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Walking through Woburn Deer ParkWoburn Abbey is not very far away from where I live.  Every now an then I like to go for a walk through the deer park.  I know they’re not real wild deer, but the park is a great place to watch deer at close quarters and in fairly natural surroundings. Put another way, it is 3,000 acres of grassland, trees, small copses and lakes – although it is managed habitat it offers a chance to see all manner of wildlife.

If you look back at previous years you’ll see that I make a point of visiting the Deer Park in October for the Red Deer rut, and this is truly a spectacle to behold.  I recommend it to anyone if they’re able to travel to Woburn.  But actually, the park is a good place to visit at any time, especially with the attached safari park and zoo.

It is perfectly possible to visit the Deer Park and see plenty of deer without even having to leave your car.  There is a public highway that crosses the park – you can drive through (carefully, mind) and the deer are there either side of the road.  But this isn’t the best way to see it.  There is a whole network of public footpaths that means you can leave the car in one of the neighbouring villages and stroll through on foot.  You can even work out a big circular walk on the paths that takes you well away from the road and into some lovely hidden spots.

Scarlett and I took a walk through the park to visit the monthly farmer’s market in Woburn village.  I like doing this, as it gives me a chance to combine a bit of wildlife with some local shopping, although the highlight of the day is usually in the crypt of Woburn parish church, where they serve tea and home-made cakes.   What more could you ask for in a walk?

The park is home to Red Deer, Fallow Deer, Muntjac and Chinese Water Deer, the last three species having inevitably escaped and become naturalised in the local area.  A fifth species, Pere David’s Deer, have so far remained in the park.  They have the distinction of having been made extinct in their native China but were preserved in Woburn and a few other places, so successfully that they have now been re-introduced back in their homeland.

Pere David's Deer at Woburn Deer ParkPere David’s are slightly odd-looking, vaguely cow-like deer.  They can be identified quickly by their backward-pointing antlers (the points of Red Deer antlers face forward).  In their breeding season they gather foliage on their antlers as a display, which is quite a distinctive feature.

Pere David's Deer in a pond at Woburn Deer ParkWhen we visited, the Pere David’s were congregated around and in one of the ponds, standing up to their knees in the water.  I’m not sure why – it wasn’t that hot.  Perhaps it is another of their odd behaviours.

Red Deer Stags at Woburn Deer ParkThe Red Deer are almost ready for the rut now, but the stags are still in groups.  Soon they’ll separate and start calling to attract their own ‘harem’ of females.  The ones in the picture above are still quite young.  As they grow older they will develop more points on their antlers and lose their spots.  There are some real monster stags at Woburn.

Fallow Deer at Woburn

Fallow Deer, like the ones above, were introduced to Britain by the Normans.  They are easily identifiable by their ‘palmate’ antlers (which are flat, like the palm of your hand, I suppose).  Colour is not an absolutely reliable feature for any species, as a rule, but Fallow Deer are typically much lighter than other species, being spotted or even entirely white (a pure white deer was frequently seen running wild around our village a few years ago, a bit like a deer version of Moby Dick).

The deer were the main feature of our walk, but there was plenty more to be seen.  Scarlett enjoyed seeing ducks on the ponds and rabbits on the grass.  I enjoyed finding a wasps’ nest dug out by a badger (so there are badgers about even here, in this managed park!)  But the church in Woburn deserves a mention too, from a naturalist’s point of view (and not just for tea and cakes).

St. Mary’s church is relatively modern, being built by the 8th Duke of Bedford in the 1860’s to replace the older church in the village.  It is handsome enough though, with some fantastic gargoyles.  The vicar, Steve, is a nice chap too.  For me, though, one of the most interesting features is inside: a window commemorating Mary, the ‘Flying Duchess’.  Mary is a fascinating character.  She was a noted aviator, hence the name, and she was lost without trace in a flying accident over the sea in 1937.  During the Great War she set up a hospital for servicemen at Woburn that still bears the name ‘Marylands’, although it is now in the process of being converted to luxury flats.  For more information on Mary, see Wikipedia.

OK – fascinating history lesson, BWM, but where is this actually going?  Well, in addition to her other interests, the Duchess was also a keen birdwatcher.  After her death, she was commemorated with a large stained-glass window in the church depicting St. Francis of Assisi (“Whose work was in the hospitals, whose delight was in the birds” – very fitting).

The St Francis of Assisi window in St Mary's Church, WoburnAnd this is the point I’m slowly getting to.  The artist of the window decorated it with birds found in Woburn Abbey and the park.  An idea is forming in my mind – the ‘Flying Duchess Challenge’.  If all these birds are local, then why don’t I set myself the target of seeing them and ticking them off a list?  Following in Mary’s footsteps, if you will.

