Nature’s digging machines

On Saturday night I watched my usual woodland sett for the first time since my brief visit over a week before (on the evening when I returned Willow, the badger cub, to the wild – see Willow goes wild). I ended up watching badgers – adults, yearlings and cubs – for over an hour starting from about 8.35pm. For the most part my observations were of badgers eating peanuts like those in the photo below (view on Flick, along with a second pic), but I also saw one of the adults doing what Brock does best: digging.

Badgers are of course built for burrowing and are sometimes referred to as nature’s digging machines. With their powerful forelimbs, armed with long, strong claws, they dig for food and of course they excavate large underground tunnel systems for shelter and protection: the setts with which we are so familiar.

Locally, most badger setts are dug in sandy soil (see About our local badgers on the Brockwatch website), of which we have two types: glacial sand deposits, and Northampton sandstone – the ironstone on which Corby’s steel industry was based. Although sandy soils have their advantages, being well drained, the Northampton sandstone strata also presents challenges for burrowing badgers. Beneath the surface layer of soil is the sandstone itself, a layer of rock which has provided a popular local building material over the centuries and which is still quarried for that purpose today. While we humans have machinery to extract sandstone, badgers have only paws and claws. But as you can see from the photo above which I took in June 1984, Brock is more than up to the challenge.

Evidence of the subterranean labours of these semi-fossorial beasts can be found on the heaps of earth outside their sett entrances: chunks of sandstone rock, scored by the claws of the badgers who scratched them loose and dragged them up to the surface. Those in the photo below (view on Flickr), which I snapped yesterday while I was carrying out a sett check, were lying outside a new sett entrance dug since my last visit to the sett in question earlier this year.

Yesterday’s checks also took me to two setts in a local wood, both of which I have known for more than two decades but only watched for the first time earlier this year. At Conifer Sett (see Two nights to remember – and one to forget?), I noted that evidence of badger activity seemed to be concentrated on a nucleus of about four holes in the middle of the sett. Not far from these entrances I saw several examples of an unmistakeable fungus, the decidedly rude-looking stinkhorn Phallus impudicus. There appears to be an association between this fungus and badger setts, likely the result of flies which feed on the stinkhorn’s foetid slime and then excrete the ingested spores close to another source of food – the bodies of dead badgers which have died underground. As you can see from my photo (view on Flickr), the stinkhorns I saw yesterday were, shall we say, past their prime.

Over at Beech Tree Sett (see Some enchanted evening and A week in the life, Part 1), one of the residents had clearly been hard at work. Load after load of sandy soil had been brought out of the main entrance hole and dragging up onto the already massive spoil heap, along the same route each time. In this way the badger had created a deep groove or furrow which you can see in the photo below. The same animal, or one of their sett-mates, had also gathered some bedding material, leaving a bundle of vegetation in the channel worn into the huge platform of soil.

The excavation of a sett appears to be a task which is never fully completed. Even at the largest setts, created by many generations of badgers, the tunnel entrances will often be found with piles of  freshly hewn material on their spoil heaps.

It seems that badgers just love to dig, and will do so even when their efforts produce little real benefit. For example one of the adult badgers who I watched on Saturday evening suddenly decided, after spending a while munching peanuts with the rest of clan, that a spot of home improvement was in order. I watched him over the course of half an hour or more, reversing out of one particular hole in the middle of the sett in a series of jerky movements, dragging his rake-like claws along the ground in an attempt to remove yet more soil from below the surface. However the ground was so hard that his hard work was in vain. He emerged twenty to thirty times from the sett entrance, bringing out pitifully small quantities of earth, but remained utterly undeterred and carried on regardless.

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One Response to Nature’s digging machines

  1. Flo Fflach says:

    I went to visit a local scenic spot recently- high point with a view and some tumuli, after having not been for a few years. There has always been clear evidence of badgers in the tumuli lumps – soft soil there. But no evidence at all. and noticed that the national park had “planted” a huge lump of wood bench on the side of the tump right next to old badger holes. there is now a clear path – whereas previously only the adventurous would have gone down the side where the badger activity was. In a dairy patch on the coast. hope it was a natural dying up, but I suspect that they had been there years – or perhaps just a romantic!

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