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BadgerWatching badgers, in theory, should be quite simple.  All you need to do is to find an active sett and be there (suitably downwind and out of sight) when the badgers come out in the evening.  I’ve covered the first part – finding an active sett – in an earlier post (see How to Recognise a Badger Sett).  Now I’ll say a little about the second part – when the badgers come out of their sett.

Badgers are nocturnal: they sleep during the day and are active at night.  They emerge from their sett in the evening to play, socialise and forage.  Unfortunately for the badger watcher they don’t come out at exactly the same time every evening.  They vary  the time of emergence from day-to-day and month to month.

Generally speaking, the time that badgers come out is governed by the time of sunset, earlier in winter and later in summer.  It is a little more complicated than this though, as they will often emerge while it is still light.  Badgers need enough time to find food, so during the summer when nights are short they will come out before the sun has set to give them sufficient foraging time.  In winter, when the nights are longer and the badgers are less active, they will emerge well after dark.

There are other factors that affect the time of emergence though.  Neal and Cheeseman, in the classic book Badgers, list a number of these. For example, badgers will come out later when there is more light.  Those in a sett that catches the light of the setting sun may well emerge later than those in a sett that is in shadow.  Nights when there is a bright moon may also mean the badgers come out later.

Weather plays a role too.  Badgers may come out later in strong wind or heavy rain, probably because they cannot detect danger as well in these conditions and they feel less secure.  Linked to weather is the availability of food: damp nights are better for catching worms so the badgers may come out earlier to feed.  On the other hand, a prolonged dry spell may also see them coming out earlier as they are under pressure to find food and need to spend longer foraging.  The same may be true of sows with cubs, who according to Neal and Cheeseman are often the first to leave the sett in the evening, presumably to get as much food as possible.  Lastly, human disturbance may keep the badgers underground for longer.  Setts that are subject to regular human activity tend to emerge later.

All of this means that whilst it is possible to estimate the general time that the badgers will emerge, predicting the precise time is much more difficult.

Here’s where this blog comes in.  The  main reason for writing this blog is to provide a journal for my experiences, to record details that hopefully will prove useful at some point in the future.  Since the beginning, one of the things I have been careful to record is the time that the badgers emerge from the sett.  My hope was that by keeping track of these I’d be able to find a pattern and be able to predict their movements much more accurately.  I’ve now had a chance to look back through the archives from the last two years and plot a graph of badger emergence times at different times of year.

Each point on the graph represents a time when the first badger emerged from the sett.  To show how this varies across the year I have split the graph into half-months.  I obviously don’t do enough badger watching before April and after August!

Time when badgers come out of the sett

The first thing to notice is that there is a wide range of times in each month, so there is a lot of variation in times of emergence.  In June, for instance, the badgers have come out as early as 7.00pm and as late as nearly 9.00pm.  The 7.00pm event may have been an anomaly – it was an undersized cub that acted strangely – but there’s still a big variation.

The data set for the graph is statistically too small to support firm conclusions, but it still helps to build a picture of emergence.  For instance, it does seem that the badgers come out slightly later in May and June than they do in August.  The graph also shows that in almost all cases the badgers emerged after 7.30pm and usually around 8.00pm, so it does at least allow me to judge the time I need to arrive at the sett.

Neal and Cheeseman have a much better graph in their book, based on hundreds of observations.  Anyone interested in the subject would be well advised to have a look at it.  Nevertheless, I’m quite proud of this little graph of mine.  It’s based on my own fieldwork and the records I’ve kept of my own experiences.  If you are thinking of going to watch badgers I hope it is of some use to you in planning your visits.

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Where have all the badgers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the badgers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the badgers gone?
Hiding from me, every one
When will I ever learn?
When will I ever learn?

(Apologies to Pete Seeger)

x

I promised myself that I wouldn’t go badger watching this evening.  I really did.  And yet somehow 7.45pm saw me sitting in my favourite tree looking out over the sett.  My recent visits had only whetted my appetite to find out what the badgers were doing and to check that they were OK.  Be warned – badger watching is addictive – don’t start!

