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Things have been busier than usual at work and around the house lately, hence I’m late in writing up my notes.  It’s been a gloriously hot bank holiday weekend, and I’ve been taking the opportunity to thrash the garden into shape.  Where there was a jungle there are now neat rows of vegetables and trimmed hedges – what a difference a few days can make.

And by the way, this blog is now a year old, so happy birthday to me!  The main reason for writing it is to keep a diary so that I can check back on things and compare my experiences over the years.   It’s working already.  I can see from my records that this time last year was cold and wintry, so I’m starting to build up an archive of what has happened.  Besides, keeping a diary online is much more fun than doing it on paper.

So without further ado, here’s the compressed diary entries for the weekend.

Saturday 23rd May

Being busy in the garden, I only had time for a quick trip up to the woods.  I set myself up at the western side of the sett, mostly because it is clearer here and the view is better.

At 8.00pm exactly a badger left the eastern side of the sett and ambled over the western entrances.  Five minutes later it wandered back again.  A social visit, I presume.  The eastern end of the sett is where I’ve seen the only cub of the season so far, so I’ve been keeping an eye on it to try and see some more.

The vixen and the fox cubs came out at 8.20.  There are five of them.  They suckled their mother for a few minutes before she suddenly ran off across the wood, five little cubs in tow.  For a moment there were fox cubs everywhere, but they soon sorted themselves out.  Perhaps she is starting to teach them to hunt, or just encouraging them to be more independent.

I could hear badgers at the eastern end of the sett at 8.35, but the undergrowth hid them from me.  I still want to find out if there are any more cubs, so it looks like a trip to this end of the sett is called for.

Sunday 24th May

The eastern end of the sett presents a challenge, as there are no easily climbable trees nearby so you have to sit on the ground.  It is also on a slight rise, so to get any sort of view you need to be pretty close.  It was time for some extreme stealth badger watching!

Getting close to truly wild badgers is difficult because they are very nervous.  I did everything I could to prepare.  I brought my full camouflage outfit – my new camo shirt, gloves and two face veils.  I even made sure that the shoes I wore had dark soles!  The face veils are very important, as your face really does stand out.  In particular it is useful to cover your eyes.  Animals (and birds) seem to have an uncanny knack of knowing when you’re looking at them, and I think a lot of this comes from seeing your eyes.  The ability to recognise eyes is built into almost all animals – a human baby will smile at two dots on a piece of paper if they are the same size as its mother’s eyes.  One company in the US even makes camouflage sunglasses; these may seem like a gimmick but I’m convinced they are useful because they disguise your most noticeable feature.

Here’s what I look like in full camo gear – needless to say I don’t pop into the pub dressed like this.

The Badger Watching Man in full camouflage clothing

The BWM in full camouflage

All my badger watching clothes are washed in hot water without soap, and to make sure I get rid of any possible washing powder scent I soak them in the rainwater butt overnight and then let them dry outside.  I myself took a shower in hot water without soap, but I’m afraid I didn’t jump in the rainwater afterwards.  I draw the line at some things.  Never mind, I was as scent-free as I could possibly make myself.

All this camouflage may seem excessive, but I think it does help.  It certainly gives me confidence to get close to the badgers.

Taking note of the wind direction I crept slowly up to the sett and sat with my back to a tree to hide my silhouette.  I sat absolutely still, like a statue or a piece of wood.  The local mosquitoes came out in force and bit my hands and ankles (the only vulnerable places) but I kept still.

At 8.00pm or so two badgers emerged – an adult and a cub.  I was sitting in full view no more than 12 feet or so away.  What a fantastic sight!  I felt I could almost reach over and touch them.  No chance of any pictures, of course.  If I’d have moved even an inch they would have been scared off.

They sat and groomed and scratched for ten minutes or so as I sat and watched, hardly daring to breathe.  When they ambled off I crept away as quietly as I could.

It was a great experience.  Apart from the sheer boyish pleasure of dressing up and creeping around in a wood I had one of the best views of the badgers ever.

Still only the one cub though.  Could it be that there is only one this year?

Monday 25th May

Back again at the western end of the sett.  Two badgers came over from the eastern side at 8.25pm, and were joined by others from the western entrances.  At 8.35 the mother and cub came over from the eastern sett.  This was the first time I’ve seen the cub joining the adults over here.

The badgers were all very busy.  At least three of them were engaged in some energetic digging in two separate entrances.  Interestingly, one of these was a badger from the eastern side.  It seems that it was living in a separate part of the sett yet it was still helping to excavate over here.  Very community-spirited!  You could tell the badgers that had been digging because they were a muddy red colour from the soil rather than the usual grey and black.

