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OK.  Time to bare my soul a little.

Most people in Britain have never seen a badger.  Many have seen a dead badger by the side of the road, but few ever see a live one.  Of those that do, I suspect that most are content to enjoy the experience, to enjoy the badger as an impressive yet endearing part of our wildlife.  As I’ve said before, once people see a badger they seem to become hooked.  Even Ernest Neal, the undisputed authority on badgers, first came across one by accident and this led to a lifetime of work studying these creatures.

But for me it is not enough to just watch badgers.  I’ve gone past the “wow – there’s a badger!” phase.  I want to understand them.  I think I’m becoming obsessed.

Now don’t get me wrong – it’s not a bad obsession to have.  It’s quite healthy.  I could be addicted to drink or drugs, but instead I’m becoming addicted to badgers.  It’s a pleasant diversion from work, it keeps my mind active and stops me getting up to mischief, and most importantly it encourages me to get out and enjoy the countryside on my doorstep.

What started out as a good excuse to go for a walk in the woods has now got me learning about animal behaviour, territoriality, social bonding and the whole ecology of woodlands.  As soon as I think I’ve understood how badgers work, I discover something new and realise I actually don’t know very much at all.

All of this philosophical musing has been triggered by a short walk in the woods this morning.  I wanted to go out and have a look at the Pine Tree sett, specifically to see if there was any more evidence of badgers eating the sycamore bark.

Sycamore with gnawed bark

Sycamore with gnawed bark

When I got to the sett I found that there was a lot more evidence of bark eating.  Another tree had been ‘attacked’ and more bark was missing from the original tree.  But from what I’ve seen, I’m not sure that badgers are the culprits.

The bark shows clear toothmarks – lots of them and quite small – rather than a few large claw marks that I’d expect from a badger.  More conclusive was that the damage to the bark now extends to about 8 feet off the ground.  Badgers are actually surprisingly good at climbing trees (and they seem to enjoy it as a game) but I think that this height is beyond them.  I now need to research squirrel feeding, and see if that fits the bill.  Even better, I need to spend an evening here and see if I can catch the culprit in the act.

Bark damage close up

Bark damage close up - scale in cm

Acting on suggestions from people on the Wild About Britain forum, I examined the badger dung in the latrine nearby.  It seemed a bit more green than usual but there were no clear signs of bark in it.  And no – I didn’t bring any home for analysis.  I’m not that obsessed yet!

Badger Dung

Badger Dung

Walking back through the woods, I came across more puzzling animal signs.  For want of a better word I’ll call these ‘nests’.  They were substantial piles of grass that had been pulled up and shaped into a mound, sometimes with a hollow in the middle.  They are undoubtedly the bedding of some animal.

I’ve come across these before, and I wondered if they were piles of bedding that a badger had collected and then for some reason abandoned on the way back to the sett.  After seeing more of them today I think that they are more likely to be nests in their own right, where an animal sleeps.  I found them in dry, sheltered spots.  Here’s one under a fallen tree:

Badger Nest 1

Here’s one under the shelter of a pine tree:

Badger Nest 2

The nests were associated with paths, but whether these were badger paths I could not say.  The whole area is criss-crossed by badger paths and deer paths, and to confuse matters the badgers use deer paths and the deer use badger paths.

Are these nests made by badgers?  What other animals deliberately gather bedding from distance?  If they are badger nests, why are they there?  Why are the badgers not safely underground in their sett?  Are they used as temporary shelter?  Are these badgers part of a sett, or are they some sort of homeless, ‘hobo badgers’, sleeping rough?  If so, how do they fit into the territories of the other badgers?

Do you see now how this whole badger business can become obsessive?  If anyone has any answers, please do let me know.

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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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