Return of the Brockwatcher

Last summer I enjoyed some amazing badger watching evenings at a woodland sett here in West Northamptonshire. The sett was home to a rather large number of cubs (eight to be precise, most likely from three separate litters); watching and taking photographs of them at close quarters in good light was a fabulous experience. Tonight I returned to the sett at dusk to attempt another badger watch for the first time in about six months. The Brockwatcher had returned. But would the Brocks come out for me to watch them?

My return to the scene of last summer’s badger bonanza was not without a certain amount of preparation. Late one afternoon just over a week ago I visited the sett to check for signs of badger activity, to clear my usual watching spot of leaf litter and twigs, and to scatter some peanuts and raisins. A further trip to the sett followed yesterday afternoon, when I saw signs of fresh excavation at the lowermost sett entrance (see photo, right). This entrance may lead directly to the sett’s main nursery chamber, as young cubs are usually seen making their first forays into the world above ground from this hole. Before leaving I scattered more peanuts, under the watchful eyes of a great tit – who wasted no time in helping himself to a free meal.

This evening, enthused by the day’s surprisingly spring-like weather and the possibility of being able to spend half an hour or more at the sett without freezing, I decided that it was time I became a real Brockwatcher once more. I had no idea what time the badgers might come out, and only a vague awareness of which direction the wind was blowing from. No matter. I set off into the last rays of evening sunshine, knowing that I would find out the wind direction soon enough, and hoping that it would not be long before I also discovered the badgers’ emergence time.

By about half past six I was approaching the badgers’ home. The sun had gone by this time and had taken most of its light, leaving a shadowy, monochrome world in its wake. Beneath me a carpet of leaves, sucked dry of their green, life-giving chlorophyll before being discarded last autumn, crunched with each footfall. In the near distance, rooks cawed and chattered as they settled down for the night, while tawny owls woke and greeted the gathering darkness with hooting calls.

My footsteps became quieter as I neared my watching place. The wind was blowing from the west, from right to left as I stood facing the sett. Not ideal, but OK. I scattered handfuls of peanuts across the sett and into the nearest entrance holes. Then I settled into position, standing with my back against an oak tree, torch at the ready.

Within a matter of minutes I could heard the unmistakeable sound of peanuts being eaten. It was however a full five minutes before I could see who was responsible for the crunching noises. Carefully, I slid the switch on the torch and illuminated the striking black and white faces of two badgers! Having eaten all the peanuts which had fallen into the sett entrances from which they were emerging, the badgers were now making their way out onto the spoil heaps, sniffing and chomping as they went. I soon noticed that despite the rigours of a long, cold winter, these animals looked in pretty good condition.

A third badger joined the original duo, and before long a fourth had also appeared. The largest number of badgers I observed at one time was five, though I suspect I may have seen six or seven in all. Those who were active over the part of the sett closest to me were clearly last year’s cubs. Indeed the smaller ones looked as if they had hardly grown any bigger over the six months since I had last seen them. There was a very clear size difference between these smaller cubs – yearlings now – and their larger brethren, but that difference had also been apparent last summer. Large or small, all of the young badgers were keenly exploring the area over which I had distributed my offerings of peanuts and devouring any that they found. Every now and then, one of them would stop to scratch and groom, sitting like a dog to reach head or shoulders with a hind paw, reaching down to nibble fur on chest or flanks, or lying back to give bellies a good scratch. Most of this activity was taking place within ten metres of me, and the badgers were oblivious to the light of my torch. It felt as if I had never been away.

I found myself looking for differences in the markings of the yearlings, which might allow me to recognise individuals. One of the largest of last year’s cubs had particularly handsome jet black facial stripes, and this one approached to within three metres or so on more than one occasion. Two or three times this brought him to a place where he was able to pick up my scent in the wind. On each occasion he retreated, but although he went below ground the first time he was soon back out, and after that he backed off when he detected me but continued his search for peanuts.

As the peanut supply diminished, so did the level of badger activity. By the time half past seven was approaching, all activity was concentrated at the lower part of the sett. In the torchlight I picked out another scene reminiscent of the summer of 2009, as four young badgers milled about at the edge of the sett as if trying to decide where to go next. Then they headed en masse and in playful spirits back to the lowermost sett entrance, looking for all the world like a small group of overgrown, stripy-faced weasels … which is of course what they are!

Slowly but surely, the badgers disappeared into the darkness. I looked up to take in the sight of the trees silhouetted against the night sky, their branches reaching up as if trying to touch the stars which were now shining brightly in the heavens. It was time for one very happy Brockwatcher to head for home.

Two cubs photographed at the sett last summer. Were either of these among those I watched this evening?

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