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I seem to have developed an unhealthy interest in badger dung.

Let me explain. When I first started watching badgers, I made a conscious decision to stick with one sett and focus on that. There are at least two, possibly three, other setts that I know of (or strongly suspect) in the local area, although I don’t know their exact locations. I know they are there because I’ve seen badgers on the roads or other signs, and they’re too far off to be ‘my’ badgers.

I decided to stick with the one sett because I wanted to really get to know one clan of badgers. Only by fully understanding how this sett works as a social group could I learn about the details of badger behaviour. Jumping from one sett to another and watching different groups of badgers would be fun, but I’ve always felt that it would dilute my understanding.

I’ve reached the point now though where I want to understand how ‘my’ sett fits into the bigger picture of setts in the area – how they interact, movement between setts and so on. Hence I’ve just spent an afternoon looking for badger dung.

Badgers are territorial. Each family or clan controls its own territory, marking it out as its own property. This marking is most visibly done with dung. Badgers are quite fastidious, and they tend to deposit their dung in specific ‘latrine sites’, typically located on the boundaries of their territory. If you can locate these sites, you can map the boundary points and hence the area controlled by a particular sett.

Badger latrine site

Badger latrine site

I spent about three hours wandering up and down the footpaths around the wood, and I’ve mapped out six latrine sites to the east, south west, west and north east of the sett. The distance from these the sett is 300 to 400 metres, with one outlier in the wheat field 600 metres away. This suggests that my badgers are controlling the territory for a radius of 300-400m from their sett.

Of course, this is probably a gross oversimplification. It is most unlikely that the badgers have a perfectly circular territory. Territory size is governed by availability of resources, so it is interesting to note that the latrine sites enclosed an area of woodland (which provides cover and security), plus significant areas of pasture and cereal fields (which provide food). It seems that my badgers are pretty well organised here.

If the latrine sites do represent a boundary between badger territories, this suggests that the neighbouring setts will be something in the order of 600m away, in other words an equal distance from the boundary, assuming the availability of resources is similar. This distance is somewhat higher that the 350m quoted by Neal and Cheeseman, but they were studying badgers in the Cotswolds where resources are likely to be more abundant, and so territories smaller.

So there you have it. An afternoon of looking for dung has allowed my to predict (albeit very roughly) the size of the badgers’ territory and the possible location of neighbouring setts. I’ll carry on working on this idea and see if I can add more detail in the future.

Something else I intend to do more of in the future is tracking. I’ve become intrigued by the idea of tracking mammals, partly as an activity in its own right, but partly also as a way of finding out more about their movements and locations. This could be particularly useful for the rare and shy species, as I can find out what they have been doing without having to be there at the time.

I’ve bought a book on tracking and I’m reading through it at the moment, but I’ve already discovered that it is more difficult than it looks. It rained heavily this morning so any tracks outside the wood have been washed out, and inside the wood the patches of ‘printable’ ground are few and far between. The best I could do was to find a few confused deer tracks (the tracks were confused, not the deer!) and the odd partial badger print.

These badger prints were the closest I got to the stripeys all evening. I watched the eastern side of the sett from 7.00pm to 8.40pm without seeing so much as a black and white nose. They may have come out of another entrance without me being able to see them, as the view is limited on this side of the sett. Perhaps they’re playing more tricks on me. Either way, no pictures of badgers for this post!

It’s been a good day though. Like I said, there’s enough to learn about badgers to keep you busy for years!

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A good scratch at the sett entrance

A good scratch at the sett entrance

The summer monsoon weather has been continuing, with rain all week. I swear that the vegetables in my garden have all grown a foot since last weekend, and everywhere the plants are lush and green. On the downside, the fields are muddy and the roads have been flooded for half the time, but at least there are now some sunny intervals in the rain.

