Close encounters of the furred kind

As the weather in June 2010 continues to be rather gloomy, I’m popping back to 2008 again…

10 June 2008. I felt so certain that I would see a fox this evening. Lured out by the nice weather, I decided to follow one of my favourite walking routes near Boddington. Isolated fields in late evening, at a time of year when fox cubs come out to play in daylight and when vixens are busy finding food for their offspring – I felt the odds were in my favour.

Towards the beginning of the walk I spotted a grey squirrel scurrying up an oak tree in a hedgerow. I saw a red admiral butterfly (see the photo below; click the pic to view on Flickr), and heard a brood of noisy greater spotted woodpeckers in their nest. I sighted a dragonfly, a mallard and her ducklings on a pond, plus several rabbits. I also listened to a tapping sound emanating from an ash tree and eventually caught sight of the source: another woodpecker was, well, spotted. Finally, as I neared the end of my walk there were swallows flying around me and robins and yellowhammers singing in the hedgerows. But I had not seen a fox.

I started my journey home, not too disappointed at my lack of vulpine views as I had enjoyed my exploration of the countryside. I headed for Priors Marston and then, as I drove through the village at about 9 o’clock, I saw my fox. Emerging from under a garden hedge, the fox crossed the road ahead of me, ascended the grassy bank on the other side, and disappeared through another hedge. This wasn’t the sighting I had been expecting, but it was very welcome all the same.

Encouraged by this encounter, I decided to stop off on the way home at the woodland badger sett where I had seen two badger cubs on Sunday night (see the final paragraph of Spring into Summer). The light was fading now, and the evening air was thick with the scent of honeysuckle. The direction of the wind was not in my favour, making my usual approach to the sett a no-go zone. So I tried another path and within a matter of minutes I could hear the sound of a badger raking up leaf litter with long claws ideally suited to the task. By the time I neared the area from where the sounds had been coming, the badger had taken one load of dead leaves back to the sett and returned for another. There was enough daylight left for me to see an unmistakeable black and white striped face, and then watch as the badger gathered together a bundle of bedding material.

As Brock headed back to the sett, I took stock of the situation and realised that I could not progress any further along the path I was on because of the wind direction. My only option, if I wanted to see more badger activity, was to retrace my steps and then follow a badger pathway towards the sett. So that is exactly what I did.

Following a badger path through woodland in the dark, and doing so quietly, was not an easy task even with the aid of a torch. Eventually though I found myself just a few metres away from two foraging badgers, probably the cubs I’d observed on Sunday night. However while I could hear every move they made, getting good views of them through the undergrowth was another matter. I was so close at this point that I dared not make any further movements and risk being detected. I would have to wait and hope that the badgers would come to me. Sure enough, one of the cubs did exactly that. Closer and closer came the cub, as tawny owls hooted elsewhere in the wood. Soon the cub was just a couple of metres away, oblivious to the light from my torch. What a beautiful sight! Then the little badger was behind me – and picked up my scent. Alarmed, he or she galloped off in the direction of the sett. This was not the end of my observations however, as the cub stopped running and resumed foraging before reaching home. I decided to make tracks anyway and leave my stripy friends in peace.

My evening of mammalian meetings was not yet over though. As I drove along a country road heading for home, I spotted an animal stepping out on to the tarmac in front of me: a muntjac deer. The diminutive creature showed no concern at my approach and continued crossing as I rapidly brought my car to a halt. I managed to stop about two metres away from her! Only when the muntjac was heading up the bank on the other side of the road did she turn her head and show awareness of my presence by breaking into a slight trot and vanishing through the hedge.

Two or three miles further on, my route home took me past the badger sett I started watching 30 years ago in 1978. Recent daytime visits had revealed signs of renewed badger activity. Since luck seemed to be with me, I decided that I just had to stop and see if one of the badgers would make an appearance. After crossing the field to the trees where the sett is located, I picked my way through the dead leaves and twigs to a spot where I could shine my torch down the bank. Within seconds the beam of light was illuminating a badger. Just like the one I saw earlier in the evening, this badger was gathering bedding material. Soon I was watching, with a huge grin on my face, as the badger’s bulky form shuffled backwards in a series of jerky movements, dragging a large bundle of grass towards, and then into, one of the sett entrances closest to me.

Once the badger was below ground I took the opportunity to leave without causing any disturbance. What an evening I’d experienced – a series of close encounters with some of my favourite furry animals.

The beginning, and end, of my Boddington walk.

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