

People say “I’ve looked at your blog, and there doesn’t seem to be any badger-related activity since late summer.  There’s all sorts of stuff about tracking deer and seeing sparrowhawks and so on, but no badgers.

In a nutshell, Badger Watching Man, why are you not watching badgers?

Have they hibernated?

The truth is that badgers do not hibernate, but badger watchers do.

Badgers remain active all year round, although a very hard frost may keep them underground if it stops them from digging out worms or other food.  They’ll put on weight in autumn when food is plentiful to help them through the leaner times of winter, but they do not go to sleep in winter.

As I write this in November, the badgers will still be emerging each night and going about their usual foraging.  You can check this by looking for tracks and for fresh dung at the latrine sites.  The reason why I am not watching them is because they will be emerging from the sett at about 6.00 or 7.00pm, long after it has got dark.  In the summer months this isn’t a problem as dusk falls after the badgers emerge, but now it is fully dark and there would be no chance of me seeing anything.

The only options for a badger watcher in winter is either to illuminate the sett with some sort of artificial light, or to use night vision goggles.  I don’t have any night vision goggles (yet), and I’m very reluctant to start shining lights on the badgers.  According to most people it does them no harm and doesn’t really disturb them, but I’d still rather not take the chance.

Stormy winter sunset

Stormy winter sunset

So, the badgers are still going strong but I’ve hung up my badger watching hat until the spring, when the days will grow longer and the new cubs will emerge.  Rather than hibernate fully myself I’ve become engrossed in deer and tracks and all manner of wild things for the winter, but don’t worry, the badgers will return!

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It is definitely autumn.  It hasn’t felt like we’ve had much of a summer this year, but the seasons are definitely turning.  The blackberries are in full flow, the leaves are starting to turn on the horse chestnut trees (always the first to get leaves and the first to lose them) and the evenings are drawing in.

Sadly, the badger watching season is coming to an end for me.  Badgers don’t hibernate, so they’ll be out and about all winter, but it is now pretty well dark when they emerge from the sett.  Fine for the badgers, not so fine for badger watching.  I may try and see if I can watch them using an artificial light – red light is not supposed to bother them very much – but I’m always wary of disturbing them.

Today I’ve been for a wander around the woods and fields.  All the summer crops have now been harvested, so everything is looking a bit bare.  No doubt the badgers are hard at work getting in their harvest, eating as much as they can and putting on as much weight as possible for the leaner months ahead.

Badger dung with elderberries

Badger dung with elderberries

The badger dung in one of the latrine sites was dark red and a mass of pips, a sign that at least one badger has been gorging itself on elderberries.  Apparently elderberries are edible for humans, but I’ve tried them and they aren’t very nice.  I’m happy to leave them to the badgers.

I visited the far end of the wood today in search of the neighboring badger setts that I am sure are there, based on my mapping of latrine sites and territories.  Sure enough, about 700m from the main sett I came across what looks very like a badger hole.  This fits in very nicely with my estimate of 350m for the radius of a badger territory.

Unfortunately the rain had washed out any tracks from the vicinity, but the hole looked badger-ish to me.  There were old dung pits nearby, and some fairly well-used paths.  Of course, the only proof would be to go there one evening and see if a badger comes out of it.

The interesting thing is that this is a single hole, compared to the dozen or so holes at the main sett.  There has been a fair amount written about subsidiary setts – setts connected by kinship to a main sett, so I wonder if this is an example.  To be honest, I’ve always found the literature on main, outlying and subsidiary setts a trifle confusing, but I’ve got a reason to go back and re-read it now.  I’ll also try and get down here one evening and see what happens.

The new badger sett

The new badger sett - note the spoil heap and paths

As I was sitting contemplating this new sett, a Chinese Water Deer wandered up.  These are small deer, about the size of a muntjac, but more graceful.  Their most distinctive feature is that they have two long ‘fangs’ or tusks on the upper jaw, which gives them a strange, vampire deer appearance.  My camouflage jacket was obviously working today because this one wandered to within about 15 feet of me.  Chinese Water Deer are less common than the other species around here.  Like so many unusual species they were introduced by the Duke of Bedford in Woburn and subsequently escaped.  Now it’s estimated that the UK has something like 10% of the total world population, so they have obviously become scarce in their native country.

Elsewhere, I’m still practising my tracking.  The field behind my house is great, as the sandy soil is always full of the tracks of rabbit, muntjac and roe deer.  This evening I came across what looked very much like badger tracks.  This in itself is not unusual, but they must have been made this afternoon, as the heavy rain this morning washed out all last night’s tracks.

