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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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Scarlett in the Field Behind My HouseOK, I haven’t done much for a while, I admit.  Mrs BWM has been working at the weekends (including a practice event for the Olympics – she’s a volunteer announcer and they were having a dry run) so I’ve been on parenting duty and confined to home except for the odd short walk.  I remember the good old days when Scarlett was little and she’d happily be carried for hours.  Not any more.

But this is still my diary, so I have a few things to note.  Firstly, I came across another dead badger on the main road.  I saw it this morning on my way to the shops, in almost exactly the same place as the road casualty of July 23rd.  On that occasion the dead badger vanished, causing me some confusion.  I looked closely at this one, to make sure that I wasn’t imagining it.  Good thing too, as by the time I came back an hour or so later, the badger had disappeared.  There must be a sett around here somewhere; and I can only imagine that, being a main road, the bodies get picked up pretty quickly.  I wonder how many road casualties occur that I don’t notice, even in our village?

While we’re on this morbid subject, we’ve had some trouble from a fox attacking chickens lately.  There are at least a couple of foxes locally – I see their tracks regularly – but not nearly so many as we had in London.  This is pheasant country, and there are rearing pens around the village.  The keepers are not fond of foxes.  Probably not fond of any other carnivores either, but certainly not foxes.  Incidentally, a couple of years ago a fox got into the penguin enclosure at the nearby safari park and wreaked terrible havoc among the young penguins.  Foxes were even less popular around here after that, I can tell you.

Anyway, our neighbour lost one chicken last week, killed in daylight.  A couple of days later, our own Mabel went the same way, a patch of feathers telling the story.  Poor Henrietta had a narrow squeak but escaped with cuts and bruises, only to fall victim on Friday.  So it’s RIP Mabel and Henrietta.  They’d had a good life – four and a half years – with no trouble.  They have a fox-proof house in which they sleep, but this is the first time we’ve had a fox in the daytime, hence their run is not fully protected (which takes either a 6-foot tall dug-in fence, or an electric one).

On the whole, I like foxes.  They are attractive, interesting to watch and great survivors.  They do what they do, not out of spite or malice, but to eat and live.  But I love them a little less after this.

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I made a quick visit to the wood this evening, after work.  A pleasant, dry evening, with a cuckoo calling from the fields and a light breeze stirring the leaves.

On a hunch I sat out at the east end of the sett.  This is the less visible side of the sett, which is on a low rise in the ground so it is impossible to see right across it from this end, while the jungle of nettles and elder bushes obscures the centre of the sett.  The badgers could hardly have chosen a more private spot if they tried.  Nevertheless, there are a couple of active holes that are visible on the edge of the hill, plus a well-used ‘play area’, where the badgers have worn the ground smooth and bare of leaf litter.  I particular, they seem to like to run round and round one of the trees, judging from the polished soil.

At 8.35 an adult badger emerged from one of the holes and trotted off into the nettles in the centre of the sett.  It didn’t reappear, nor did any others.  After half an hour I called it a day and crept slowly off.  I didn’t see any cubs but at least I saw a badger – it’s been a while.  As a consolation I sat at the bottom of the pasture field and watched a fox wandering backwards and forwards hunting insects.  It was a particularly mangy individual, which is unusual around here.  I wonder if it is one of the cubs I watched last year?

Altogether a slightly frustrating evening, but enjoyable nonetheless.  There is something strangely pleasant about sitting quietly in a wood or in a field, even if you don’t see much.  I’ll go back to my usual spot at the west end of the sett as soon as I can and see if I can get a better view of things.

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Snowy landscape in BedfordshireLast year I had the opportunity to visit Toronto, in Canada, on a fleeting business trip.  I must say, it’s a very nice city and the people were wonderful.  But one thing puzzled me.  The whole downtown area was connected by miles of subways.  It was possible to walk from one side of the city to other, to shop, to eat, to sit and drink coffee – all underground. It’s a strange subterranean world.  When I commented on this architectural oddity to a local resident she just gave me a knowing look. “When you have six feet of snow for six months of the year, why would you want to walk outside?”

This seems to me to be a very sensible way of dealing with a harsh climate. Unfortunately in Britain we have neither the common sense nor the fortitude of the people of Toronto.  The South East of England received 10-20cm of snow this week and, predictably, everything ground to a halt.  I don’t know whether all the stressed-out workers are looking for any excuse to take a day off or whether we’ve lost any sort of self-reliance,  but either way it’s a pretty poor show.