I made a quick visit to the wood this evening. There was a party going on in the village somewhere, and they’d obviously hired a DJ and a PA system. I could hear the music clearly from the wood, which is about 3/4 of a mile away. I’m not sure whether the badgers were affected by the noise. They came out as usual just before 8.00pm. It was slightly surreal to be sitting in the trees amongst the timeless wonders of nature, watching badgers frolicking to a soundtrack of Macarena, Reach for the Stars and Is this the way to Amarillo?. They didn’t seem to show a preference for any particular tunes, so a golden opportunity for research into badgers’ preferences for cheesy pop music was lost.

To be honest, the badgers were in a jittery mood, but I put that down to my presence and the possibility that they could smell me. The damp weather and a slight wind meant that there was every possibility that my scent was being carried around unpredictably. Nick (see last post) was out and about, so it was good to recognise a particular badger. He was obviously suspicious. He would pace up and down, stopping to sniff the air every few seconds. I think that by moving backwards and forwards he was obviously trying to track down a particular scent – no doubt mine.

I left early, not wishing to disturb the badgers. I wonder how long it would take for the badgers to get used to my presence? I mean, I’ve been coming to this sett for a couple of years now, so they must know about me. You’d think that the fact that I’ve never lunged out of a tree and attacked them would put them at their ease a bit, but they still seem very wary. Perhaps they will one day learn that I’m not a threat, or perhaps they won’t. I suspect that badgers, like many wild animals, are strongly ‘neophobic’ – in other words they are afraid of anything new or different. Being quite a remote and undisturbed sett, they don’t see many people, so we’re all still quite new to them. On the other hand, I’ve watched them bolt in fear when a muntjac has barked nearby or when a wood pigeon has crashed through the trees, so maybe they are just timid by nature.

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Three cubs foraging

Three cubs foraging

Today was a miserable day for July, with gusting winds and intermittent rain, but I went up to the wood anyway, feeling guilty no doubt for being stuck in the house all day. Besides, I was curious to see if the badgers were back to normal after their unusual behaviour yesterday, and I was anxious to see if the cubs were all right, since they hardly put in an appearance last time.

It was a damp evening, and the wind was still gusting in odd directions. Such days are often bad ones for badger watching, as your scent carries much further on damp air. I needn’t have worried. Four of the cubs emerged from the western sett entrance at about 7.45pm, and spent the next hour or so contentedly foraging. They were utterly oblivious to me as I sat ten feet above them in my tree. I think that when they’re pre-occupied with food, badgers rarely look up. All their attention is fixed on the ground and what is at the end of their nose.

The cubs are acting all grown up now, with much less of the boisterous play fighting of previous months. At one point though they all ran off and started an all in wrestling match near the entrance of the sett. Even this seems a bit more serious, with a fair amount of biting at the neck and hindquarters. I suppose they are more actively establishing a hierarchy in the group.

I think that all six cubs were there in the end. This sounds terribly vague, but the truth is that it is very difficult to keep track of individual badgers when they are either rolling around in one big heap, or spread out and foraging over half an acre of woodland. I often found myself with badgers on all sides, and disappearing and reappearing from the undergrowth.

One highlight of the day was that I noticed an unusual facial feature one one of the cubs – a notch or nick in

Nick the badger - note the notch in the black stripe under the ear

Nick the badger - note the notch in the black stripe under the ear

the black stripe, just under the ears. This may not sound very unusual, but none of the other cubs had a similar mark, so I think I’ve found a way to identify one of the cubs as an individual. In an act of no imagination at all I christened him ‘Nick’ (although it could equally well be a Nicola). Here is a picture showing the facial markings. This badger is one of the three in the picture at the top of this post, and you can see how the nick in the stripe stands out from the others.

Having done this, I was able to go back through previous pictures and see if I could track the same individual. Here is a picture of Nick from the 16th June. Once again, I’ll keep an eye out for him (or her) in the future.

Interestingly, all the cubs came out from the western entrance again, and the sole adult to come out while I was there emerged from the centre hole. Is there a significance to this?

