Willow goes wild

What a week this has been for badgers and those of us who care about them. The big news of course has been the Badger Trust’s successful court action which has prevented the culling of badgers in Wales. Closer to home (in fact, right here in my home) I have spent the last few days helping an injured badger cub get back on his feet, and last night I watched him return to the wild.

The badger cub in question was the second of the two Brocks who I rescued at the weekend (see One weekend, two rescues). Found on the side of a minor road on Sunday morning, he had no visible injuries but was pretty much ‘out for the count’ (as you can see from the photo on Flickr). After initial treatment at Towcester Veterinary Centre, the little fellow came home with me for observation and care in quiet surroundings. (Click on the photo below to view it on Flickr, where a larger version can be seen.)

To begin with, I wondered if the cub would make it. Once he recovered from the trauma of the accident he seemed, like the yearling who I rescued on Saturday, to have full control of his front end but problems with using his hind legs. He could move them, but he didn’t seem able to stand on them. Might he have a fracture or a dislocation?

After this less than promising start, things improved quickly. On Tuesday evening, I saw the cub use his right hind leg to scratch himself – clearly there were no problems with that limb! Later that evening, while the top of the rescue cage was open during a feeding session, the little badger decided to say hello the the stuffed cub which was perched next to the cage (one of the badgers used by Brockwatch at events, see Winning friends and influencing people). This involved the cub who had survived his encounter with a car, standing up on both hind legs with forepaws on the side of the cage, while he made nose-to-nose contact with the cub who had been much less fortunate. I watched open-mouthed, delighted to see both of the living cub’s hind legs in use, if only for a short time. Once back on all fours, the adventurous youngster still seemed a bit wobbly at the back.

Yesterday evening I decided that I needed to see my patient moving around outside the confines of his cage so that I could make a better assessment of how he was getting about. My brother and sister-in-law’s back garden – with a lawn and secure fencing all round – was pressed into service for this purpose. Although the experience was rather stressful for the badger, it soon showed that he was able to get around normally, with no sign of a limp. It also showed that beyond the environment of my kitchen, my black and white friend was keen to keep his distance and had not become tame as a result of me hand-feeding him with dates!

It was clear to me that this little badger, who had seemed half-dead on Sunday morning, was now ready to go back to the wild, and the sooner the better. I brought him back home and fed him with a few more dates. Then, as 9 o’clock approached, we set off for the site of Sunday’s rescue.

I checked the road verges near the spot where the cub had been knocked down, looking for any obvious badger pathways. I could not find any. However there was a field gate very close by, providing access to sloping cattle pasture. This seemed as good a spot as any for the release. On exiting the cage, the badger could go under the gate and into the field, or take cover under the adjacent hedge.

Once I had placed the cage on the ground by the gate, it was clear that its occupant was keen to leave. Within seconds of the cage being opened, the badger was out and without a backwards glance he disappeared into the hedge. Soon it would be dusk and under the cover of darkness, the badger would have all night to get his bearings, find his way home and rejoin his family. (Click on the image below to watch a short video clip on Flickr.)

With the cub gone, I was filled with mixed emotions. Sadness, because I would almost certainly never see this beautiful creature again. And great joy at the thought of him being wild and free, as he was meant to be.

As I drove away, I realised that I still hadn’t given the cub a name. Throughout this tale I have referred to ‘him’ as ‘he’ but in fact I never did check to find out if my house guest was a boy or a girl … I mean a boar or a sow. What to name such a badger? I decided on Willow, a name used for the eponymous leading male character of the film, and also used for a female character in Buffy the Vampire Slayer!

Rather than heading straight home after Willow’s release, I made for the wood where I have enjoyed the company of so many other wild and free badgers over the last couple of years. I approached the sett there at about half past nine, wondering if the residents might already be away foraging as the light was fading and the ground was, at last, rather wet after weeks of dry weather. Within a couple of minutes of my arrival however, a badger emerged. Two minutes later, a couple of cubs rushed out of the brambles, and then began to play with two yearlings at the sett. In the rough and tumble that followed, the staccato yelps of the cubs rang out in the gathering darkness – and I imagined Willow playing happily with members of his own family.