The wind was in just the right direction, although a little strong, and I had high hopes that I’d see more of the badgers.  I was at the west end of the sett, facing a cluster of obviously active holes.  But the evening wore on, as they say, and no badgers appeared.  Finally, at 9.00pm exactly, I heard badgers whickering from within the undergrowth in the middle of the sett.  Even at this time of year, this tangle of nettles and elder forms an almost impenetrable screen and the holes inside it can’t be seen from any angle.  I caught a glimpse through the leaves of a couple of badgers that might, from their boisterous behaviour, have been cubs, but I wouldn’t like to bet on it.  If the badgers have taken up residence in this middle part of the sett it might explain why I haven’t seen much of them on the last two nights.

This movement of badgers within the sett is one of the big questions I have about badger behaviour, but after four years of watching and studying them I’m still no nearer to an answer.  The main sett I watch is a big one, with maybe a dozen or so active holes at any one time.  But the badgers move between these holes, not just from year to year but from week to week.  I’m sure that I could class the west end of the sett as an outlying sett to the larger east end, but it seems to have its own residents most of the time, just as the east end has too.  But are there really resident badgers in each end, or do they move randomly between them?  And sometimes, like now, the badgers will move to one end or the other.  What is it that determines which holes an individual badger uses, and why don’t they all live together all of the time?  I can understand pregnant sows moving away from the rest to have the space and security of their own burrow, but why is there this distribution across holes for the rest of them?  I suspect it has something to do with clan relationships and hierarchy, but I honestly don’t know.  Perhaps someone has done a study on it.  If I could reliably identify individual badgers I could start to understand it more, but I’m still rubbish at recognising them.

Anyway, there I was, sitting in my tree and getting colder as the light faded.  I didn’t fancy staying up there until it got dark with only a limited chance of seeing the badgers.  Sod it.  If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, the badger watcher will have to go to the badgers.

I climbed down and crept as quietly as I could in a big circle around to a point where I could see the holes at the east end of the sett.  There were still not badgers in sight, but the odd yip told me they were still in the middle of the undergrowth somewhere.  The clouds were gathering and darkness was drawing in.  Defeated, I turned for home.

I am definitely not going badger watching tomorrow.  I’m going to do what normal people do for a change.  I’m going to stay at home, get a Chinese takeaway and sit and watch TV with my wife.

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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 at the Pine Tree sett

Badger at the Pine Tree sett

On my reconnaissance of the Pine Tree sett a few weeks ago I identified three separate holes spread out a hundred or so yards apart along a line roughly north-south.  I’ve watched at the southern hole a couple of times but seen no badgers, and I’ve seen a single badger both times I’ve watched at the northern hole.

Where are the other badgers?  I decided to spend a couple of hours watching the middle hole.

And now it’s time for a confession.  The bracken has grown up over the past couple of weeks, and although I looked for the middle hole I couldn’t find it.  Some outdoorsman I am!

Rather than go back home again I settled down to watch the southern hole.  This is the one with the biggest spoil heap, so it should be occupied, and the spoil showed recent tracks.  Perhaps I could clear up the mystery of why I’ve never seen any badgers there.

At 9.03pm a badger appeared.   But it did not emerge from the hole, it came from the woods behind and then went into the hole.  After another ten minutes or so it emerged again.  This hole is under the roots of a pine tree, and the badger emerged from between the roots, just like a badger in a picture book.

Unfortunately the light had faded and my camera was struggling.  The only decent picture I got is the one at the top of the post, and that isn’t very good.  Shame.  It would have been great to get a picture of the badger emerging from beneath the tree.

After a minute or two the badger trotted off into the depths of the wood.  Nothing else happened.

I’m starting to suspect that there is only one badger at the sett.  When I last saw the badger at the northern hole it emerged at 8.50pm and walked towards the southern hole.  This is exactly the same thing I saw tonight.  I need to get a clear picture and see if I can recognise it as the same badger.

It seems odd that there should be only one though.  Is it normal for one badger to have three holes?  Nor does this square the evidence I got from tracking, which showed multiple tracks on this side of the pasture field, or the well-worn paths in the area.  Perhaps there are more and they still haven’t shown themselves, but I don’t think so.

If nothing else, this highlights my continuing ignorance of what constitutes a main sett and what is merely a subsidiary sett, and how these relate to clan relationships between different groups.  As soon as I’ve worked it out I’ll let you know.

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If you read my last post you’ll know that I’m being unfaithful to ‘my’ badgers and investigating the neighboring sett – the Pine Tree sett.  This sett seems to have three main holes spread widely apart.  Last night I watched the southernmost hole without a sign of any badgers.  Tonight I decided to have a look at the northern hole.