Nick from an earlier picture taken on June 16th

Nick from an earlier picture taken on June 16th

At 9.00pm the sky grew black, and the dusk got suddenly darker. A moment later the heavens opened in a terrific downpour. I was sitting in a chestnut tree, which I’ve always found to be a pretty good tree to be under when it rains. Not as good as a nice thick holly or a yew, but pretty good nonetheless.

The rain lashed down. I could see it bouncing off the bare earth of the sett entrance. Although I was relatively dry in my tree, the badgers were evidently none too impressed. Within a minute they’d all trotted back into the sett. I speculated that they don’t like rain because the sound drowns out the sounds of potential predators, but the truth is that they probably don’t like getting wet.

Taking their lead I sneaked off home, with all the delights of walking through a soaking wet wheat field in the rain. I really must get some waterproof trousers one of these days…

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Mutual grooming at the sett entrance

Mutual grooming at the sett entrance

As I walked up the field to the wood it was apparent that the badgers have been feeding more on the wheat in the field. From the look of it, they trample down the stalks and then strip the grain from the heads. There were small patches of bent stalks and eaten heads of wheat all up the path, with a few heads evidently carried off into the next field as a snack. There was even more grain in the dung in this field, suggesting that it forms a substantial part of the diet for at least some of the badgers. Perhaps one night when there’s a full moon I should come down here and see if I can spot them at it.

In case you feel bad about the spoiled grain, I’d point out that it represents a tiny, tiny fraction of one percent of the wheat in the field. There’s no chance that these badgers will be the ruin of any farmers.

More badger dung with cereal

More badger dung with cereal

It turns out that the badgers were in an odd mood this evening. To explain what went on I need to paint you a picture of this particular sett. The sett is evidently quite an old one. The main part of the sett is a mass of mounds and craters, resembling an overgrown first world war battlefield, that has evidently been produced by the spoil heaps and collapsed tunnels of many generations of badgers.

This part of the sett is on the east of the site, and although it has been the main scene of activity in previous years, it appears not to be used at the moment. The badgers this year having been using another cluster of three entrances about 60-70 yards to the west, and also a single entrance in between the two sites. For simplicity, I’ll refer to the east, west and central holes in my diary. There may be an underground link between the west and central holes, but it is difficult to say for sure. It seems that all the badgers use both the west and central holes at times, with the west being the most popular at the moment.

After my experience with the little cub last week I arrived early, and was sitting comfortably in a tree well before 7.00pm. Usually the cubs have been the first to emerge, but this time it was an adult from the central hole. This badger seemed to have a light patch of fur on its hindquarters, but whether this is a permanent feature I don’t know. It trotted off to the east, where in addition to the unused sett there is the main latrine site for the group, and then returned a few minutes later and disappeared underground again. Perhaps it was just an urgent call of nature.

For the next hour and a half nothing happened. I watched the local rabbits and a squirrel, and the buzzard came swooping through the wood, but there were no badgers.

One of the cubs emerged from the west entrance at about 8.45, followed shortly after by another. They seemed to be sticking close to the sett entrance. A few minutes after this, three adults came out of the central hole, and sat around for a few minutes having a bit of a mutual grooming session.

All the badgers seemed a bit on edge. I wonder if they’d caught a sniff of my scent. The wind was quite strong, but it was gusting from all directions, now one way, now the other, so it was possible that my scent was being carried around. Not enough to make them bolt, but enough to make them wary.

The light was fading too, so I decided to call it a night. As usual, I’ve come away with more questions than answers. Why were the badgers all out late tonight? Where has the little cub gone? Is there a reason why the adults were coming out of one hole and the cubs another? I guess I’m going to have to put some more watching time in to try and answer these.

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My wife was unexpectedly working late, so I seized the chance for a quick trip to the woods. I’m glad I did,One of the cubs because it turned into one of the best evenings of badger watching I’ve ever had.