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Victory for badgers

A few weeks ago I asked: What did 11,000 badgers die for? The 11,000 badgers in question were killed as part of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial or ‘Krebs Experiment,’ the results of which showed quite clearly that a badger cull could make no meaningful contribution to the eradication of cattle TB.

At the time, with a badger cull about to start in Wales, and Defra’s new Ministerial team keen to get on with a similarly senseless slaughter in England, it seemed that thousands of badgers had died for nothing. But with the indomitable spirit so often displayed by the badgers themselves, the Badger Trust pursued the case against culling through the courts. Today, the Trust’s determination paid off. Three law lords handed down a judgement which has effectively killed the cull in Wales, setting a legal precedent which should derail Defra’s plans to wipe out thousands more badgers in England.

Section 21 of the Animal Health Act 1981 is one of the key pieces of legislation at issue in this case (and would be so if an English cull were to be sanctioned). The Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) believed that it gave them the power to cull badgers even though the benefits, in terms of reduced TB outbreaks in cattle, were modest. However Lord Justice Stanley Burnton, commenting on the Order made by WAG to authorise its cull, stated:  “If this order is valid, it would follow that, in the absence of devolution, the Act could be used, in effect, to disapply the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 throughout England and Wales, by means of a single statutory instrument [such as the TB Eradication (Wales) Order 2009, which is secondary legislation]. If the cull authorised by such an order were effective, the badger, an indigenous species, would be eradicated and become extinct in this country. I doubt that this is what Parliament envisaged or authorised when enacting section 21.”

This is a fantastic achievement, but it has come at a cost. Badger Trust Chairman Dave Williams said today: “We have invested our money – our groups’ and supporters’ subscriptions and donations – to support our conviction that the law had to be tested and that the science was right. Although a protective order saved £10,000 the total bill will be well into six figures. That’s a huge sum for us but it has paid off handsomely, thanks in no small measure to our legal team.” He  added: “We are delighted with this outcome. We are grateful to all the badger groups and supporters whose donations and encouragement made this crucial legal action possible.  Of all the wildlife organisations the Badger Trust exists to secure the welfare of our native protected species, the badger, and we will continue to do so through lawful means. We are pleased to see that the protection offered by wildlife law cannot be vitiated by political smoke and mirrors and that the court saw the issues so clearly.”

While the Welsh Assembly Government was planning to spend huge sums of public money in order to kill badgers, the Badger Trust has spent a considerable amount in a bid to save them. And while the spirits of the Badger Trust staff, Trustees and supporters (myself included) will today be high, the Trust’s coffers will most likely be rather low. If you can, please help to remedy that situation by joining or making a donation to the Badger Trust.

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One weekend, two rescues

When my phone rings in the small hours, as it did at about ten past one on Saturday morning, I know what the call is going to be about. Sure enough, as I struggled to wake up properly (I’ve not been 100% over the last few weeks) the voice on the other end of the line was telling me about an injured badger on the side of a road.

The casualty was not too far from where I live (in fact the road in question is one that I use to get to my woodland watching sett), so I dressed and set off on another rescue mission. My caller, at the county police headquarters, had told me that a police car was waiting by the badger and sure enough I could see blue flashing lights in the distance when I was still about three miles away from the scene of the accident.

When I arrived I saw that the officers had parked their car in such a way as to protect the badger from being hit again. I could also see that the unfortunate RTA victim was struggling to get up, but making no progress. His front legs were moving, but his back legs were not, which was not a good sign. I lifted the badger – a yearling, judging by the size of him – into my rescue cage, and headed for the vet’s after calling to make sure that someone would be there to receive the patient.

