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Posts Tagged ‘social animals’

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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I’ve been exploring my fascination of badgers, and why I keep getting the urge to spend perfectly good evenings sitting in a wood watching them. In Part 1, I decided that badgers are impressive beasts, and that their size and wildness make them something special in Britain.

My next reason is quite simple: badgers are fun. This may seem like a trite comment, but it isn’t. Badgers, to me, are far more interesting than a lot of the UK’s wildlife.

Badgers are social animals. They live in family groups, which is unusual for UK mammals, particularly because badgers are social carnivores. Can you think of any other carnivores that live in social groups? Lions, wolves, hyenas perhaps. Maybe wild dogs. The fact is that there aren’t that many, and certainly not in the UK.

This means that by watching badgers you can observe and study a whole range of behaviours that you do not see with other animals. You get to see how they interact with each other, how the group stays together, how dominance is established and how relationships are reinforced. You can watch the cubs grow up in the family, and the way that different badgers react to them. And this is my point – badgers do things! For someone like me who is curious about animals, no other species offers so rich and deep an opportunity for study.

Other animals, although interesting, seem a little bland by comparison. Take rabbits, for instance. I watched rabbits for a couple of hours last night, and they hopped about a bit, nibbled some grass, and occasionally stood up to have a good look round. I’m not saying that rabbits are not a worthwhile species to study – I’ve read Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit and I’m sure that they have hidden secrets – but to me they are just not as rewarding.

So there is another reason for watching badgers. Not only are they physically impressive and intriguing in their wildness, but they repay the dedicated watcher with a truly rich and detailed family life.

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