Nature’s digging machines

On Saturday night I watched my usual woodland sett for the first time since my brief visit over a week before (on the evening when I returned Willow, the badger cub, to the wild – see Willow goes wild). I ended up watching badgers – adults, yearlings and cubs – for over an hour starting from about 8.35pm. For the most part my observations were of badgers eating peanuts like those in the photo below (view on Flick, along with a second pic), but I also saw one of the adults doing what Brock does best: digging.

Badgers are of course built for burrowing and are sometimes referred to as nature’s digging machines. With their powerful forelimbs, armed with long, strong claws, they dig for food and of course they excavate large underground tunnel systems for shelter and protection: the setts with which we are so familiar.

Locally, most badger setts are dug in sandy soil (see About our local badgers on the Brockwatch website), of which we have two types: glacial sand deposits, and Northampton sandstone – the ironstone on which Corby’s steel industry was based. Although sandy soils have their advantages, being well drained, the Northampton sandstone strata also presents challenges for burrowing badgers. Beneath the surface layer of soil is the sandstone itself, a layer of rock which has provided a popular local building material over the centuries and which is still quarried for that purpose today. While we humans have machinery to extract sandstone, badgers have only paws and claws. But as you can see from the photo above which I took in June 1984, Brock is more than up to the challenge.

Evidence of the subterranean labours of these semi-fossorial beasts can be found on the heaps of earth outside their sett entrances: chunks of sandstone rock, scored by the claws of the badgers who scratched them loose and dragged them up to the surface. Those in the photo below (view on Flickr), which I snapped yesterday while I was carrying out a sett check, were lying outside a new sett entrance dug since my last visit to the sett in question earlier this year.

Yesterday’s checks also took me to two setts in a local wood, both of which I have known for more than two decades but only watched for the first time earlier this year. At Conifer Sett (see Two nights to remember – and one to forget?), I noted that evidence of badger activity seemed to be concentrated on a nucleus of about four holes in the middle of the sett. Not far from these entrances I saw several examples of an unmistakeable fungus, the decidedly rude-looking stinkhorn Phallus impudicus. There appears to be an association between this fungus and badger setts, likely the result of flies which feed on the stinkhorn’s foetid slime and then excrete the ingested spores close to another source of food – the bodies of dead badgers which have died underground. As you can see from my photo (view on Flickr), the stinkhorns I saw yesterday were, shall we say, past their prime.

Over at Beech Tree Sett (see Some enchanted evening and A week in the life, Part 1), one of the residents had clearly been hard at work. Load after load of sandy soil had been brought out of the main entrance hole and dragging up onto the already massive spoil heap, along the same route each time. In this way the badger had created a deep groove or furrow which you can see in the photo below. The same animal, or one of their sett-mates, had also gathered some bedding material, leaving a bundle of vegetation in the channel worn into the huge platform of soil.

The excavation of a sett appears to be a task which is never fully completed. Even at the largest setts, created by many generations of badgers, the tunnel entrances will often be found with piles of  freshly hewn material on their spoil heaps.

It seems that badgers just love to dig, and will do so even when their efforts produce little real benefit. For example one of the adult badgers who I watched on Saturday evening suddenly decided, after spending a while munching peanuts with the rest of clan, that a spot of home improvement was in order. I watched him over the course of half an hour or more, reversing out of one particular hole in the middle of the sett in a series of jerky movements, dragging his rake-like claws along the ground in an attempt to remove yet more soil from below the surface. However the ground was so hard that his hard work was in vain. He emerged twenty to thirty times from the sett entrance, bringing out pitifully small quantities of earth, but remained utterly undeterred and carried on regardless.

Posted in About badgers, Badger watching, Sett checking | 1 Comment

The agony and the ecstasy

Brockwatcher’s beginnings, Part 4.

After yesterday’s instalment of words and pictures relating to my beginnings as a Brockwatcher, today I continue the story with more memories of the delights of watching badgers, and of my first direct experience of the suffering caused by snares.

Within two years of my first observations of badgers at the sett I discovered in 1978, I was attempting to take photographs of them. My initial efforts did not produce very good results, but things changed in August 1980. After investing in better equipment and film, I finally obtained pictures I was happy with – starting with the image above, which I regard as my first decent photograph of a badger (view on Flickr).