At the surgery we assessed the badger’s condition. He was alert and his front end was working perfectly, although he made no attempt to bite when I stroked the fur on his flanks. His back end on the other hand was not working. It seemed most likely that he had spinal injuries and permanent paralysis of his hind legs, like the adult badger shown in the photo here who I rescued in 2006. The only option in this situation is euthanasia. However, there was a chance that he might have bruising to the spine from which he would recover. So I left the badger at the surgery and headed home to catch up with my much-needed sleep.

Sadly, the badger showed no sign of recovery over the hours that followed and later that morning it was agreed that he should be put to sleep.

At a rather more civilised hour this morning, my phone rang again. Another badger had been found lying on the side of the road, again not too far from where I live. I arrived at the scene to find that this one was a cub. He had been picked up and made comfortable on a duvet in a dog basket. Although conscious and breathing, he was making no attempt to move. Another trip to the vet’s was in order.

At the moment the cub, shown above, is still at the vet’s. Which means that this blog entry is going to have a cliffhanger ending, and I am going to ask you to keep your fingers crossed and hope that this badger pulls through.

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Brandon goes back

Back in April, I rescued a very sorry-looking badger who I named Brandon, after the Warwickshire village close to where he was found (see A week in the life (Part 2)). He had a large wound on his rump which had been inflicted by another badger, he was emaciated, and scars around his neck and missing ears indicated that he had been in more than one fight during his life. However he had not quite lost the will to live and after a trip to the vet’s I took him to the Leicester Wildlife Hospital, in the hope that he would make a full recovery and then be able to go back to the wild.

Just under two weeks ago, Brandon was in the back of my car once more. With rump wound healed and body weight back to normal, this time he was heading for home.

As you can see from the photo above, Brandon is never going to be one of the world’s best-looking badgers. (I think I heard him say something similar about me!) The important thing of course is that he is alive and well.

Lying in the rescue cage in the back of my car, Brandon wasn’t exactly full of fight. He seemed quite placid in fact. He perked up a bit however as his cage was being carried to the paddock where he was to be released, and as he sniffed the air he seemed to realise he was back in familiar surroundings. Finally the cage was placed on the ground and the hatch at one end was opened. I grabbed one shot of Brandon as he decided what to do next. Then Brandon made his mind up and vacated the cage, taking the second chance that he had been given.

What happens next is largely down to Brandon. There is a very real risk that he will have another encounter with the badger who savaged him before. There is also the possibility that he may try to find a new place to live, which may lead to fights with other badgers. With his body weight now back to what it should be, Brandon may be able to give a better account of himself if he does get into another scrap. Or he may run away from danger and avoid fighting altogether. If he runs at the same speed at which he raced across the paddock on his release, I think he stands a good chance of staying out of trouble!

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Synchronised bedding collection

Another blast from the past…

19 June 2008. Tonight, knowing that the forecasts were for two or three days of wet weather, I decided to make the most of the evening sunshine by going for a walk and then attempting another badger watch. The first sett I visited was the woodland sett where I had recently experienced close encounters of the furred kind.

At about 9.25pm, some five or ten minutes after my arrival, a black and white face appeared near the sett entrance furthest away from me. More tantalising glimpses of distant badgers followed over the next ten minutes. Then an adult came into view, and trotted away from the burrows and the piles of sandy soil, off into the brambles. She (I felt certain the badger was a sow) did not go far. I soon heard the sound of grass and herbage being torn up, and then listened as the badger reversed back towards the sett with her cargo clasped beneath her chin. Up onto the spoil heap she went, and then down into the sett. Within minutes she was back out and repeating the process. And then again. When she left the sett for the fourth time however, Mrs Badger had a different objective. The light was fading fast now, and the badger was heading further afield to look for food, under the protective cover of the gathering darkness.

