I tend to be a fair-weather badger watcher and as such I did not anticipate seeing much of my favourite mammals this weekend. Public holidays in Britain are associated, at least in our imaginations, with lousy weather, so it would seem that wet and miserable conditions over the Easter weekend are a foregone conclusion. Sure enough, today has been largely grey and wet and media headlines along the lines of Britain to be a washout this Easter confirm the worst. Against all my expectations however, the skies cleared this evening and at half past seven I was walking towards a badger sett with a torch and a bag of peanuts.
With the peanuts distributed across the upper part of the sett, I stood with my back against the usual oak tree and waited. A stiff breeze was blowing directly into my face. On the plus side, this meant the badgers would not be able to smell me and the chances of them hearing any sounds I might make were also reduced. The minus side of the deal was that I was going to get cold fairly quickly! This was not going to be a long evening at the sett.
The first animal I saw was a fox, walking along the animal path which runs just inside the woodland edge and skirts the lowermost part of the badger sett. Unaware of my presence, and paying not the slightest attention to the sheep and lambs in the adjacent field, the fox casually went by and soon disappeared from sight.
A little before ten to eight, I finally spotted a black and white face down by the sett entrance furthest away from me. The badger came out onto the spoil heap, musked the ground, then trotted off along the same path the fox had used ten minutes before, but heading in the other direction. Within a matter of minutes though, the badger was back and was soon below ground again – only to re-emerge after a few more minutes, before ambling off through the trees to my right. The badger hadn’t disappeared from view for long before rushing back as if alarmed. After stopping at the edge of the sett while seemingly trying to decide what to do next, the badger disappeared into one of the sett entrances.
As eight o’clock approached, the indecisive Brock was back out, and following the main badger path through the brambles to the east of the sett. Within seconds, two more badgers also emerged, from holes closer to me. These badgers, both yearlings, were intent on eating peanuts, and their numbers were soon enlarged as two more came out to take part in the feast. Despite the gloomy conditions, a nearby wren burst briefly into song.
As I watched and listened to the yearlings, I became aware of the first badger of the evening returning yet again. And departing again. Although dusk was falling, something dawned on me – this badger probably had a very good reason for not wanting to be away from the sett for very long. The hole she kept emerging from and returning to, down at the bottom of the sett, was the one I call “cub hole” as previous observations suggest that it is close to the nursery chamber. This was the same sett entrance where the churring boar badger had been active the previous weekend and where mating had most likely taken place. Almost certainly I had been watching an anxious mother, keen to go foraging, but repeatedly drawn back to her young by strong maternal bonds.
Witnessing more evidence of new life at the sett tonight fits quite nicely with the new beginnings which are celebrated at Easter, a festival which combines important aspects of both Christian and pagan beliefs. The word Easter is derived from the Anglo-Saxon name for April, Eostremonath, which was in turn named after the goddess of spring, Eostre. The mammal we usually associate with this weekend is the Easter bunny, who brings – and hides – Easter eggs (a tradition which has its origins in Germany); both bunnies and eggs have long been symbols of fertility. Badgers are muscling in on the bunny’s territory however, with chocolate badgers a runaway Easter success at Bettys Café Tea Rooms in York. And why not?
If there had been any chocolate badgers at the sett this evening, they would have been in no danger of melting. The badgers who were at the sett looked warm enough, and no doubt the babies in the underground nursery chamber were snuggled up in lots of bedding. While their mother didn’t seem to know whether she was coming or going, the increasingly cold wind meant that the opposite was true for me. As soon as I saw an opportunity to move away without causing any disurbance, I was off!
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