I'd swear this is the forefoot of a badger - look at the claws - but from the freshness it was made this afternoon

Looks like the forepaw of a badger to me!

Does this mean that my local badger has taken to wandering around in the daytime, or have I misidentified the tracks?  There’s still more work for me to do on my tracking.  If nothing else, it’ll keep me occupied over the winter.

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Once again I’ve been neglecting my badgers. Or leaving them in peace, depending on your perspective.

Badger print

Badger print

I actually had a little trip up to the wood last weekend, but although I could hear the badgers, I couldn’t see them. Let me explain. The sett itself is on a small rise in the ground There is a small valley to the north of the sett, with parallel gullies running into it on the east and west of the sett. This means that if you are in the low ground on one side you can only see that side of the sett, as the rise in the ground makes it impossible to see the other side.

The badgers have moved to a part of the sett in the centre of this rise, which, to make matters more difficult, resembles an overgrown first world war battlefield. There are big craters dotted around, no doubt the result of spoil heaps and cave-ins at the sett many generations of badgers ago. This local geography is making the badgers very difficult to watch, so it was not a great surprise that I could hear the whickering noises of badgers at play, but to my frustration they were invisible on the other side of the sett.

This evening everything seemed right for badger watching. It was a Friday evening, my wife was working late, and for once it wasn’t raining. There was a nice breeze blowing in from the west, which meant that I could sit in one of the easily climbed trees on the edge of the sett.

And sure enough, I did see the badgers. The first pair, an adult and a cub, came out of the tangle of undergrowth in the middle of the site at about 8.10pm and sat around the central sett entrance. At about 8.30pm I could see movement in the undergrowth, and through binoculars I could see four or five badgers rolling about, grooming and fighting. With the two that had come out earlier, this made a total of six or seven out at the same time.

I couldn’t make out much detail through the foliage, but the badgers seemed happy and healthy enough. The light had gone too much for any photographs. The long exposure required in dim light means that the badgers are inevitably blurred – they rarely sit still long enough.

By 8.45pm they had moved out into the open, but it was getting too dark to really see what was happening. I use 7×50 binoculars, and they are very good at collecting the available light so that things seem brighter than they with the naked eye, but even so I was struggling to see.

This evening won’t go down as one of the best badger watching sessions ever, but it was nice to get out to the cool freshness of the wood, and good to see that the badgers were still going strong.

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What madness is this?

The frog by the path, happy in the rain

The frog by the path, happy in the rain

It’s been raining all day. It’s raining now. I’m sitting on a rotten log underneath a tall oak tree, and everything is wet.

There’s only one dry space in the entire wood, and that’s the three inches under the brim of my hat. I’m sharing this dry space with what seems like every mosquito and bug for miles around, but for once, thrown together by a common need for shelter, they don’t seem to be biting me.

It is 7.30 in the evening and I’m watching at the eastern sett entrance. There’s no sign of the badgers, but then I hardly expected there to be. All my experience tells me that they’ll be snug underground. There’ll be no playing tonight – just a quick exit and then off to feed. Badgers dislike the rain as much as I do. Some foolish instinct has drawn me up here, but I don’t hold out high hopes.

A rabbit hops by about 30 feet away. It shakes itself like a dog and disappears for a moment in a fine spray of water droplets. Even the rabbit is soaking.

The rabbit and I play a quick game of Who Can Stay Still The Longest. To be honest, this is not a very exciting game, and it probably won’t make it onto television any time soon, but it passes the time.

The rules are simple. The rabbit looks at me. I look at the rabbit. The first one to move loses. If I move first, the rabbit confirms its suspicion that I’m a threat, and it hops away. If the rabbit moves first, it means that my camouflage is working and I get the chance to watch the rabbit’s natural behaviour. I’ve played this game many times, and the rabbits always take it very seriously. Winning or losing can literally be a matter of life and death for them in this game.

This time I win, and the rabbit hops a few yards closer to me and sits under a tree. It’s easier for me today because any movement of my head sends a trickle of water into my lap, so I’ve got a real interest in staying still. The trick of the game is to avoid looking directly at the rabbit. Rabbits, like most prey animals, seem to have a paranoid sixth sense that tells them when they’re being watched. If you focus your eyes on the ground and watch them out of the corner of your eye they seem to be more relaxed.

At 7.50 the little badger cub appears. It trots quickly by me and into the foliage on the east. The little cub always seems to be doing its own thing, and this evening is no exception. I don’t think it’s hurrying because of me; it just doesn’t want to hang around in the rain.