My aim was to try and spot the badger with the white patch behind his ear and see if I could recognise him again. In the event I didn’t, but I got to see a whole lot more.

I arrived at the wood quite late, and worried that the badgers would be out already, I stalked the last few hundred yards to the sett so I wouldn’t disturb them if they were. There is an art to walking silently through a wood, and although I’m not perfect at it I’ve definitely improved over the years. In the event it proved unnecessary, but you can never be too careful. I’ve made that mistake in the past – strolling along to the sett confident that badgers would still be underground, only to come face to face with an early riser.

Two of the cubs emerged first, just before 8.00pm. They spent the next 40 minutes happily scuffling about, noses firmly to the ground. They don’t seem to be going great distances yet, but they have got the hang of foraging around the vicinity of the sett.

After a while they were joined by the adult I think of as their mother, a long, lean badger. Of course, she’s unlikely to be the mother of all the cubs (and she may not even be female) but she seems to show more interest in them than the other adults. Shortly after, the three of them were joined by another four cubs.

Wait a minute, there are five cubs at the sett. I’ve said so in the past. Well, it seems I was wrong. There are definitely six. One of them seems smaller than the others, so it may be a separate litter and have come out later, but it was foraging along happily so it has obviously been out many times before. I may well have missed it when the whole family has been at the sett entrance. I guess I don’t know everything about these particular badgers – not by a long way!

The \'mother\' with two of the cubsIn a very short space of time I had eight badgers wandering about under my tree. I was not more than 8-10 feet away from them. If I had dropped a peanut from my pocket I could have hit a badger on the nose. Being so close meant that I had a great view of different behaviours. There was the usual musking going on, both from the ‘mother’ to the cubs, and strangely, from one of the cubs onto another adult. I don’t know what that means for the hierarchy.

I saw another social behaviour up close. The ‘mother’ would go up to the cubs, and it looked like she was biting them on the neck. It was actually social grooming of some sort, and the interesting thing is that she went methodically from cub to cub, grooming each of them for about ten seconds and then moving on. I’ll have to check up on what this means.

All the badgers were feeding constantly, grubbing around in the undergrowth. For the first time I saw theCubs Foraging creation of ‘snuffle holes’ close up. Snuffle holes are classic signs of badger activity. They are conical holes in the earth, anything up to six inches deep, caused by the badger rooting out food. The badgers would push their nose into the soft leaf-mould and dig a little with their claws, and within seconds they had dug a perfect little hole.

It seems that most of these holes were dug in search of worms. At one point the ‘mother’ unearthed a huge worm. As she lifted her head, with the worm dangling like a piece of spaghetti, one of the cubs rushed in, took from her and ate it. She didn’t seem too upset. I’ve seen this before, and I’m not sure whether it is the adult feeding the cubs, or perhaps the adult is teaching them how to find food. Perhaps she was just a little slow and the cub stole her titbit.

There were badgers all around me by this point, and the undergrowth was full of scuffling and scratching. There were badgers in front of me, badgers behind me and badgers on each side. One even tried to climb the tree I was in! I was in the centre of a maelstrom of badgers. An owl hooted in the distance. I looked at my watch – 9.20pm. A new thought struck me. How was I going to get down from my tree? My number one rule of badger watching is ‘Do not disturb the badgers’, yet if I tried to get down I would literally be on top of them. It looked like I was stuck there for the duration.

At that moment a couple of adult badgers by the sett entrance started fighting. This was much different to the usual play-fighting of the cubs; a lot of biting around the neck, accompanied by a constant whickering. At least, I thought they were fighting. Neither seemed in a hurry to get away. When social animals fight, the loser normally backs off quickly. No-one is hurt and the hierarchy is maintained. It occurred to me that these badgers were perhaps not fighting, they were maybe getting amorous with each other.