I discovered very early on that the way to a badger’s heart is through his stomach. Placing food outside the sett entrances greatly improved the chances of seeing (and taking photos of) badgers, especially cubs. Back then, the food on offer was in the form of dog biscuits which I had soaked in warm water with honey. This worked like a charm, although if scattered by hand it did leave me with sticky fingers – not ideal when handling a camera! Eventually the advantages of sultanas or raisins became apparent, and later I started using peanuts in addition to, or instead of, these tasty treats. The photo below was taken during the transition from dog biscuits to raisins.

I learned a couple of interesting things about badger cubs during the course of the June evening on which I took this photograph (view on Flickr). First, I could get very close to them, either because they couldn’t see me due to very poor vision, or because the lure of the food overcame their fear of the strange shape kneeling on the ground just two or three metres away from them. And second, when it comes to food badgers do not believe in ‘share and share alike’ – it is more a case of every cub for himself, which is exactly what is being demonstrated in the photo.

The cub on the right of the picture, sensing that one of his playmates is behind him and that his breakfast is therefore at risk, has plonked his rear end in the second cub’s way in an attempt to block his exit from the sett entrance. This ploy was unsuccessful and biscuits and raisins were soon being shared. Then a third cub attempted to join the feast, only to find two badgers’ bums in the way. The obstacle was of course overcome, but cub number four arrived shortly afterwards and was faced with the challenge of a three bum barrier!

By the time all four cubs were out, cub number one had gotten much closer to me and either detected my presence for the first time, or simply felt that we were now too close for comfort. He decided to retreat into the safety of the sett but to do this he had to climb over the other three, who were busy eating and blissfully unaware of (or just ignoring) me.

Once back inside the tunnel, cub number one forgot all about me and remembered the food. At which point he found out what it was like to be cub number four, right at the back of the queue with three other cubs all determined to keep him there. And so the badger merry-go-round went on, as cub number two took fright and scrambled over the others to get into the sett……

I was often accompanied on my watches and photographic evenings at the sett by my younger brother Robert, who can be seen in the photo below offering food to one of the badger cubs. During 1982, when I took some of the best of my early photos (see for example Brockwatcher’s beginnings), we noticed that one of the badgers had distinctively reddish cheeks, and possibly something dangling from the neck. One night the reason for these features finally became clear, and it was Robert who took the photograph which confirmed this.

The photograph in question can be seen in the newspaper clipping (dated 16 July 1982) which forms the masthead for this blog post (if viewed as standalone article). It depicts our badger with a snare around his neck. With the help of Rorke Garfield from the National Animal Rescue Association, this animal was eventually caught and taken to a veterinary surgery for treatment, only to die on the operating table.

Post-mortem examination showed that he had septicaemia. The wound where the brass rabbit snare had cut into his neck was healing over the wire in some places and abscessing in others. The tightness of the noose had fractured the badger’s oesophagus and restricted his windpipe. Death must have come as a blessed relief from agonising and prolonged pain.

Publicity for this horrible incident was arranged to raise awareness of the dangers posed by snares (a sign of things to come as within two years I would be issuing press releases for a fledgling Badger Group). When interviewed by my local newspaper I described snares as barbaric – a term I still use to characterise these indiscriminate instruments of torture today. It should come as no surprise to learn that I abhor snares with a passion and long to see their manufacture and use outlawed. This is not just because of my first-hand experience in 1982 of the suffering they can cause, but also because of the innumerable other cases of badgers, otters, foxes, pets, farm animals and other creatures which have been maimed and killed in them.

In 2002 as a Trustee of the National Federation of Badger Groups (now Badger Trust), I co-authored (with Chief Executive Dr Elaine King) a report The case for a ban on snares, which concluded: “we must come back to our primary concern about snares – that in all their forms, and however they are used, they are indiscriminate, and inherently cruel. The torture of badgers and other animals that become trapped in snares must be stopped. It is the considered opinion of the NFBG that the only way to achieve this is to legislate for a complete ban on the use of all snares.” In the same year, I was part of a delegation which presented a petition calling for a ban on snares, bearing 60,000 signatures, to 10 Downing Street.

Alas, snares remain legal in Britain and badgers along with many other animals continue to suffer and die in them. Today’s announcement by Agriculture Minister James Paice that Defra will this Autumn launch a consultation on badger culling in England, brings with it the very real prospect that within a year, we will see the start of a badger slaughter in which snares will be used (something which the Badger Trust and other organisations will, with your help, do their best to prevent).