And me? I love snow.  I like nothing better than getting out and exploring after a decent fall of snow, and since I became interested in tracking I like it even more.  Tracks in the snow offer a real window into what’s been happening, what animals have been out and what they have been doing.  Naturalists have used all sorts of techniques to record the movements of wild animals, from radio transmitters to long pieces of string.  A couple of inches of snow will do the same job in a much more interesting way.

On Saturday I wrapped Scarlett in her warmest clothes and headed out.  I couldn’t take her too far, but we had a nice walk around the fields.  Long enough for me to show her the common tracks in the area.

Here’s the most common – rabbit tracks.  Every now and then I come across someone who says they’ve found strange and enormous paw prints, but what they’ve seen is not the marks of giant toes but the tracks of all four feet of a rabbit.

Rabbit tracks in snowRabbit tracks

Which way was the rabbit travelling?  That’s right – left to right.

There seemed to be a lot of fox tracks around.  We live in an area where there is a lot of rearing (and shooting) of game birds, so foxes are not exactly popular.  We used to see far more of them when we lived in London.

Fox tracks are small, neat and diamond-shaped, with four toes and a heel pad.  Notice how the small heel pad forms a straight line at the back of the track, almost like a straight bar.

Fox track in snow

Fox track

It can be easy to confuse fox tracks with those of dogs.  Most dog tracks are broader than fox’s, with the toes more widely-spread.  The heel pad is usually larger too.

Dog track in snow

Dog track - note the wider shape and the spread of the toes

However, dogs come in all shapes and sizes.  Some dogs are bigger than others.  The tracks of small, terrier-like dogs can look very similar in shape to fox tracks.   The way to tell them apart is the spacing between the front and rear toes.  Look at the fox track again.  The front toes are forward of a line drawn across the ends of the rear toes.  In a dog, the front toes overlap with this line.

Fox track - key features

Fox track - front toes forward of rear ones

Another quick way of telling fox and dog tracks apart is to look at the trail – the series of tracks.  Fox trails always seem to be very purposeful.  Foxes seem to walk in a straight line, one track in front of another.  The tracks have a direct register, in other words the fox puts its hind feet into the tracks of its front feet.  To the novice, it can look as if the fox is walking on its hind feet like a human.

Dog tracks, on the other hand, don’t quite register, so you’ll get front and rear tracks close to each other but not quite overlapping.  Dogs don’t seem to have the same sense of purpose as foxes – dog tracks will often meander around as the dog wanders this way and that.  With a bit of practice you can tell dog tracks from fox tracks without having to look closely at the individual prints.

The temperature hasn’t risen much above freezing all weekend, so hopefully the snow will last for a while yet.  That suits me fine.  Tracking in snow is absolutely fascinating.  Put it this way, if I lived in Toronto I’d happily venture above ground to spend months tracking the local wildlife.

Snowy woods

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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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I think it’s time I got back to some serious badgerology.

I was up at the wood on Saturday, and an interesting evening it was too. Firstly, the badgers have started feeding on the wheat in the wheat field.  This seems to become a regular food source as soon as it ripens.  The badgers seem to have a simple way of getting at the wheat – they trample down the stalks and then pull off the grain.  You can see the patches where they have been feeding.

Badger feeding signs in wheat

Badger feeding signs in wheat

These feeding signs are accompanied by fresh dung, full of wheat.  In this case, there is quite an impressive amount.

Badger dung in wheat

Badger dung in wheat

The badgers use this field all year (I see their tracks), but the latrines only appear when they are feeding on the wheat.  Now, it could be that wheat has an effect on their digestion that makes latrines necessary, but my guess is that it is probably territorial.  The wheat fields are a major food resource, so it makes sense that each badger clan will try and claim it as their territory, marking it out with latrine sites.  When there is no food, there is no need to mark it, hence the latrines only occur when the wheat is ripe.  I must get round to some more of the latrine sites to see which ones contain wheat.  That would be interesting, to find out which badgers have been feeding here.

When I arrived, the local buzzard was flying from tree to tree, calling all the time.  I could see it through binoculars, perched high up on a branch.  I don’t know why buzzards call like this.  It is too late for mating, so perhaps it is a territorial display.

I tried to record the sound using the video function on my camera.  You can’t actually see the buzzard on the video, but turn the volume up and you should hear its cry.  It kept this noise up for over an hour!

At 8.30 a badger emerged briefly from the western sett entrance and then almost immediately went back underground.  Ten minutes later the cub did the same.  They seemed nervous.  It sounds strange, but badgers seem to be afraid of buzzards.  A buzzard would have no chance of carrying off even a half-grown badger, yet I’ve seen an entire family of badgers dive for cover when one passed overhead.