This hole is at the bottom of short but steep bank, about 8′ high.  Because of the wind direction I elected to lie in the grass on the top of the bank and peer over the edge, with the wind blowing directly up the bank towards me.  To begin with this was quite a luxury – badger watching while lying in grass, instead of sitting on a thin tree branch or in a patch of nettles.  After an hour of lying motionless though I had pins and needles in my legs and the blood was pooling uncomfortably in my head.  And I do this for fun?

At 8.35pm the stripey head of a badger popped out of the hole.  Success!  So there are badgers here after all!  A few seconds later it popped back down again.

I was sure it hadn’t scented me, as I’d been very careful to take the long way round when I walked in so the sett was always upwind.  I was also pretty sure it hadn’t spotted me, partly because I was fully camouflaged and hidden behind the grass, but mostly because a badger that sees something suspicious will usually try and sniff the air to make sure, and this one just disappeared.  There was nothing for it but to wait and see.

About 10 minutes later the badger reappeared, and to my horror it started climbing the bank towards me.  Another few feet, I thought to myself, and you’re going to get a surprise!  Luckily the badger wasn’t climbing to the top of the bank.  It was gathering grass for bedding, pulling it out with its mouth and shuffling back to the sett once it had got a reasonable load.  I always enjoy watching badgers doing this, there’s something strangely endearing about it.

Here’s a brief video of the badger:

The badger made three bedding trips in all and then stayed underground, no doubt arranging things in its chamber.  I decided not to push my luck and sneaked off.  It had been a great close-up view, but I didn’t want to spoil things on my first visit to the sett.

As ever, questions remain.  I only saw one badger.  Are there more in this part of the sett?  Is it just a solitary bachelor in residence?  Why are the holes in this sett so far apart?  How do the badgers from each hole interact?   The paths between the holes suggest that they do, but the behaviour seems very different from the communal get-togethers I’ve observed at the other sett.

I shall do what I always do – go back to the textbooks and keep watching!

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Buzzard over the pasture field

Buzzard over the pasture field

I’ve tried to make a point of watching one group of badgers rather than flitting around here, there and everywhere, the idea being that I should be able to learn more by getting to know one group very well.

OK.  Today I changed my mind slightly, and decided to go and have a look at the neighbouring badger sett.

Regular readers may remember that I found this sett a little while ago (see Fieldnotes 7th September).  I hadn’t forgetton it.

In fact, this sett has been central in my efforts to understand ‘my’ group of badgers.  I was able to predict its position by mapping latrine sites, badger latrines being sited on the boundaries of their territories.  When I followed the badger tracks in the snow in January I was able to see how badgers from both of these setts interacted on the boundary between them.

A great deal of badger behaviour is related to establishing and maintaining a territory, so understanding the relationship between neighboring clans is important.  For instance, last year I wondered what happened to the ‘excess’ badgers at the sett, since as a group they seemed to reproducing faster than they were dying.  After reading Hans Kruuk’s The Social Badger I now know that the non-dominant males leave and typically mate with females from another sett, but only ever with those from a neighbouring sett.  They don’t seem to travel any further.  The females almost always stay in their home territory.

(Interestingly, this happened to me too.  I grew up in the north of England, but I left there and married my wife.  My wife is from Bedfordshire, where we now live,  so I migrated away from my clan whilst she stayed in her home territory.  Perhaps the principle works for humans as well…)

Anyway, I digress.  Today, I decided I fancied a bit of a change so I went to see the other sett.  It needs a name to distinguish it from the main sett I watch, and since there are pine trees around the entrance let’s call it the Pine Tree sett.

The Pine Tree sett is not as big as the main one.   Like the main sett it adjoins

The Pine Tree sett

The Pine Tree sett

the pasture field, so the badgers have access to the main food resources (hence the territorial boundary that divides the pasture field between them).  There are three entrances spread out over a hundred yards or so, with a well-used path between them.  The entrances are the classic sideways D shape, with large spoil heaps and used bedding outside.  Nearby were fresh dung pits.  In short, it was as badgery a place as you could ever wish for.

The only problem was that although I watched it for three hours, I didn’t see any badgers.  Very frustrating.

The holes are quite far apart and not intervisible, so it is only possible to see one of them at a time.  I chose to watch at the hole with the largest and freshest spoil heap, but perhaps the badgers were at another one.

