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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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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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Badger 1It’s been a weekend of extremes as far as the weather has gone.  It has been very hot and very humid, with long periods of sunshine giving way to thunderstorms in the evenings.  Although we haven’t had any rain ourselves, it has been torrential in places nearby.  One friend had his car alarm set off repeatedly by intense hailstorms, while the house of another was actually struck by lightning!

The badgers seemed to respond to the sluggish weather too.  I went up to the wood on Sunday evening.  I was relieved to find that it was slightly cooler in the wood – I had imagined that it would be even more humid and oppressive under the trees, but the opposite was the case.  I am constantly surprised by the differences in microclimate between woods and nearby fields.  If any ecology student is looking for a subject for a project I suspect that there’s an interesting field of study here.

Two badgers came out of the western side of the sett at 8.20pm, including a light coloured individual.  They groomed for a bit, wandered around in a desultory way and eventually mooched off towards the east.  I don’t know if it is the weather, but they did seem a bit lethargic.  They weren’t in any hurry to rush off and forage, but at the same time they weren’t in the mood for playing or interacting.  Perhaps it was just too hot, especially for a badger with a thick coat of hair.

I don’t know where the other badgers in the sett were.  They may be staying underground until later to escape the heat (I only stayed until 9.30).  They could even be sleeping above ground somewhere, perhaps in one of the nests I discovered a few weeks ago.

The evening was notable because I actually managed to get a half-decent photograph of a muntjac.  These little deer are a real contradiction: they are very common in this area, but surprisingly difficult to get close to.

Muntjac buck

Muntjac buck

If I’m driving to or from work in the early morning or evening then I see them regularly by the side of the road.  I saw one at 6.00am this morning about 100 yards from my house.  But although they’re common, they are wary.  They have an uncanny sense of whether you’re interested in them.  They’ll let you drive or walk past, but if you slow down the car they’ll be off like a shot.   If you pause or raise a camera then they notice immediately.  I try to practise my deerstalking on the local muntjac, but rarely with any success.  All of this means that I’ve never got a close-up picture of one.

Last night though a muntjac buck walked past the tree where I was sitting, giving me some great close-up views.  In terms of fieldcraft, camouflage and wind direction I was in just the right spot and it wandered about, blissfully unaware of me as it browsed on the vegetation.

Notice the small antlers with the long pedicles (the tissue at the base of the antlers), the pronounced brow ridges and the long canine teeth.

Muntjac 1

Not a rare species by any means, but a challenge to get close to.

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Muntjac

Muntjac

Once again, things are busy at work, and I’ve been all over the country in the last couple of weeks, bringing business psychology to the masses and having little time for wildlife at home.

Today being Sunday though, I had time to get up early and go on my regular ‘dawn patrol’ walk around the fields and woods just as it is getting light.  It’s a great time to be out watching wildlife, and as long as you don’t mind getting out of bed it gives you a whole extra part of the day.

7.00am found me sitting with my back to a tree, looking over a ploughed field.  The usual gaggle of rabbits were out and about, a muntjac peered at me from the hedge, and a large flock of rooks was circling over the woods.  As the light grew though, the main object of interest was a trio of Chinese Water Deer meandering around the field.  Their tawny coats were surprisingly well camouflaged against the sandy soil.

Chinese Water Deer seem to be figuring in my thoughts a lot at the moment.  They seem to be more numerous in the local area than I imagined.  I think some of this has to do with my familiarity with them – a few years ago I would have classed all small deer as ‘muntjac’ and thought no more about it.  Now I can recognise the CWD for what they are and distinguish them easily, and I smile at my past foolishness.

Unfortunately, when it comes to tracking, I’m still quite naive.  I still tend to class all small deer tracks as ‘muntjac’ and think no more about it.  In fact, I’m doing exactly what I used to do with visual sightings.

The problem is, the tracks of muntjac and CWD do look very similar. I could be looking at a field full of what I think are muntjac tracks, and they may actually be CWD.  Or vice versa.  For someone like me, who likes to be accurate, even on meaningless things, this is an important point.

Chinese Water Deer Tracks

Chinese Water Deer Tracks

The classic reference book of tracks, Animal Tracks and Signs, by Bang and Dahlstrom, doesn’t even mention CWD – I suppose they aren’t really common outside the Southeast of England (and China, of course).

The Hamlyn Guide to Animals – Tracks, Trails and Signs, my other preferred guidebook, says that CWD prints are very wide and splayed.  The problem with this is, it’s wrong.  The prints are actually quite small and neat.  I know.  I’ve spent the morning watching the deer and then walking up and looking at their tracks.

So, I’ve got a problem.  It is difficult to tell the deer apart from their tracks alone.