By 8.30 it is getting dark, and no more badgers have appeared. I’m cold and I’m wet. My waterproof jacket has done a great job, but the water is coming in down my neck and up my sleeves, and for once I decide that sitting at home with a nice hot cup of tea is the perfect way to spend the evening. I know that my last few badger watching sessions have not been a success, but on the other hand I don’t want to be remembered as the man who came down with hypothermia on an August evening in the south of England. I’ll return soon and get back to some proper badger watching.

As I leave I come across a frog on the path. He’s the only creature who seems genuinely happy with the weather at the moment. Nice weather for frogs indeed!

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I seem to have developed an unhealthy interest in badger dung.

Let me explain. When I first started watching badgers, I made a conscious decision to stick with one sett and focus on that. There are at least two, possibly three, other setts that I know of (or strongly suspect) in the local area, although I don’t know their exact locations. I know they are there because I’ve seen badgers on the roads or other signs, and they’re too far off to be ‘my’ badgers.

I decided to stick with the one sett because I wanted to really get to know one clan of badgers. Only by fully understanding how this sett works as a social group could I learn about the details of badger behaviour. Jumping from one sett to another and watching different groups of badgers would be fun, but I’ve always felt that it would dilute my understanding.

I’ve reached the point now though where I want to understand how ‘my’ sett fits into the bigger picture of setts in the area – how they interact, movement between setts and so on. Hence I’ve just spent an afternoon looking for badger dung.

Badgers are territorial. Each family or clan controls its own territory, marking it out as its own property. This marking is most visibly done with dung. Badgers are quite fastidious, and they tend to deposit their dung in specific ‘latrine sites’, typically located on the boundaries of their territory. If you can locate these sites, you can map the boundary points and hence the area controlled by a particular sett.

Badger latrine site

Badger latrine site

I spent about three hours wandering up and down the footpaths around the wood, and I’ve mapped out six latrine sites to the east, south west, west and north east of the sett. The distance from these the sett is 300 to 400 metres, with one outlier in the wheat field 600 metres away. This suggests that my badgers are controlling the territory for a radius of 300-400m from their sett.

Of course, this is probably a gross oversimplification. It is most unlikely that the badgers have a perfectly circular territory. Territory size is governed by availability of resources, so it is interesting to note that the latrine sites enclosed an area of woodland (which provides cover and security), plus significant areas of pasture and cereal fields (which provide food). It seems that my badgers are pretty well organised here.

If the latrine sites do represent a boundary between badger territories, this suggests that the neighbouring setts will be something in the order of 600m away, in other words an equal distance from the boundary, assuming the availability of resources is similar. This distance is somewhat higher that the 350m quoted by Neal and Cheeseman, but they were studying badgers in the Cotswolds where resources are likely to be more abundant, and so territories smaller.

So there you have it. An afternoon of looking for dung has allowed my to predict (albeit very roughly) the size of the badgers’ territory and the possible location of neighbouring setts. I’ll carry on working on this idea and see if I can add more detail in the future.

Something else I intend to do more of in the future is tracking. I’ve become intrigued by the idea of tracking mammals, partly as an activity in its own right, but partly also as a way of finding out more about their movements and locations. This could be particularly useful for the rare and shy species, as I can find out what they have been doing without having to be there at the time.

I’ve bought a book on tracking and I’m reading through it at the moment, but I’ve already discovered that it is more difficult than it looks. It rained heavily this morning so any tracks outside the wood have been washed out, and inside the wood the patches of ‘printable’ ground are few and far between. The best I could do was to find a few confused deer tracks (the tracks were confused, not the deer!) and the odd partial badger print.

These badger prints were the closest I got to the stripeys all evening. I watched the eastern side of the sett from 7.00pm to 8.40pm without seeing so much as a black and white nose. They may have come out of another entrance without me being able to see them, as the view is limited on this side of the sett. Perhaps they’re playing more tricks on me. Either way, no pictures of badgers for this post!

It’s been a good day though. Like I said, there’s enough to learn about badgers to keep you busy for years!

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At last, the summer is back, and it’s been a long, hot day. Having done my chores in the garden, it was time for a trip to the woods for a spot of badger watching.

“You’ve got to watch badgers”, I explained to my wife, “badgers need watching! If you don’t watch them, they’ll get up to all kinds of mischief!” How true this turned out to be!

It being a nice day, and inspired by reading Pablo’s Woodlife Blog, I decided to have a bushcraft adventure and spend the night in the wood. I stuffed my hammock and a light sleeping bag into my small rucksack and I was off.

It was a warm, airless evening in the wood. I climbed my favourite tree, sat on my cushion, and waited. And waited. And waited a little bit longer. By about 8.15 the sun was sinking and there were no badgers in sight. By this time they should be up and out and sitting around the sett entrance. Where have all the badgers gone?