Other than that it was a typical relaxed badger evening.  All the badgers sat around grooming contentedly, and the air was filled with scratching noises.  Occasionally one badger would musk another, or help out with some mutual grooming.  In short, it was a happy scene of a badger clan at ease.

Here’s a short video to give you a flavour of the evening:

And what about the cubs?  Well, there was only the one.  It played alongside the adults, but it was very much an only child.  I’m coming to the conclusion that there is only this one cub this year.  Is this because of the hard weather we had at the start of the year?  Is it because we had a lot of cubs last year?  Let’s see if an answer presents itself.  In the meantime, it’s good to be out in the woods on a warm evening in the company of badgers.

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I’ve spent the evening watching the fox cubs by the sett.  I counted five of them (I think) and they’re great fun.

Here’s a short fox cubs video compilation.  Altogether now – “Awwww!”

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Sniffing the air after leaving the sett

Sniffing the air after leaving the sett

I still haven’t managed to get a good look at any badger cubs this year, so once again I climbed the hill to the woods.

The badgers had obviously been busy around the western part of the sett, so I set myself up there and waited.  The wait was made easier by a great-spotted woodpecker that worked its way up the trees in the area.  I’ve been hearing woodpeckers for weeks, but this is the first time I’ve managed to see one.

At 8.14pm a pair of badgers came out of one of the eastern entrances, followed quickly by a third.   Frustratingly, this part of the sett is hidden in undergrowth, so although I could get glimpses of black and white faces, I couldn’t tell if any of them were cubs.

For the next half hour or so I sat and listened to the badgers happily playing and whickering just out of sight.  Then my attention was diverted elsewhere.

Remember the fox I mentioned a few posts ago that was living in one outlying

The fox cubs (damn that autofocus!)

The fox cubs (damn that autofocus!)

hole of the sett?  Well, it seems that ‘he’ is a ‘she’, because at 8.40 two adorable fox cubs appeared outside the hole.  These little chaps were very cute indeed!  Difficult to photograph, but still very cute.  Sod the badgers, I thought.  If they’re going to play hard to get then I’ll watch the foxes instead.

As if in answer, two badgers ambled over to the western sett entrance and in quick succession another six emerged from the hole.  In no time there were eight badgers grooming and playing in front of me.

A few things stand out from the evening.  Firstly, there were no cubs.  All the badgers seemed adult size with adult behaviours, so unless this year’s cubs are very quick to mature then these are all last years.  The main reason for keeping this diary is so that I can compare notes, and looking at the pictures from the end of May last year there is no way the cubs would be so grown up.  The cubs (I’ve only seen one) must still be out of sight.

The badgers were in a playful mood – running, play-fighting and climbing trees.  There is a tree at the sett that grows at an angle of 45 degrees, and I’ve seen the badgers climb up it a few times.  The end of the tree is about 12 feet off the ground yet they don’t seem bothered.  I walked up it once and it scared the hell out of me.

There was a lot of social behaviour going on.  I noticed that as each new badger emerged from the sett it would musk (scent mark) the others, which implies that musking is a group behaviour and not just done by dominant individuals.  I took some video, but the evening was a little too dark for it.  Nevertheless, I’ve uploaded some because there’s a good example of musking going on.  Watch how the badger coming in from the right lifts his tail when he rubs against the others.  He (or she) is marking them with scent from the sub-caudal gland.

Talking of dominant individuals, I was treated to another fine display of badger sex.  I really should stop watching things like this, but since the badgers in question were surrounded by six of their fellows and didn’t seem embarrassed, then neither should I be.  The mating was interesting, because it was the first time I’ve ever been sure of the gender of individual badgers.  It also implied that the badgers doing the mating were dominant in the clan, so these are obviously badgers of importance to watch out for in the future.  I tried to see any distinguishing features so I could recognise them again, but they looked the same as any other badgers, dammit!

Ernest Neal distinguishes between short- and long-duration mating in badgers, where the long variety is a more serious attempt to breed.  My pair were at it for 10 minutes, which seemed quite long, although Neal records instances of up to 90 minutes.  Badger mating seems to involve a certain roughness, with the male biting the neck of the female to stop her running away, and she in turn trying to bite him when he gets too agressive.

Another thing of note was that a number of badgers rolled on the ground in exactly the same spot.  This seemed like more than just coincidence.  Do badgers scent-mark the soil, and then other badgers pick it up?  Another thing to look out for in the future.

After an hour or so the badgers wandered off to begin the night’s foraging.  By 9.45pm the sett was quiet again and I gracelessly climbed down from my tree.  It was a fine evening, and the playfulness and the complexity of the social behaviour reminded my why I enjoy watching these remarkable creatures.

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