There is hope, however, in Scotland, which established itself as a leader in animal welfare by being the first country in Britain to ban hunting with dogs. Scotland now has the opportunity to enhance the welfare of its wild (and domestic) animals still further by banning the use of snares. Advocates for Animals is leading the campaign, and will welcome your support whether you are north or south of the border.

For more information and to discuss the issue of snares, visit The Badger Message Board.

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Brockwatcher’s beginnings, part 3

Following on from Brockwatcher’s beginnings, and Brockwatcher’s beginnings, Part 2

My involvement in the study and conservation of all kinds of wildlife continued apace in 1978. During regular forays into the countryside close to home, I recorded the presence of birds, mammals, amphibians, invertebrates and wildflowers. I also went on trips further afield, some organised by the Daventry Natural History Society and others by a man who would over the next few years become my mentor, Donald Payne. I became a Young Ornithologists Club (now RSPB Wildlife Explorers) leader in March, and later in the year I became involved with raising funds for the World Wildlife Fund (now WWF).

While all this was going on, I was also devoting more of my time to badgers. My field notebooks for 1978 include several references to the badger setts which I had found, and in a summary of mammal observations I wrote that I knew of over 15 setts in all. One of those setts was destined to play a very significant part in my life, though you wouldn’t guess that from my first written report of it (dated February 11th). This simply stated that there were “signs of activity” there. Over the next three months I must have made further visits and observed more sign of badger activity, which led me to conclude that this sett would be a good one to watch. I say this because my diary for 1978, after many weeks with no entries, has this to say about May 19th:

Rob [my youngest brother] and I went to try badger watching … as we were walking along the ridge we suddenly saw 4 fox cubs, which promptly disappeared! We managed to watch 2 different ones on and off – they were people watching! Then we went further along close to a sett. A badger kept just showing himself. A tawny owl flew past within 2 metres of us! It landed in a tree nearby, then flew off. Finally, [we] got super views of a badger and glimpses of another.

Badger cubs at sunset, photographed at ‘Main sett’ in the early 1980s. View on Flickr.

During the remainder of 1978 I watched badgers at my new ‘watching sett’ another 16 times. I usually watched either with my brother Robert, or with members of the Daventry NHS-YOC Group. During the summer we saw the badgers in good daylight. Observations were very brief some nights, but on other occasions we were treated to some marvellous views. The night of September 23rd, when I took two friends (Jonathan and John) on their first badger watch, was particularly memorable. The following is based on an account which I wrote in 1979:

We arrived at about 7.45pm and settled down behind some gorse bushes close to the most heavily used sett entrances. In this position the wind would not blow our scent towards any of the holes. We were as quiet as possible – which was just as well, because on our arrival a badger emerged. He was quickly joined by another.

The two badgers groomed and played for five or ten minutes. Then they started wandering off downhill. We would soon lose sight of them, but I decided to risk illuminating them with the torch I had taken to help us find our way back from the sett after dark. So I stood up, switched on the torch and ….. the badgers didn’t take a blind bit of notice! We were able to get views of them which were almost as good as those I had enjoyed during the summer. Then another badger came out of a hole quite close to us, but unfortunately he detected us and went back below ground.

We decided to follow the two badgers who were now moving out of the range of the torch beam. So downhill we went, quiet as mice (or at least we tried to be). We listened intently for the badgers, who can be quite noisy and careless once they are sure there is no danger about. One badger was heard heading away from us to our right, but the other was still below us, somewhere around the site of a new hole which the badgers had recently dug towards the bottom of the slope.

Steadily we advanced, getting closer and closer to the new hole, looking and listening all the time for the badger. Where on earth was he? Yikes! There he was, just two metres in front of us! The next few minutes were unbelievable. Under the light of the torch the badger stood with his back to us, digging in the ground for grubs or worms. Then he turned round, and began to trot past, coming within about a metre of us! This first class view of such a beautiful creature was amazing – but also, for Jonathan, amusing. Jonathan tried desperately to keep his mirth silent. But then the sound escaped and the badger stopped in his tracks, looking nervously around, only two metres away from us. The torch might have been the moon for all he cared, but the noise had alerted him and he dashed to the newly dug hole and dived below ground.

I had at last found a sett which was close to home (just half an hour’s walk away) and where the badgers were easy to watch. Close contact with wild creatures of all kinds was something I had always loved, but I found my encounters with badgers to be something particularly special. Those encounters were among the most thrilling experiences in my life, and the more I saw of these marvellous mammals, the more attached to them I became.