I’ve never seen badger courtship before, but if that’s what it was, it didn’t look very gentle. This is something else I’ll have to check up on, and see if can find out what they were really doing.

After a while the cubs moved off to the east, and the two fighting/courting adults went back in the sett. I don’t know whether it was a case of ‘not in front of the children’ or whether one of them just wanted some peace. It gave me a chance to get down from the tree and stalk carefully off, relieved at getting away without disturbing them. I’d had a great couple of hours of absolutely pure and undisturbed badger antics – the best you could wish for – and the least I could do was to leave them in peace to carry on with it.

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Despite the threatening rain clouds I decided to pay a visit to the wood on Friday evening. It’s a good way to unwind after the working week. Like most people, I spend my time rushing everywhere: rushing to work, rushing to meetings, rushing home. Watching wildlife forces you slow down, to stop and listen and think.

The slight wind was blowing in an unusual direction. Wooded valleys seem to have an uncanny influence on the wind. It is not uncommon to have the wind blowing one way outside the wood, and in another direction entirely when you’re actually inside it. The practical upshot of this was that all of my usual trees would put me upwind of the badgers. This would not do at all, so I circled around the sett and sat on the ground with my back to a large oak.

The first thing I noticed was how many nettles there were. I was sitting on a few, but being a rough, tough badger watcher I couldn’t let myself be too put off by that. The nettles also grew around the sett entrance, putting a bit of a screen between me and the badgers. Not good for a clear view, but good for keeping the badgers relaxed.

The cubs came out at about 8.15pm. They are getting very independent now, and seem perfectly happy foraging around the area of the sett. The adults emerged about 45 minutes later. The whole group seems very relaxed and content at the moment. I suppose that life must be good for a badger just now. The wet weather means that the worms that make up most of their diet are plentiful and easy to catch, and that must take some of the pressure off the food gathering.

One of the advantages of being on the ground was that I was closer to the badgers than usual, which gave a new perspective on things. I sat there for a good hour and a half, my legs slowly going numb underneath me and a small cloud of mosquitoes gathering about my head, but with a great view of the sett.

The downside of being on the ground was that I was more likely to come into contact with the badgers. As I’ve said before, one of my rules for badger watching is to avoid disturbing the animals. Sitting in front of the tree it was surprising how little notice the badgers took of me. I was wearing full camouflage gear including gloves and face net, so I should have been quite inconspicuous. However, eventually the inevitable happened. One of the foraging badgers circled round and approached me from the side. From this position my silhouette must have been visible, because it stopped, stared and then trundled quickly back to the sett.

Not wishing to put the badgers off their foraging, I slowly straightened my cramped legs and crept away as quietly as I could. After 30 yards I turned round and I could see the cubs ambling about, so they seemed happy enough.

All in all an interesting evening. I think I still prefer my trees. They offer so much more concealment.. There’s been many times when I’ve had badgers scuffling around the roots of the tree I’ve been sitting in, and they’ve never suspected.

One good thing from the night is that I think I’ve finally got an individual badger I can recognise. The coats of most badgers are greyish-black, with a reddish-brown tint beneath, but the fur of this one was quite white underneath the grey. He also had a patch of white fur visible below his left ear. I say he, because he looked well-built like a boar, but I could be mistaken. I’m no expert on sexing badgers, except when I see them with cubs or exposing their undercarriage as they scratch. I shall look out for this particular badger on subsequent visits.

My efforts to build up a video archive of the badgers continue. I’ve discovered how to set my camera to take high quality video, but it only does it for 15 seconds at a time. I’ve spliced all the footage for the evening into one montage. I’ll have to read the camera manual, but I guess in the meantime I’ve got a video that is ideal for people like me with 15 second attention spans!

For a better look at the video, click here to go to YouTube and select ‘Watch in high quality’.

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It’s been a while since I’ve been to the wood, what with work commitments and other matters, so I was keen to see how the cubs were getting on.

