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Badger CubSaturday evening was warm without being oppressive, with a light breeze blowing.  Around the world financial markets crashed.  Tanks rolled down Syrian streets.  London was in flames as rioters burned and looted.  And me?  I walked up to the wood to watch badgers.

The wheat in the wheat fields is ripe now.  The badgers are making full use of this seasonal resource, with all the latrine pits full of wheat-filled dung.  They’ll need to make the most of it quickly, as the farmers are starting to harvest.  They’ll carry on late into the night while the dry weather lasts, with spotlights on the combine harvesters.

By 7.35pm I was happily sitting up a tree at the main sett, listening to tractors in the distance, muntjacs in the wood and the buzzard in the trees.  You see, it isn’t that I try to escape from reality by watching badgers.  It’s just a different reality – one that’s been here far longer than the troubles of our modern world.

Having had little luck with the badgers at this sett I wasn’t expecting too much – maybe a quick glimpse.  But it turned out to be a very good evening of watching.  At 7.45 there appeared a badger cub.  It ambled over from the east end of the sett and snuffled contentedly around my tree as it foraged in the undergrowth.  This was good news indeed!  Remember that a couple of years ago I regularly saw 8-10 badgers at this sett, which has gone down to just 2 or 3 this year.  I’ve been concerned about them, to be honest.  A cub is an excellent sign that things are picking up again.

I thought I saw a cub last time I was here, but I only got a brief look so I wasn’t sure.  This time there was no doubt.  Here’s a quick video of the badger cub foraging:

As the cub was under my tree I could hear the whickering sound of badgers at play from the other end of the sett, so that makes at least another two badgers in residence.  At 8.00pm I saw another badger walking off from the east end of the sett, which confirmed things.

The cub spent the next half-hour foraging, snaffling up the odd morsel of food from the ground.  Apart from the delight of getting a good look at a real live badger for the first time in ages, I also got a few new insights.  At one point the local buzzard settled into a tree overhead, calling loudly.  The badger cub reacted visibly to this – it scampered to a disused sett entrance at the west of the site and crouched there.  A badger – even a half-grown cub – has nothing to fear from a buzzard, whose food is mostly carrion and small creatures such as worms, but this one looked visibly nervous.

Badger cub crouched in sett entranceAfter a few minutes the cub disappeared underground, only to reappear from the middle entrance to the sett five minutes later.  This is the first time I’ve seen this, but it means that the middle and the west of the sett are linked underground.  They’re at least 25 yards apart, so there must be a fantastic network of tunnels underground.

All in all, a very satisfying evening.  It must be a record for the latest view of a badger cub (I normally see the first in April) but it was good to see it nonetheless.  It’s a good sign and I feel like a proper badger watcher again.

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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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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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The tiny badger cub foragingOn the face of it, it wasn’t the best of days. The wind was gusty and the dark clouds threatened rain, as if a summer storm was brewing. But it had been a couple of weeks since I’ve been down to the wood, so I went anyway. A short (but very enjoyable) walking holiday and the inevitable long hours at work have conspired to keep me away until this evening.

One of the fields I walk through on my way to the wood has wheat in it this year, and there are signs that the badgers are already starting to feed on the ripening grain. Feeding on cereals is often seen as something that badgers do in drought conditions when worms are hard to come by. This year hasn’t been especially dry, so I imagine the worms must still be fairly plentiful, yet they seem to be eating the corn anyway. Perhaps it is just an easy source of food. Perhaps they just like it.Badger dung showing cereal diet

The best indicator of cereal eating in badgers is to examine their dung. I’ve never stooped so low as to start poking around in it, but you can tell a lot about what the badger has been eating just by looking at it. I took this picture this evening. The dung is green and full of cereal grains, in clear contrast to the brown, earthy dung you typically get with an earthworm diet.

The wind was blowing from an odd direction, so I had to approach the sett from a different way to usual. I’ve mentioned before that you should always approach a sett quietly and from downwind. This proved to be very true today, since one of the badgers was out and about early. I arrived at about 7.00pm, and since the badgers have usually been emerging about 8.00pm or so, this one was very early.

With my best attempt at cat-like stealth I crept up behind a tree about 20 yards from the sett. I was downwind, so I was pretty safe from discovery, and if I didn’t make any noise the badger was unlikely to notice me.

It was a badger cub, and from the size of it, it was the tiny cub I had noticed last time. It was busy foraging, pushing its nose into the leaf mould and grubbing about; indeed the ground all around was pock-marked with dozens of little snuffle-holes where it had rooted out worms or bugs. I don’t know if it is the runt of the litter. Do badger litters have runts? Is its small size connected to the fact that it was out early, and obviously feeding with some enthusiasm? Perhaps it is a younger cub from another litter and has some catching up to do before the lean months of winter. I have a lot of questions, but no answers yet.