So I continued visiting the sett and watching its occupants, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, and often with organised groups: during the next two decades I helped around 2,000 people to see the increasingly tolerant Brocks. Over the years I also got to know the badgers better and to recognise – and follow the lives of – some of the individual animals. At the same time, some of the badgers also came to recognise me and accept my presence even at very close quarters. This enabled me to capture many still and moving images of my furry friends with camera and camcorder (including the two photographs in this post).

My progression from being a watcher of badgers to one of their protectors as well, a founder member of the group now known as Brockwatch and an officer of the NFBG (now the Badger Trust), was possibly inevitable – and certainly something to write about in a later instalment of this blog!

Two badger cubs – and their mum – photographed at ‘Sett B’ in the early 1980s. Of all the photos I have taken of badgers, this remains one of my favourites. View on Flickr.

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Brock Wars: the Farmers Strike Back

The last instalment of the Brock Wars saga ended with the rebel alliance (led by the Badger Trust) neutralising their opponents’ Death Czar (the Welsh Assembly Government’s Elin Jones) with the recent Appeal Court ruling against badger culling. Inevitably however, there is a sequel to this epic tale. As predictable as ever, the farmers (or at least, those who apparently represent them) are striking back. Let’s leave the Star Wars references behind and look more seriously at these attempts to keep badger culling on the agenda.

There is little new in the farming lobby’s response to what they see as a set-back. The National Beef Association for example, in a press release issued last week, trots out a barrage of arguments which are as familiar as they are inaccurate. They refer to a “rapidly expanding badger and cattle plague” when figures show a decline in TB in cattle and there are no figures at all to show whether the disease in badgers in increasing, declining or staying at the low levels that have previously been found. Then there is the tired old claim that TB “will be spread ever more widely to, at the moment, healthy badger setts” leading to a “huge increase in the number of badgers which … will now die an unpleasant emaciated death from TB.” See my blog post Bovine TB myth #1 for the counter-argument to that.

Another statement made by the NBA is that “Records show that TB erupts among badgers in heavily infected areas when their population is too thick on the ground and immediately reduces when it is thinner after infected badgers are removed.” Yet scientists have shown that there is no simple relationship between the population density of badgers and the level of TB in the species: see for example, Tuberculosis: the disease and its epidemiology in the badger, a review by Chris Cheeseman and colleagues. In addition, Chris Cheeseman (in an article entitled Culling badgers will make TB worse) also states that culling “will actually increase the prevalence of TB in the residual badger population.”

The NBA concludes that “The solution to this problem lies in eradicating the disease in both cattle and the primary source of infection, badgers, for the sake of both species.” This is of course complete nonsense, as the primary source of TB infection in the cattle population is other cattle who have the disease (a disease often missed by the inadequate TB skin test, see this letter to the Western Telegraph). And how does the NBA propose that TB should be eradicated from badgers? By “a targeted cull in limited areas” – a measure which would not only fail to eradicate the disease in badgers, but would help to increase it in cattle!

The NBA is sadly not alone in calling for TB ‘control’ measures which could well make matters worse. The Farmers Union of Wales (FUW) has called for badger culling licences to be issued to cattle producers. It has also called for the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 to be “reviewed with a view to repealing it” on the basis that badger numbers are “extremely high” and that there is “overwhelming evidence showing that badgers are having an adverse impact on other species.” This argument conveniently ignores the devastating impact on wildlife of modern farming practices and gives an indication of the line that some are going to take in their attempts to have badgers killed. (See also my blog post The badgers and the bees.)

In the BBC News report in which the FUW attacks the law protecting badgers, the National Farmers Union of Wales – while expressing the hope that a badger cull will eventually take place – warns farmers against carrying out their own, illegal culls. NFU Wales President Ed Bailey is quoted as saying that if farmers take the law into their own hands “we will lose the public support that we have at the moment” and that “Unless it’s a co-ordinated cull you could in fact be making matters worse.” Recognising the increased risk of badger persecution following its success in the Court of Appeal, and also the likelihood of increased calls for badger protection laws to be relaxed, the Badger Trust has today called for people to be vigilant and to ensure that all incidents of persecution are detected and reported.

Clearly, despite the successful fight against the Welsh badger cull, this is not a time for complacency. The recent judgement in the Court of Appeal placed significant barriers in the way of a future badger cull, but the administrations in charge of agriculture policy in both Wales and England are committed to ‘controlling’ badgers. While Brock remains under threat from the ‘dark side,’ we, the friends of the badgers, must continue to be a force to be reckoned with.