The answer, I think, is to look at the trail as a whole, not at individual tracks.  The trail of an animal is as characteristic as the shape of its feet.  This is the approach recommended by Paul Rezendes in his book Tracking & The Art of Seeing.

This is where my tracking stick starts to come into its own.  A tracking stick is a walking stick used in tracking.  The main use of a tracking stick is to establish the stride length of a given animal, and knowing this, predict where the next track should be.  The tracking stick helps you to narrow down the search area so you can find every single track. I tend to use my tracking stick as more of a simple measuring tool.  I have marked it in 10cm intervals and it has a 10x1cm scale attached.  This allows me to make rough and ready (but reasonably accurate) measurements in the field.

Measuring deer tracks with my tracking stick

Measuring deer tracks with my tracking stick

Here’s the clever part.  Having come across a new set of tracks, I can measure the stride length.  I did this for one trail, and found the strides to be 32cm to 38cm long, with most around the 36cm mark.

Looking at the guidebooks, they give a typical stride length for muntjac as 25-30cm, and for CWD as 30-40cm.   This means that my deer, with a stride length of about 36cm, falls outside the range for muntjac, but well within the range for CWD.  Based on stride length alone, we can say with some confidence that the trail has been made by a CWD rather than by a muntjac.

This is exciting stuff.  Although I would struggle to differentiate between the two deer based only on the shape of their footprints, measuring and comparing stride length makes it quite easy to do.

As with anything, there are complications to using stride lengths and gait patterns to identify a species.  Is the deer running or walking?  Is it full size or half-grown?  And so on.  But I like it as a technique.

An awful lot of the information available about tracking today seems very ‘spiritual’ and mystical.  I have no problem with this, and I respect anyone who can use it in this way, but it is not for me.  I earn my bread and butter as a scientist, and although I like to get away from work as often as I can, I can never quite turn off my scientific reasoning.

This is why I like this measurement approach – it is scientific and can easily be applied and tested (unlike many ideas connected to tracking) and it appeals to my use of data and facts.  I’ll see if I can make more use of it over the coming months.

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At last, the summer is back, and it’s been a long, hot day. Having done my chores in the garden, it was time for a trip to the woods for a spot of badger watching.

“You’ve got to watch badgers”, I explained to my wife, “badgers need watching! If you don’t watch them, they’ll get up to all kinds of mischief!” How true this turned out to be!

It being a nice day, and inspired by reading Pablo’s Woodlife Blog, I decided to have a bushcraft adventure and spend the night in the wood. I stuffed my hammock and a light sleeping bag into my small rucksack and I was off.

It was a warm, airless evening in the wood. I climbed my favourite tree, sat on my cushion, and waited. And waited. And waited a little bit longer. By about 8.15 the sun was sinking and there were no badgers in sight. By this time they should be up and out and sitting around the sett entrance. Where have all the badgers gone?

Eventually, a badger ambled into view. Not from the sett entrance, but from the east side of the sett. It was the little tiny cub, and as usual it was busy foraging. I couldn’t see what it was eating, but every now and then it would pounce on something, much like a fox pouncing on mice. It didn’t seem to eating anything large, so it could have been catching beetles or insects.

The tiny cub (which is less tiny now) seems to be out on its own quite often, but where was the rest of the clan? On an impulse, I turned round and looked behind me. There, about 50 yards away, was the whole pack of badgers.

Curse these stripey fiends! They had obviously come from one of the eastern sett entrances, and there they

Badgers a long way off, by the eastern sett entrance

Badgers a long way off, by the eastern sett entrance

were, rolling around in silent badger laughter, no doubt delighted at having tricked me into watching an empty piece of woodland for the last half an hour!

Obviously, they have moved back into the other part of the sett. When I first started watching this sett, three years ago, this was the main area of occupation, but since then the badgers had moved to western end. Now they seemed to have gone back. Is this normal? Did they move to the western end because of the cubs? Had I disturbed them? I shall have to check up on this.

Anyway, the badgers were making the most of the fine evening. There was plenty of running around, play fighting and general high spirits. The annoying thing for me was that I was too far away to get a very good view except through binoculars, and several large patches of nettles hid the badgers from sight a lot of the time.

Badgers playing

Badgers playing

They all seemed happy and healthy enough, which was good. The little cub still seems to be a bit of a loner, staying away from the main pack. It’ll be interesting to see if it comes back into the main group later in the year.

Of course, because the badgers were in a different place, they were potentially downwind of me. There wasn’t much breeze, but probably enough. Having satisfied myself that all was well, I left them to it and ambled off myself.

