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Posts Tagged ‘fallow deer’

FoxHmmm.  I notice that it is almost exactly a year since I posted on here, which means that it is also a year since I last went out looking for badgers.  I really need to get out more.

In fact, the circumstances are similar in many ways.  Last year, I took advantage of Mrs BWM and Scarlett taking a trip to Ireland.  This year they are both on a trip to Disneyland Paris.  While they are meeting the mouse, my time is my own for a few days.  Which has meant catching up with chores in the house and garden.

But this evening, like Mole in Wind in the Willows, I said “Hang spring-cleaning!”, dug out my badger watching clothes and headed off to the wood.

Spring is definitely coming.  The first leaves are out in the hedgerows, the lambs are in the fields, the primroses are blooming in the wood.  It was even sunny, although with a chill wind.  The wood hadn’t changed much in a year, a few more of the dead ash trees blown down, and there were good signs of badgers at the main sett.  There were fresh spoil heaps at both the east and west ends, and one of the fallen trees was covered in claw marks where the badgers have obviously used it as a ‘play tree’.  Badgers do seem to love climbing on and over trees – perhaps they have some of the instincts of their pine marten cousins.

I climbed my usual tree (perhaps tree climbing is a universal mammal urge) and settled down to wait.  I’ve said it before, but it is rare to get time to just sit and think these days.  At 6.30 there was a movement in the undergrowth – not a badger, but a fox.  Foxes aren’t very common around here, certainly not so common as they were when I lived in London, and as long as they aren’t after my chickens I like to see them.  A few years ago a fox reared a litter of cubs in an unused part of the sett, but this fox (a dog fox) seemed to be just passing through.

fox

After another half hour, more sounds of stealthy movement.  This time it was a herd of fallow deer.  We have a few of these deer in the area – I used to see their tracks regularly, but again it isn’t common to see them.  There were six of them, three young and three older, and a mix of males and females judging by the antlers (or rather the antler buds).  I wonder if they were a family group, as they were all quite dark coloured.  Fallow deer can be any colour from dark brown through light brown with spots to white all over.  These were all the same dark colour.  They slowly grazed their way past, a couple of the males occasionally playing at butting antlers, despite not having any.

Fallow deer

And then, at 7.50, a badger emerged at the west end of the sett and sat down for a good scratch before wandering off.  By now it was getting too dark for photos (as well as a bit chilly).  I waited for another 20 minutes to see if any more came out, but none did.  Judging by the signs the east end of the sett is well occupied, so presumably they came out after I had left.

Badger

A pleasant evening all round.  I really shouldn’t wait another year before doing it again…

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Blimey.  Three posts in a week!  Don’t worry, it’s only a short one.

I think I’ve just seen a Sika deer.

I was driving home from work at about 7.40pm tonight, and just as I passed the small wood that contains the Hawthorn Tree Sett a deer crossed the road in front of me and paused on the verge by the hedge.  This is quite a regular occurrence.   On most days I see a Muntjac or a Chinese Water Deer when I’m driving, occasionally a Fallow.  But this deer was different.

It was dark in colour, a dark grey.  It was a stag with medium-sized antlers, but they were rounded antlers, not the flat palmate ones of a Fallow stag.  It had a blunt face with a prominent broad nose, not the more refined features of a Fallow. And last but not least, it had a distinctive, heart-shaped, white rump patch, with a black tail that was noticeably much thinner than a Fallow’s.

I think, all things considered, that it was a Sika stag.  It could have been an unusually coloured Fallow, but taking everything together it fits better as a Sika.  The reason I am writing this is because although there are many deer in this part of the country, Sika are rare.  I’ve only heard of two or three other Sika sightings.  This is the first and only Sika I’ve ever seen.  That’s what makes it worth recording.

Not a bad sighting for the drive home from work.  If only I had that camera ready in the car like I said I should…

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OK.  So far, I haven’t much success with the badgers at the Hawthorn Sett.  I have yet to answer the fundamental question of how many badgers there are.  If I can find this out, I can see how it changes over the year to come. It’s part of my overall master plan to understand more about the badgers in the area, and how the different setts relate to each other.

But first things first.  I’d be happy at the moment just to see the badgers.

My last trip wasn’t very successful.  I spent an uncomfortable evening in a tree without seeing the badgers emerge.  I have an idea that the badgers are late to emerge here.  I decided the best way to test this idea would be to lay siege to the sett – to sit and wait until the badgers finally came out.

This evening I came prepared.  By 5.00pm I was sitting comfortably on an inflatable cushion (on the ground!), night vision scope ready on a tripod, flask of hot tea handy for morale purposes.  I was nicely downwind of the sett and well camouflaged.  It was textbook badger watching stuff.

Unfortunately, no badgers appeared.  I had a fallow deer stag walk past, it’s broad antlers silhouetted against the sky.  I see female fallow deer quite often, but stags only rarely.  But this was the highlight of the evening.  No badgers.  I watched and waited until a little after 8.00pm.  I had planned to stay later, but it was difficult to stay alert after watching and listening in the dark for three hours, straining eyes and ears for any signs of badgers, and the light and warmth of home were beckoning to me.  Badger watching in the dark months of winter obviously needs more dedication than the summer sessions that I’m used to.

So I still don’t have an answer to my question, and I still don’t know when these badgers come out.   But they should come out by 8.00pm, shouldn’t they?  Neal & Cheeseman report an average emergence time of c.5.45pm for early November, so for no badgers to show by 8.00pm is odd.  It’s obviously a badger sett (and I have seen a badger here before) otherwise I’d be doubting whether there are badgers at all.  I’ll maybe give it another try this year, or I may put this sett on the back burner until spring.  Perhaps in the meantime I’ll make a few trips in the daylight to get positive signs that the badgers are still in residence.

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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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Fallow deer buck among the bluebells

Fallow deer buck among the bluebells

After taking some pride in my fieldcraft a couple of weeks ago, tonight was a lesson on what not do when badger watching.

The wind was blowing briskly from the south west today, so I approached the sett from the north east to keep myself downwind.  There’s a climbable hornbeam tree at this end of the sett and this was my objective.

I say that it’s climbable.  It is, but it’s difficult.  I’d say it’s a Grade IV or Grade V on my tree climbing scale, with a tricky crux halfway up.  Unfortunately, when I got up to a branch I could sit on, I found that the wind was eddying round and blowing from me to the sett.  Back down I went.

I crept around the sett with a view to sitting with my back to a tree.  The wind was wrong here too.

By 7.40pm I’d covered a wide circle 180 degrees around the sett, yet wherever I sat it seemed the wind was blowing in the wrong direction.  As I’ve said, the wind does funny things in a wooded valley.  I’d been careful to avoid going to near the sett entrances, or even the main paths, but even so I’m sure I must have caused all sorts of disturbance.

On reflection I should have just gone home when I first realised what the conditions were like, but ‘badger fever’ had gripped hold of me.  There were signs of serious badger activity all around – fresh digging, tracks and trails where they’d gathered bedding – and I still haven’t seen this year’s cubs properly.

The highlight of the evening was a young fallow deer buck that wandered through the wood.  Perhaps I wasn’t making as much disturbance as I thought, as the fallow deer here are very shy.  They have sensitive noses and unlike badgers they can see very well.  This buck was perfectly at ease as he stood among the bluebells, the first stage velvet antlers showing on his head.

Nevertheless, I walked home in frustration, not having seen any of the badgers.  May the Protector of All Small Beasts give me at least one day with a decent steady wind so I can get back to some serious badger watching soon.

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