Badger cubs, June 2009. Click on the image to view on Flickr.

Posted in Bovine TB | 3 Comments

A summer evening’s walk

It’s a grey old day today, but things were very different three years ago…

18 July 2007. Following heavy showers earlier today, it looked like the weather would hold for a beautiful summer evening’s walk. I decided on a favourite route of mine which I had not done for quite some time, my ‘Oxfordshire border walk’. I was treated to some fine views of Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire countryside, plus sightings of a hare, badger tracks, a buzzard, various wildflowers and some ripening cereals and fruits. Here are a few of the photos I took along the way.

Oxfordshire countryside (and sheep) near the start of my walk.

Further on, the path ran through a field of barley
before heading uphill towards a farm house.

Ripening apples in the hedgerow alongside the road to the farm house.

Further along the same road, common comfrey or knitbone was in flower. The alternative name dates from the Middle Ages when the plant was used as a remedy for broken bones.

Chamomile or mayweed growing as an agricultural
‘weed’ on the edge of a wheatfield.

The sun sets near the end of the walk.

he sChamomile or mayweed growing as an agricultural ‘weed’ on the edge of a wheatfield
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A taste of summer

Another dip into the archives…

14 July 2007. Summer sunshine has been in short supply so far this year. Fortunately, today’s quota was above average, and I made the most of it by getting out with my camera.

Fields and meadows are great places to be when the sun is shining. A local landowner manages one of his fields under the Countryside Stewardship scheme, leaving it ungrazed in the summer so that the grasses and wildflowers can grow. This makes it a haven for wildlife.

As soon as I set foot in the field I could see meadow brown butterflies fluttering about, and more took to the wing as I walked through the grass (see photo above; click to view on Flickr). Other, smaller insects were also disturbed. Every move of my feet prompted an explosion of grasshoppers, bursting into the air like miniature rockets. High above me the air was filled with the joyous singing of skylarks, while a little further away a buzzard was mewing. Later I would see and hear three of these magnificent birds of prey as they soared through the sky, calling to each other.

I headed for a small patch of land which I know as The Orchard. I found the trees there heavy with apples, pears and greengages. The fruit was not yet ripe and ready to eat, but it was not the fruit which had drawn me to this spot. I had come in search of the butterflies who flew amongst the tall grasses and fed on the bramble and thistle flowers.

A few weeks before I had photographed large skippers and meadow browns here. Now, while the meadow browns remained and had been joined by their cousins the gatekeepers (or hedge browns), the large skippers had been replaced by their diminutive relatives, the small skippers (see photo below; click to view on Flickr).

There was a badger sett here too. The trampled grass and the fresh, sandy earth at the tunnel entrances showed that the sett was active. Then I caught sight of what at first glance appeared to be a new patch or freshly excavated sandy soil. However I soon realised that the amber colour was not earth but fur – a fox was looking over his or her shoulders (I shall go with ‘her’) to see what had disturbed her. She stared for quite some time and never quite figured me out, but finally decided to err on the side of caution and melted away into the long grass. What a beautiful sight!

The gatekeeper (see photo above; click to view on Flickr) is one of my favourite summer butterflies and I wanted to get a few good photographs of some of those who were sunning themselves on various vantage points within The Orchard. This did not prove to be an easy task! Like the meadow browns, the gatekeepers were very alert and almost always flew away on my approach. A gatekeeper feeding on a thistle flower looked to be a likely target, but as I closed in I was suddenly distracted by another butterfly close by – a marbled white.

Although ‘white’ by name, and partially white in colour, the marbled white is in fact a member of the brown family of butterflies. Furthermore, they are rather scarce around these parts. This chequerboard-patterned butterfly always reminds me of family holidays in Dorset in the late 1970s. We would see scores of marbled whites along with various species of brown, blue, skipper and fritillary butterflies (plus orchids, slow-worms and adders) in the wildflower-rich downland of Durlston Country Park near Swanage. It was therefore a real treat to see a marbled white so close to home. (The one pictured above was photographed at Draycote Meadows in 2009; click to view on Flickr.)

Then I resumed my quest for the gatekeeper, and eventually my persistence was rewarded. Finally, it was time to head for home. Before I left, I looked back across the patchwork of rolling fields, hedgerows and woodlands so characteristic of this part of West Northants. It had been a memorable afternoon.

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