Some enchanted evening

Yesterday I returned to the wood where I saw my first badger back in 1977. My intention was check half a dozen setts and then head over to the wood where my usual watching sett is located to view the badgers there. Instead, my day ended at a sett where I had never seen badgers before. Despite the fact that my torch and my supply of peanuts were still in my car, I had a magical evening’s Brockwatching.

My woodland wanderings had begun pretty much as planned. Even before I reached the first sett, I found a dung pit containing recently deposited badger poo. The sett itself looked very active, although the dry conditions meant that there were no tracks to be seen at the most active-looking entrances. Nor did I find the trails of bluebell leaves and flowers – remnants of bundles of bedding material – which can often be seen going into the entrances of woodland setts at this time of year. Such trails were exactly what I did find at the next sett I visited.

This sett, situated near the top of a bank, has two main entrances from which a huge amount of sandy soil has been excavated over the years. This massive platform of soil created by the badgers’ labours has half buried the tree growing at the foot of the bank (see A week in the life (Part 1) and the photograph on my Flickr photostream). Here, judging by the amount of bluebells that formed a trail leading into the northernmost hole, the resident Brocks had been very busy taking in lots of bedding. (see the close-up of a bundle of leaf litter and bluebell leaves below, and a photo of the whole trail of bluebell leaves on Flickr.) How many badgers lived here, I wondered, and did they have cubs?

On I went, enjoying the delights of a woodland in springtime. The floor of the wood was awash with a sea of bluebells, clusters of lesser celandines and stitchwort brightened some of the shadier spots, speckled wood butterflies fluttered by, and the air was full of bluebell smell, humming insects and birdsong. Startled squirrels scuttled up tree trunks on my approach, while in the field just outside the wood, a hare loped away past the sheep and out of sight. (So no photo from me, but check out those of my fellow Flickrites Dan, Geoff and Andy.)

The third sett on my list, which once had burrows bustling with badgers, is now Brock-less and has been for some time. It is not completely empty however as rabbits have taken over the East wing; when I looked into an opening I saw two young bunnies inside. The West wing of the sett however looked almost completely disused, with mosses and other plants growing on the spoil heaps, and a white-flowered bluebell blooming nearby.

What a contrast the next sett was! This was where my 33rd anniversary badger watch took place on April 11th (see A week in the life (Part 1)). I had been pleasantly surprised, back in April, to see a badger already out when I approached the sett at just after half past seven. However I was nothing less than gobsmacked yesterday when I arrived below the sett at 6:40 pm and looked up to see a badger looking back at me! This animal soon disappeared into one of the westernmost tunnel entrances, which is where I found more trails of bluebell leaves when I took a closer look at the sett. The sett can be seen in the photo below: notice the badger path running down the slope from the spoil heaps on the right. (View on Flickr.)

The fifth badger residence on my list had only one hole which was open and apparently in use, while the sixth had two, each with fragments of bluebell bedding outside. Both setts had been very active in the past but were now shadows of their former selves (see Badger family fortunes). One possible explanation for this decline is climate change. In years gone by this wood, situated mainly on clayey soils, was almost permanently wet underfoot, but in more recent times this has not been the case. Have the drier conditions reduced the availability of earthworms, and has this reduced the population of the worm-loving badgers?

Thinking about the diet of the badger reminded me of the bag of peanuts in my car and my plans for Brockwatching in my usual woodland haunt. I decided to abandon those plans in favour of answering the questions I had asked myself earlier while checking the sett where the badgers’ excavations had half buried a tree. How many badgers lived there, and did they have cubs? There was only one way to find out!

Later in the evening than I would have liked, I approached the sett. As I drew closer my pace slowed and I trod carefully, but not silently. Any badgers who were already out would surely hear me, but I would not be able to see the sett, or any of its occupants should they have emerged, until I arrived at my intended watching position above the sett. Finally I got there. I had a good view of both of the main entrance holes, a tree trunk to hide behind, and the wind was in my face. All I could now was stand still and wait. There were no peanuts to lure the badgers out, and no torch to illuminate them when darkness fell – this would be just me, and the badgers.

Some time later, at a little after a quarter to nine, the waiting was over. My heart skipped a beat as a black and white face appeared at the northernmost entrance. The badger was soon out on the platform of excavated soil. After a quick shake, Brock sat down and had a good scratch. A second badger emerged, and third came from the southernmost entrance hole and joined them. Seconds later a fourth badger appeared. I stood in silence just metres away, spellbound as the badgers scratched and sniffed.

Suddenly the spell was broken as something spooked the badgers and all four disappeared, three of them trying to bundle themselves into the same entrance hole at the same time. Before long however, the Brocks were back. One by one over the course of the next ten minutes they were disgorged from the depths of the sett onto the spoil heap that they and their ancestors had created, six badgers in all by my estimation, all adults. Some sat and scratched while others meandered and mooched about before making their way off over the edge of the platform of soil and out of view (though not out of earshot). One sat nibbling the fur on his flanks, then lay on his back and turned his attention to his chest and belly. Then he returned to an upright position and started gathering a bundle of leaf litter and bluebells with his forepaws. After reversing down into the sett with his cargo, he came back out and repeated the process. Then, along with the only other badger who remained in view, he set off from the sett, and disappeared into the gathering dusk. My enchanted evening was at an end.

(I took no photos last night, so here’s one from Thursday evening. See full size on Flickr.)

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