Five minutes later a badger came out and trotted off to the west, followed five minutes later by another, and then another and another, all at five minute intervals.  None of them stayed near the sett entrance.  This means that there were at least four badgers in this half of the sett.

Another ten minutes passed and badgers five and six emerged from the same hole.  As they did so, the badgers at the east end of the sett came out into a clearing, foraging, playing and, amusingly, trying to climb trees.  I counted five badgers in the group, which, plus the two at the west, gave a total of seven badgers visible at the same time.

One noteworthy behaviour was a fight that developed between two adult badgers.  Badgers will usually engage in some rough and tumble play or play-fighting, but this was more serious.  It ended with one badger running off, hotly pursued by the other.  I could hear their noises at least a hundred yards off; for them to go this far meant it was serious.  Perhaps this was an issue about dominance being acted out.

The other interesting event of the night was a fox that trotted past.  This must one of the cubs from earlier in the year.  I tried Pablo’s trick of calling in a fox by making a high-pitched squeaking noise (see here for a very impressive video), and blow me, it worked!  The fox changed direction and came trotting up to the base of my tree!

It obviously felt that something wasn’t right, but I was sitting very still and was well camouflaged.  So the fox did a very cunning thing – it walked round my tree in a big circle.

I’ve read about this behaviour but never seen it before.  It happens when an animal such as a fox is not sure about you, so they circle round to get downwind  so they can check you out.  Clever little fox!  Since I was in a tree and there was virtually no wind I must have passed the test, for the fox carried on wandering about.  It was too dark for pictures, but I watched through the binoculars.  The fox was young – its coat sleek and perfect, quite unlike the scruffy urban foxes we got in London.  I know that foxes aren’t everyone’s friend, and I know the damage they can do, but they’re still beautiful creatures when you see them in their element.

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Badger 3Yesterday was another beautiful warm evening.  7.45pm found me sitting contentedly up a tree at the main sett, drinking tea and making running repairs to my camouflage gloves with a needle and thread.  A more blissful domestic scene could not be imagined.

I’d taken a detour around the wood earlier in the evening to check out the badger day nests I found last month.  I’m curious to see whether the badgers are using them in this hot weather, particularly since the last time I was at the sett there were only two badgers to be seen.  Unfortunately the nests were all unoccupied and showed no signs of recent use, so there is another theory that will have to wait for another day to be proved.

At 8.35 a badger came trotting up from the inaccessible east end of the sett and disappeared into a hole at the west end.  Two more followed, and then another two.  In total, five badgers had come from the other part of the sett and gone straight back underground.

I waited for the badgers to re-appear, but nothing happened.  I would have thought they would be eager to start foraging, but they stayed underground.  Very odd.

As I was waiting another muntjac deer wandered onto the scene.  I’ve waited ages to get a good view of a muntjac, and now it’s happened twice in consecutive trips.  I’m getting a bit blasé now – the muntjac will have to start performing tricks if they want me to film them in the future!

After a little while I heard badger noises from the east end of the sett, whickering and the short, high-pitched bark that badgers make when play fighting has got out of hand.  Once again, this area is now an impenetrable mass of vegetation – elder, nettles and bracken.  The sounds were confirmed when three badgers came into view at the very far east side of the sett and started foraging through the wood.  These three plus the five I’d seen at the west end makes at least eight badgers, which is good.  I was worried because I’d only seen two last time.

A few minutes later a fox trotted past with a baby rabbit in its mouth, unfortunately too far away to photograph in the fading light.  I think it was the vixen that had the cubs here, but it could conceivably be one of the cubs themselves.  They’ve certainly grown up and left home now.  The fox loped off to the east end of the sett.  The fact that it was taking food there implies it has a den in the area.

The five badgers at the west end of the sett remained underground until 9.30 when I had decided to pack up and was in the process of climbing down the tree, at which point they emerged and gave me a hard stare.  Absolutely typical!

It was an interesting night for the variety of wildlife that was about, but it was also interesting because it showed a pattern.  Last year, the badgers started off in the west end of the sett and then moved to the east as the summer progressed.  This year they’ve done the same, although at least some badgers are using the west end for at least some of the time.

There is obviously something going on here.  Something makes the badgers move between parts of the sett.  If only I could recognise individual badgers I’d be in a better position to understand this, but despite staring at film and pictures they still look pretty much alike to me.  In the meantime I’ll keep making notes of what I see and hope it all makes more sense in the future.

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