Eventually, a badger ambled into view. Not from the sett entrance, but from the east side of the sett. It was the little tiny cub, and as usual it was busy foraging. I couldn’t see what it was eating, but every now and then it would pounce on something, much like a fox pouncing on mice. It didn’t seem to eating anything large, so it could have been catching beetles or insects.

The tiny cub (which is less tiny now) seems to be out on its own quite often, but where was the rest of the clan? On an impulse, I turned round and looked behind me. There, about 50 yards away, was the whole pack of badgers.

Curse these stripey fiends! They had obviously come from one of the eastern sett entrances, and there they

Badgers a long way off, by the eastern sett entrance

Badgers a long way off, by the eastern sett entrance

were, rolling around in silent badger laughter, no doubt delighted at having tricked me into watching an empty piece of woodland for the last half an hour!

Obviously, they have moved back into the other part of the sett. When I first started watching this sett, three years ago, this was the main area of occupation, but since then the badgers had moved to western end. Now they seemed to have gone back. Is this normal? Did they move to the western end because of the cubs? Had I disturbed them? I shall have to check up on this.

Anyway, the badgers were making the most of the fine evening. There was plenty of running around, play fighting and general high spirits. The annoying thing for me was that I was too far away to get a very good view except through binoculars, and several large patches of nettles hid the badgers from sight a lot of the time.

Badgers playing

Badgers playing

They all seemed happy and healthy enough, which was good. The little cub still seems to be a bit of a loner, staying away from the main pack. It’ll be interesting to see if it comes back into the main group later in the year.

Of course, because the badgers were in a different place, they were potentially downwind of me. There wasn’t much breeze, but probably enough. Having satisfied myself that all was well, I left them to it and ambled off myself.

Here’s a video montage of the badgers this evening:

Having decided to spend a night out of doors, I circled around so that I was upwind of the badger sett, found a couple of suitable trees, and put up my hammock. This is a very comfortable way to camp, especially in a wood where the ground is littered with fallen trees and debris. I chose a spot overlooking a deer trail in the hope of spotting some deer in the morning.

I’d love to say that I spent a restful and refreshing night in the wild, but it would be a lie. No sooner had I turned off my light and put down my copy of Jim Corbett’s The Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag (a book describing nights spent stalking man-eaters in the jungles of India, and possibly the best thing to read in a wood after dark), than the muntjac started.

Generally, I like muntjac. I’ve a soft spot for these little deer. With two exceptions – firstly, they have a habit of sneaking into my garden and nibbling my sweetcorn plants, which I take very personally. Secondly, the barking.

If you have never heard a muntjac bark before, then it is hard to describe what it is like. The sound is a cross between a bark and an unearthly scream, and in a quiet wood it is unbeliveably loud. It is hard to imagine that such a small deer could create such a loud noise. I was walking out of the wood one day when a muntjac started barking, and I could still hear it when I reached my house, three-quarters of a mile away as the crow flies. The terrible thing about muntjac barking is that they bark about every five seconds, regular as clockwork, and they can keep it up for hours.

A munjac track - I've been trying my hand at tracking

A munjac track - I've been trying my hand at tracking

I honestly don’t know why muntjac bark. It may be as an alarm call, or a way of attracting other muntjacs, or a way of warning them off. I suspect it may be for all of these reasons.

So there I was. I had one muntjac barking away about a hundred yards to my left, and another barking back at it about a hundred yards to my right. To add to the cacophony there was a tawny owl crying somewhere overhead.

I may sound a bit churlish. You would think that as a naturalist I would enjoy this. This is what being close to nature is all about. Perhaps you’re right, I should appreciate it more. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had. I’ll have to work at this bushcraft thing.

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The good news this week is the the government has abandoned plans for a badger cull as a response to Bovine TB.

The sad news is that a badger cull was ever contemplated in the first place. I’ve mentioned before that badgers are the largest of the truly wild animals left in Britain. I honestly believe that people won’t rest until we’ve sent them the same way as the wild boar and the bear. If we don’t get them one way, we’ll get them another.

The fact is that Bovine TB, like BSE and foot and mouth, is another product of our wasteful and inefficient farming practices. The reservoir of the disease is cows, and it is spread through cattle movements and a lack of proper monitoring. Culling badgers will make no difference – look at Ireland, where they tried it and Bovine TB rates didn’t change.

Anyway, the plans for the cull have been dropped, which is a relief. I don’t have to become an eco-terrorist in defence of the badgers just yet.tb

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