This is where it gets tricky.  The picture above is a big, hi-res image so you can zoom in on the birds.  Some are common enough – magpie, tawny owl, heron and so on.  Some are much more challenging.  That looks like a chough in the top right.  I’ve seen these on Anglesey, but they vanished from southern England a long time ago.  Some birds are downright difficult.  There’s a hoopoe in there, and they’ve been recorded in Bedfordshire fewer than half a dozen times since the 1940s.  It will definitely be a challenge, firstly to identify all the birds on the window, and secondly (and more difficult still) to actually see them, particularly locally.

I like the idea of it, even if it is nearly impossible.  I’ll keep you posted.

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Red Deer Stag at Woburn

Red Deer Stag at Woburn

 

Today was one of those days when various threads come together in a fortunate way.  Firstly, I have now finished my professional logbook – a task that I’ve been working on, on and off (mostly off) for the last three years – so I have some free time again.  Secondly, it was a nice day and I was looking after Scarlett, so I had the perfect excuse for a walk.  Thirdly, it was the third Sunday in the month, which meant that the Woburn Farmers’ Market was on.  Lastly, we’re in October so the Red Deer in Woburn Deer park are starting their rut.

It was too good an opportunity to pass up.  I put Scarlett in her buggy and took a walk through the deer park to visit the farmers’ market and have lunch in the tea shop in the crypt of the church.

As I’ve said before, the Woburn Deer Park is a great place to visit.  It is crossed by public footpaths so you can stroll through at your leisure (stick to the paths though please).  I’m very lucky having it on my doorstep as I can walk there in the evenings when it’s quiet.  The Woburn estate has had a big influence on the wildlife in the local area, particularly the 11th Duke, who was responsible for introducing almost every non-native species at large in the UK.  From muntjac to wels catfish, if you can think of an alien species it’s a fair bet that it was originally introduced in Woburn by the 11th Duke and subsequently escaped.  One of these days I really will write a book on the subject.

 

Black Squirrel at Woburn

Black Squirrel at Woburn

 

One of the animals allegedly introduced into Woburn is the black squirrel.  This is not a separate species, it is a melanistic version of the common grey squirrel.  They’re something of a local speciality here in Bedfordshire and I’ve seen a few now.  I’ve been trying to get a picture of one for a while – a clear picture that doesn’t just show a black blur like a snapshot of bigfoot or the Beast of Bodmin.  Today I got my chance, right in the heart of the Woburn estate where the black squirrels originated.

The real attraction were the deer though.  The Red Deer are starting their rut.  Over the past few weeks the stags have been getting increasingly territorial.  They each find a space of their own and start to call out to the females, who have banded together into small groups or harems.  The Deer Park is dotted with very impressive, testosterone-fuelled stags, each sporting a fine set of antlers and bellowing out their calls.  These calls are very atmospheric as they drift across the park, each stag roaring out his challenge.  If one stag enters the territory of another they’ll face each other off until the less dominant one turns and runs.  As the rut progresses the stags will become more and more aggressive until they come to physical blows, heads down and antlers locked in a violent pushing contest to see who will win the right to the females.

The deer were some distance away from the footpath, which was fine because I don’t like to get too close to the stags when they’re in this sort of mood.  I managed to shoot some video which is as good as I could get with my little camera (I really must get around to building that parabolic microphone one day, but that’s another story).  The video gives you an idea  of what happens with the deer but doesn’t really capture the full spectacle.  For that, there’s no substitute to getting out and experiencing it for yourself.  If you have a deer park nearby, now is a perfect time to go out and pay it a visit.

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I’ve just got back from a fascinating little night-time walk around the fields behind my house.

Scarlett has been a bit unsettled and grizzly this evening, so in an attempt to calm her down and bring some peace to the house I put her in the baby carrier, grabbed a torch and went out into the dark for a stroll.  At the top of the field the torchlight picked up the eyeshine of a small group of animals.

Spotting wildlife after dark can be easier than during the day, provided you have a torch, as the eyeshine is visible at long distances and even in quite thick undergrowth.  Nocturnal animals have an extra reflective layer called the tapetum lucidum at the back of the eye to capture all available light.  This helps them to see better in the dark but it also makes them more visible.  The exact colour of the reflection varies with species, and experienced observers can identify animals solely from the colour of their eyeshine.  Non-nocturnal animal such as humans do not have this reflective layer, so in a strong light their eyes will tend to reflect the red of the blood vessels at the back of the eye, hence the familiar ‘red eye’ effect in flash photography.

