What a difference a week makes

Last Sunday, while out checking badger setts, I was beginning to wonder if spring would ever arrive. To be sure, winter had loosened its icy grip. Robins, wrens, yellowhammers, blackbirds, thrushes and great tits were singing their hearts out and greater spotted woodpeckers were drumming. Yet the woodlands and waysides were bereft of the spring wildflowers which in the last few years have been blooming for three weeks or more by now. The only floral adornments to be seen were the remains of last year’s hogweed flower-heads.

This afternoon I have been visiting badger setts again. What a difference a week makes! Over the course of twenty four little hours (times seven), the transition from winter to spring has at last got underway. I spotted my first, lone coltsfoot in flower on Monday in Wellingborough but today I saw a large patch of them on a rural road verge closer to home. I also caught a glimpse of some lesser celandines as I was leaving Daventry this afternoon, which means that those out in the countryside will soon be unfurling their bright yellow petals too.

There were more signs of spring at the first stop on my badgery itinerary, a place where I have been watching and studying badgers since 1978. I wrote about some of the setts here (Main Sett, Sett B, Far Sett and Lower Holes), in my blog entry from the archives of 2007, Highs and Lows of a Brockwatcher.  Far Sett showed signs of being a little less busy today than it was three years ago , while Sett B looked very active indeed with recently excavated earth and fresh tracks outside just about every entrance hole.

At Lower Holes meanwhile, I was pleasantly surprised to find a creature with black facial stripes on one of the spoil heaps at the northern end of the sett. Not a badger, but a bird known as the wheatear, a summer visitor to these islands and one of the first to arrive in the spring. Wheatears usually nest in rocky crevices or rabbit burrows in open country in northern and western Britain, so this little chap was just passing through. All the same, he seemed to have taken a fancy to the Lower Holes sett (which is occupied by rabbits more often that it is by badgers). As I watched him bobbing up and down, flicking his tail, and darting after insects in the tussocky grass, I also heard the distinctive song of another avian arrival, the chiffchaff, coming from the trees not far away.

Over the last seven days – or last seven nights to be more precise – another welcome development has taken place. Since finding that two local setts had been blocked up a month ago I have been visiting them regularly to check for any evidence of further human disturbance. Thankfully, there has been none. Re-opened sett entrances, tracks and fresh dung in latrines have shown that at least some (and hopefully most or even all) of the resident badgers have survived. And today, one week on from my last visit, I found that the hole in the bottom of the man-made ‘crater’ has at last been unblocked. Large amounts of excavated sandy soil outside, heavily imprinted by badger paw prints, indicate that this part of the sett has been well and truly reclaimed.

After checking three more setts, all situated in roadside hedgebanks and verges, I decided to end the day with my third badger watch of 2010. (After my first watch last Monday – see Return of the Brockwatcher – I returned to the same sett on Wednesday and spent more than an hour watching up to five yearling badgers.) I arrived at the sett at about 6.05pm, in reasonably good light and well before the resident Brocks were likely to be coming out. After spending the next five minutes carefully scattering peanuts and raisins, I settled into my usual watching position. The badgers should not really have been stirring until sometime after half past six. However, such was the lure of the peanuts and raisins that the first black and white head became visible just before 6.20pm. This animal soon retreated back below ground, but within five minutes there were two yearling badgers feeding greedily outside another entrance. I watched further, intermittent activity at the sett for another quarter of an hour or so, during which time I also heard the calls of fieldfares: a reminder that although our first summer visitors have arrived, many of our winter visitors have yet to leave.

With darkness falling and tawny owls hooting, I left the sett to return to my car. My route between the two passed over another, less well-used sett, where I was thrilled to see a large adult badger. He or she had obviously also detected me and so did not remain visible for long, but there was no mad scramble into the entrance hole so hopefully this badger was not unduly alarmed.

On my way home I decided to call in at Sett B, where I had started my afternoon’s badger ‘house calls.’ Approaching a sett after the badgers have probably emerged is always risky, but the wind was in the right direction and hopefully was strong enough to carry away a certain amount of sound as well as scent. Sett B was, when I first discovered it, situated in open pasture but is now in a young copse. A copse which hosts not just a badger sett, but also, as I soon found out, roosting pigeons. Two of them flew from the tress with noisy, clattering wing beats as I approached just before 7.10pm.  This, I thought, would surely put pay to my hopes of seeing badgers. Far from it in fact – I actually ended up spending the next ten minutes observing at least three, and possibly up to five adults, two of whom engaged in mutual grooming under the light of my torch. These two spent several minutes nibbling each other’s fur: a wonderful sight and delightful way to end the evening. A great way to end the week in fact, one in which I have not only resumed Brockwatching but also – at last –started Springwatching!

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