The last two weeks have seen a lot of rain, but today was quite sunny. The rain has given us a lot of lush vegetation and the wood is a bit like a rain forest at the moment. The nettles at the gate are now as high as my shoulder!

The badgers emerged en masse at about 7.45pm, and for the next hour so they milled around the area, quite content and relaxed. One of my problems is that as yet I haven’t been able to recognise individual badgers at the sett. I can recognise the cubs – they’re small and cute and fluffy – but the adults are harder to tell apart. This is one of the reasons for taking photographs and video, so that I can try and learn their features and so tell them apart. The other reason for the pictures is to explain to my wife what I do in the evenings…

Anyhow, there were very soon at least ten badgers at the sett entrance, the five cubs and at least five adults. They were all quite happy, enjoying the pleasant evening, sitting around grooming and playing. The older cubs are getting to be quite a handful, but there are two who are still smaller and quieter. Are these females? Do females develop slower? Or are they just late developers?

The cubs are ranging further afield now, and going off foraging on their own. They still stay within about 100 yards of the sett, but they are definitely getting more independent. There is still the usual play-fighting and wrestling going on, but they seem to have calmed down a little and are getting on with the business of finding food. Interestingly, I saw one of the cubs musking another cub, so it seems as if they are already defining relationships in the group.

Musking is an activity that may need some explaining. The badger belongs to the mustelid family, which also includes weasels, stoats, otters, polecats and martens. One of the key features of these animals is that they communicate by scent, having a musk gland under the tail that secretes a powerful-smelling oil. This is used to mark out a territory, and in the case of badgers, to mark out family members.

Badgers mark their territory through the use of specific ‘latrine’ sites or dung pits. These areLatrine Site located at the edge of their patch, and are visited regularly. The scent at these sites warns other badgers out of the area. These dung pits are a useful way to identify the territory of different badgers. You can also use them to find out what the badgers have been eating. I’m not dedicated enough for detailed analysis, but as a rough guide badgers that have been eating their usual diet of earthworms will leave ‘earthy’ dung. In late summer, the dung is often crammed with wheat from the fields, showing the change in diet. There are a few cherry trees in our area, and in the autumn the badger dung is often dark red and a mass of cherry stones.

A badger musks another badger by pressing its backside against it, so that it rubs the musk gland on the other badger. Musking indicates the hierarchy of the group, so that dominant badgers musk the less dominant ones. It marks them out as ‘belonging’ to them. As I was watching the sett there was a disturbance in the undergrowth (caused by one of the cubs, I think). Alarmed, all the badgers bolted back to the sett. It was like a firework exploding in reverse – badgers raced back from all points of the compass. When they had settled down again, one of the adults came over and musked two of the cubs. It was if it was saying ‘Don’t worry, you’re one of us. You’re part of the gang. You’re safe now.’

I’m curious to see what happens to the family. Will all the cubs stay at the sett, or do they go off and make their own way in the world? I guess I need to work on identifying individuals and keep watching over the year to answer that question.

At the end of the evening, one of the cubs started exploring in a whole new direction. There is a tree at the sett that grows at an angle of about 45 degrees. The cub managed to climb onto this tree, and proceeded to amble upwards. Very shortly it had climbed about 25 feet along the tree, and was about 12-14 feet off the ground. I wondered if it would get stuck. We had a cat once that would climb trees, but could only climb upwards. When it came to coming down again she was much less graceful. The badger cub on the other hand seemed quite at home in the tree, and when it reached the end of the trunk it turned round and ambled down again. I’ve seen badgers climbing trees before, and they always seem a bit out of place, being low-slung, solid animals, definitely suited to life on the ground. I suppose they are related to Pine Martens after all, so it may be a family trait.

As it was getting too dark to see, a muntjac barked loudly nearby and all the badgers scrambled down the nearest sett entrance. I took that as my cue and slipped down from my tree and headed home.

Here’s a short video of the badgers at the sett.

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