I had no camera, binoculars or any of my usual wildlife watching kit with me, but for the sheer fun of it I decided to see how close I could get to these animals.  It seemed odd to be stealthily stalking animals at night while shining a light in their faces, but they were remarkably unbothered by it.  As I got closer I was surprised to see that the animals were five Chinese Water Deer.  I’ve always thought of these as a solitary species.  You sometimes see two in the same field, but they tend to maintain an air of indifference to each other.  Yet there they were, five of them clustered together and looking and acting for all the world like a small herd.  This was definitely new behaviour to me.

Despite the torchlight they were feeding happily – content but still wary.  They’d graze for a few seconds and then raise their head to check around them.  Either by chance or design there was always at least one deer in the group scanning for danger at all times.  Over a space of ten minutes or so I managed to get within 50 yards of them, which is closer than I could do in daylight, before a muntjac barked a few fields away and they all bolted.

It was an interesting little walk that opened up all sorts of possibilities.  I learnt that deer are much more approachable after dark.  I learnt that Chinese Water Deer seem to have a more complex social life than I’d suspected.  Most importantly I learnt that going out for a stroll is a good way to get a grizzly baby to settle down.  I suspect there’ll be a few more of these short nocturnal walks over the coming months.  Next time I’ll remember to take a camera.

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Badger tracking

Badger tracks

Badger tracks

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

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

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

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

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

Badger tracks 1

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

Badger and fox tracks

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

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

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Here’s a short video of the muntjac buck I saw on the 28th June.

Watching the video again brings it home just how shy and wary these deer are.  Watch how the buck is constantly raising its head to check for danger, while those big ears swivel around to catch the slightest sounds.

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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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In the beginning…

Since this is my first post, I feel I should give an account of how my badger-watching career began.

I moved out of London and into the country about five years ago. Another thirty-something professional in search of the good life. I have always enjoyed being out in the countryside: I grew up in a fairly rural area and I’ve spent as much time out of doors as I could, whether it’s been fishing, walking, camping, cross-country running or just mooching about. The natural world has always fascinated me, and over the years I’ve seen a great deal of the British wildlife, from the wild red kites of the Black Mountains to minke whales in the Irish Sea.

Like everyone, I was familiar with the idea of badgers. I’d caught glimpses of a few as they dashed across the road in front of my car at night, and I’d grown accustomed to the sad sight of dead badgers on roadside verges. But I’d never really got close to one though, and if I thought about it, it seemed to me that I had missed out on something.

But I never set out to become the Badger Watching Man – it was never a conscious decision.  It came about entirely by accident.

One evening a couple of years ago I went for a walk through the woods near my village. It was a pleasant summer evening, and I had no particular aim in mind other than to go out and get a breath of fresh air. The woods had that close feeling that you get on summer evenings, as if the trees have been soaking in the heat all day and even though the air is getting a little chill in the fields, the woods seem to radiate a gentle warmth in the still air.

It was close to dusk when and I was heading home when I heard a thrashing sound in the undergrowth. The woods in this area contain quite a few deer, chiefly muntjac and some fallow deer, so it is not uncommon to disturb large animals as you walk and then hear them crashing off.

The noise came closer. Whatever it was, it was coming towards me, invisible in the undergrowth. “Right”, I said to myself, “here’s a chance to have a good look at a deer”. I sat down quietly by the side of path and waited. I’d learned a long time ago that merely by sitting still and quiet you can see all manner of wild things.

The noise grew louder in the still air as the animal came closer. I imagined what size of creature it could be. From the noise it was making it must be at least the size of a deer.

The suspense was perfect. Being in a forest, alone, at dusk and listening to an unseen animal moving towards you is a wonderfully primeval feeling. Of course, there are no dangerous animals in Britain, I know that perfectly well, but some distant genetic memory still made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

The crashing, stomping noise grew ever closer, and just when I thought it must surely be upon me, the long grass parted on the other side of the path not ten feet away from me. There, instead of the mighty deer I had expected, was the stripey face of a badger.

The badger came to an abrupt stop. It looked at me sternly, much as a schoolteacher might look at you over the top of their spectacles, and snorted. For a long second we sat there looking at each other, each one as surprised as the other. Then, with another quiet snort, the badger turned around and went back the way he’d come, making even more noise than before, if possible.

I just sat there. I’d just come face to face with one of Britain’s more secretive animals in the most dramatic way possible.

From that moment I was hooked. I had to find out more.

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