It’s a mystery.  It is obviously a badger sett, and obviously in use, so the badgers must be somewhere.  I was at the sett from 6.30pm to 9.30pm, so I imagine the badgers would have come out during that time.  In the other sett half a mile away they’re coming out consistently between 8.00pm and 8.30pm.

I think I need to put in a few more trips to this sett and try watching the other holes.  Hopefully that will clear up the mystery.

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The weather today has been much warmer than of late.  It was a cold night, but the sun came out and the temperature went up to 8 degrees or so.  It doesn’t sound much, but compared to the last couple of weeks it feels almost tropical!

Rabbit tracks in frost

Rabbit tracks in frost

I went on my usual Sunday morning dawn stroll today.  When I set off it was still very frosty.

Here’s an example of tracks that you won’t find in a tracking book.

The pavement was very frosty, although the road had been gritted.  At some point in the night a pair of rabbits had crossed the road, hopped up onto the pavement and then gone through the railings to the field beyond.

They had picked up the salt from the road on their feet, and this salt had melted the frost where their feet had touched it, leaving this perfect set of tracks in the ice.

I decided to make the most of the day and went for a longer walk than usual.  I let my feet carry me in a big loop around the woods.  The Chinese Water Deer were out again, and the local buzzard seems to have found a friend, as there were two buzzards swooping and calling over the fields.  Either that or he was having a territorial dispute with the neighbour.

I thought it was time I checked in at the sett to see how the badgers were doing.  Of course, there was no chance of them being out at 9.30am, but I wanted to have a look round.  It gave me a good chance to look at the different parts of the sett.  In summer, when I’m actively watching the badgers, I don’t like to get to close to the sett for fear of disturbing them as scent can linger for a long while.  Today though, I thought I’d have a look, since the badgers would not be active until much later in the evening.

Everything seemed to be in order at the sett.  There were two entrances that looked to be in very active use.  Here’s a picture of one of them – note the relatively clean hole, without many fallen leaves or other debris.  You can also see how the sides have been polished by the coming and going of many badgers.  This is obviously well-used at the moment.

Badger sett entrance (1)

Badger sett entrance (1)

Very encouragingly, a couple of entrances showed signs of recent digging and of having been cleared out.  In the picture below you can see a furrow pointing directly to the hole, made by badgers dragging out spoil.  This is another classic sign of an active badger sett.

Badger sett entrance (2)

Badger sett entrance (2)

In the picture below, you can see that the badgers have dug out large amounts of dead leaves from this entrance.  This is a sign that they’re clearing out an old chamber for re-use.

Badger sett entrance showing signs of clearing out

Badger sett entrance showing signs of clearing out

Why is this encouraging?  Well, badgers re-dig parts of the sett at this time of year to make ready for the birth of cubs in February.  The sow prepares a separate ‘maternity suite’ where she can get away from the other badgers and won’t be disturbed.  The signs of activity at the sett all point to there being cubs on the way!

The interesting thing is that there is clear activity at both ends of the sett – the east and west sides.  This implies that badgers are in residence at both ends.  There is re-digging going on at both ends too.  Does this mean that there will be two separate litters of cubs from separate mothers?  Has there been a split in the badgers, so that different groups have taken to living in different parts of the sett?

All the books I’ve read suggest that all the badgers in a sett should be part of one single group, with only the dominant male and female breeding.  This wasn’t the case last year, as there were at least two litters of cubs, and the signs seem to indicate that there will be separate litters again this year.

I’ve also been thinking about the number of badgers in the sett at the moment.  If all the cubs survived (and I have no reason to think that they haven’t) then there will be at least 10 badgers in residence.  Do some of them leave home at some point, or do they stay in the group permanently?  Might this account for the active use of different parts of the sett?  If they leave, what is it that determines who leaves and who stays, and where do the badgers that leave go?  Do they join another sett, or start their own?

You see, this is the great thing about badgers.  We’re only in January and already they’ve got me confused.  I’m going to start the badger watching season as I finished the last one – with more questions than answers!

This is a mystery that needs solving.  Does anyone know where I can get a cheap copy of Hans Kruuk’s The Social Badger?  Even better, if anyone knows anything about the clan structure of badger groups and how they change over time, then please do leave a comment and enlighten me.

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