Here’s a video montage of the badgers this evening:

Having decided to spend a night out of doors, I circled around so that I was upwind of the badger sett, found a couple of suitable trees, and put up my hammock. This is a very comfortable way to camp, especially in a wood where the ground is littered with fallen trees and debris. I chose a spot overlooking a deer trail in the hope of spotting some deer in the morning.

I’d love to say that I spent a restful and refreshing night in the wild, but it would be a lie. No sooner had I turned off my light and put down my copy of Jim Corbett’s The Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag (a book describing nights spent stalking man-eaters in the jungles of India, and possibly the best thing to read in a wood after dark), than the muntjac started.

Generally, I like muntjac. I’ve a soft spot for these little deer. With two exceptions – firstly, they have a habit of sneaking into my garden and nibbling my sweetcorn plants, which I take very personally. Secondly, the barking.

If you have never heard a muntjac bark before, then it is hard to describe what it is like. The sound is a cross between a bark and an unearthly scream, and in a quiet wood it is unbeliveably loud. It is hard to imagine that such a small deer could create such a loud noise. I was walking out of the wood one day when a muntjac started barking, and I could still hear it when I reached my house, three-quarters of a mile away as the crow flies. The terrible thing about muntjac barking is that they bark about every five seconds, regular as clockwork, and they can keep it up for hours.

A munjac track - I've been trying my hand at tracking

A munjac track - I've been trying my hand at tracking

I honestly don’t know why muntjac bark. It may be as an alarm call, or a way of attracting other muntjacs, or a way of warning them off. I suspect it may be for all of these reasons.

So there I was. I had one muntjac barking away about a hundred yards to my left, and another barking back at it about a hundred yards to my right. To add to the cacophony there was a tawny owl crying somewhere overhead.

I may sound a bit churlish. You would think that as a naturalist I would enjoy this. This is what being close to nature is all about. Perhaps you’re right, I should appreciate it more. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had. I’ll have to work at this bushcraft thing.

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Spurred on by yesterday’s fine display of badger antics I decided to go up to the wood again last night. Unfortunately the dark clouds of yesterday evening had turned into a heavy rain, so much so that there was a severe weather warning over much of England.

I was interested to see whether badgers are particularly bothered by rain. I know they have thick coats and must be fairly well insulated from the cold, as they seem to feed on most nights (from what I can tell from footprints). However, I also know that other mammals such as rabbits seem to dislike the rain and avoid it if possible.

Since the badgers emerged at about 8.00pm yesterday, I arrived at the sett at 7.20pm to give them plenty of time. I have got used to the idea of sitting in a tree, getting cold and stiff, waiting for badgers to appear; but sitting out, cold and stiff and wet was a new twist. It is always surprising just how cold you can be, even in summer, when you are sitting still and not moving.

As far as tonight’s observation goes, it seems that badgers are not keen on rain. One of the cubs emerged at 8.10 and then promptly went in again. One of the adults came out at 8.25 and promptly trotted off; and another one followed suit at about 8.45. There was none of the sociable behaviour I’ve seen on fine evenings, where the whole clan is content to lounge around the sett entrance and the cubs go off and play.

The highlight of the evening was a muntjac deer and her young fawn that came within 20 feet of the tree where I was sitting. The fawn was a beautiful little thing. It was tiny, about the size of a small domestic cat, and a rich red-brown colour with white dapples, quite beautiful and perfectly camouflaged against the leaf litter on the floor of the wood. It can only have been a few days old, and it walked unsteadily alongside its mother like a tiny miniature Bambi. After a few minutes they moved off, and I heard the mother barking a little way away.

I had no chance of taking a picture. The mother muntjac was quite suspicious – she would look at me and stamp her foot, a habit of muntjac when they are upset. I was wearing full camouflage gear and sitting perfectly still, but she was still on edge. I obviously wasn’t so visible that she took alarm, but visible enough for her not to relax. Because of the rain, I had taken my hat off my head and put it on my camera. The camera stayed dry while my head got wet. If I’d have moved, let alone uncovered the camera and pointed it in her direction, she would have been off like a shot. I hate disturbing animals for no reason. I’d much rather let them go about their business in peace.

Deer are like that, including muntjac. With badgers, whose eyesight is not great, as long as you don’t move they are not too bothered. Deer, on the other hand, look straight at you, not taken in by such cheap tricks as camouflage clothing. They look straight at you and you know that they know. Having said that, there’s been times when I’ve been out running in the woods dressed in my dayglo fluorescent jacket and I’ve managed to run to within a few feet of a muntjac. Maybe they don’t see fluorescent people as a threat, and are only suspicious of those that lurk in trees dressed in dark clothing.

Anyhow, a damp evening, but a rewarding one, although I fear that I’m probably still a fair-weather badger watcher.

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