I peered out from behind my tree and took a quick video. It became clear to me now I was here that the wind was entirely wrong for any decent badger watching tonight. There was nowhere downwind that offered me any cover and yet allowed a view of the sett. The only cover available was virtually on top of the sett, or nearly as bad, right next to the main badger paths. If I stayed there until the rest of the family came out I was certain to disturb the badgers in one way or another, so reluctantly I backed away and left the little cub to it.

Click here to visit YouTube and click on ‘watch in high quality’ for a better view.

It was frustrating not to get my fix of badger watching for the night, but that’s how it goes. There was no point in staying and trying to make the most of a bad situation.

As a consolation I sat in the field for a while and watched the local buzzard performing acrobatics, swooping and diving in the strong wind. All buzzards are quite spectacular birds, looking as they do like little eagles, but this individual is quite a show off. I’ve watched it before as it’s flown through the wood itself, swerving and dodging around the tree trunks and crying out its mewing call, and that’s a sight to see.

I watch the buzzard slowly disappear eastwards, and for a change I walk home while it is still light.

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Today I’ve figured out how to embed video, so there’s no stopping me!

I discussed musking on the last post, and I’ve got an example on video. This is the first video I ever took, so the quality is not brilliant, but you can get the idea.

I’d put down a small patch of peanuts and the adult badger found them first. The two young cubs then came rushing in. Badgers have a neat trick of shoulder-barging each other out of the way, and then sitting down on the food so no others can get to it.

The adult boar was having none of it. He gets up and then musks on each of the cubs in turn before moving off. Whether this was a show of dominance or fatherly affection I don’t know, but it’s a good example of the behaviour.

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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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A skylark was singing over the fields as I walked up to the wood, and a cuckoo ‘cuckoo’d’ as I walked back, so I suppose it must be nearly summer, but with a chill wind and towering black clouds it felt more like February than late May.

But I shouldn’t complain about the wind. A good breeze is the badger watcher’s friend. Badgers see only poorly, and their hearing isn’t great, but their sense of smell is something like 800 times more sensitive than ours (sounds like the beginnings of a bad joke – “how does a badger smell? – terrible!”). If they catch a sniff of human scent in the air they’ll be back in the sett before you know it. Providing you’re sat in the right place, a nice breeze carries your scent up and away from the sett, and the badgers will hardly suspect you’re there.

The badgers emerged from the sett a few minutes after 8.00pm. There are five cubs at the sett this year; one litter of two and another of three. When they first came out into the open in late April they were very unsteady, never venturing very far from the sett entrance. Now they are like boisterous children, much to the exasperation of their parents, and spend their whole time chasing each other around and play fighting.

The play fighting looks quite vicious at first sight, with cubs wrestling and rolling over each other, trying to get a playful bite. They don’t seem to do each other any harm though, and the atmosphere is definitely light-hearted. I suppose the thick fur prevents their teeth from really making contact. Occasionally one will give another a harder nip than usual, causing a sharp ‘yip’ cry, but this is not frequent. The adults usually try and keep a respectful distance , but at times even they get drawn into the fun and play along with the cubs.

Life at the sett goes on as normal though, even with a gang of rowdy kids running around. One of the adult sows was busy collecting bedding. It is usually said that badgers prefer dried grass or bracken as bedding, and this may be true in autumn and winter, but at this time of year they seem to favour greenstuff. This may be due to convenience, as the whole area around the sett is carpeted in a thick layer of foliage (bluebells and ground elder mostly) so the badgers do not have to go far to collect a good bundle.

To see a badger grabbing a ball of bedding in its forepaws and shuffling backwards with it towards the sett is one of the classic sights of badger watching. Sometimes they seem very preoccupied with the task and oblivious to the world around them, whilst at other times they’ll stop every now and then and sniff the air, perhaps self-conscious about being spotted in such an ungainly pose.

Lately, I’ve been trying to take both video and still pictures at the sett, partly to prove to my wife that I really am watching badgers and that there is no sinister reason behind me creeping out of the house in the evenings wearing camouflage clothing, but mostly to try to identify individual badgers and to start to analyse behaviour. I’ll write more about this subject at some point, but if you want to see some of the events of the evening, here are the videos on YouTube.

I watched for a while and then left shortly before 9.00pm. The badgers were all still active as I moved carefully away. These kids have far too much energy…

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