The sett fell quiet. The cubs who had been active over at the furthest hole (where I couldn’t see them properly!) had gone. But soon another cub appeared, a really small individual. The little guy appeared to be searching for the other badgers, trotting from one part of the sett to another … gradually heading closer and closer to me. Soon the cub was standing by a sett entrance just two to three metres away from me, oblivious to my presence and of the bright light of my torch. The cub then went below ground, and the moments of magic were over. I took the opportunity to leave without disturbing the animals I had been watching.

Tiny, photographed in July 2008

Arriving at a sett after the time when the badgers are likely to emerge is generally not a good idea. There is always the risk that you might alert the badgers to your presence as you approach, or that they may already have left. However I decided that I would call in on another sett in the hope that I would be able to see more badger activity there. Thirty years ago when I first watched the sett, it was part of an open field and bereft of cover. Nowadays however it lies within a small copse of young trees. This means the final few paces to the top of the bank within which the sett is dug, must be trodden with care: there are plenty of leaves and twigs ready to sound the alarm should one false step be taken. Fortunately, a stiff breeze took away some of the inevitable crackles – and the badger who was out when I reached my watching position was collecting bedding and so making a lot more noise than I was!

Soon I found myself once more watching a badger shuffling backwards into a sett, clutching a large bundle of grass. Clearly I was not the only one making the most of the dry weather – although I doubt the badgers had seen the weather forecast! A few minutes later the badger emerged from another hole. Long claws were soon busy gathering another load of grass. A second badger came out. This one looked younger. Too big to be one of this year’s cubs – probably one of last year’s. The yearling didn’t seem interested in collecting bedding, but instead put his claws to use in a different way – scratching to relieve the effects of parasites. Badgers can reach most parts of their bodies with the claws on their front or back feet, and this one lay on his back and scratched his belly while I stood watching with an enormous smile on my face!

Soon my smile became even bigger. A third badger emerged. This one followed the example of the first and got to work raking up grass. Before long I was watching something I’d never seen before: synchronised bedding collection. The sight of one badger reversing back to a sett dragging a bundle of grass is amusing enough. The sight of two badgers engaged in this activity simultaneously meant that I had to put my hand over my mouth as I tried not to laugh out loud.

Time passed and the badgers gradually disappeared from view, either wandering away from the sett or retiring below ground. I carefully retraced my steps and headed away from this enchanted place, through the leaves and twigs and then through the long grass, to my car and the world of humans. But I took with me memories of an unforgettable evening in the world of the wild.

A sequence of images captured from some video I filmed a few years ago, showing a badger taking in bedding.

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Six of the best

Carrying on where I left off, looking back to 2008…

15 June 2008. Today I drove down the A361 to the village of Upper Wardington in Oxfordshire, to walk a route which I hadn’t done for almost a year, my ‘Oxfordshire border walk’. As always I was rewarded with superb views and met a variety creatures from beetles to bullocks. The walk itself took about two and half hours with all the photo stops, and at the end of it I decided I wasn’t ready to go home. So I headed for Fawsley Park, where I searched for wildlife alongside the lakes, and then went on to Everdon Stubbs. Finally I called in on another favourite wildlife site before getting home about 8 hours after I had originally set off.

Highlights of my day included observations of a family of coal tits (permanently hungry youngsters keeping their parents busy finding food for them amongst the branches) and a pair of linnets on the Oxfordshire border walk; great crested grebes and a green woodpecker at Fawsley; a pair of buzzards soaring and calling directly above me at Everdon Stubbs, and a close encounter with a roe deer buck.

I took quite a few photos while I was out and about, and thought I would share half a dozen of my favourites – six of the best.

My ‘reception committee’ at Wardington, an inquisitive herd of bullocks.

A male thick-legged flower beetle. The female of the species does not have the swollen femora visible on this chap’s hind legs. This is the first of two insects I found within a few metres of each other during my Oxfordshire border walk, the second one being…

… a female scorpion fly. The rather fearsome-looking piercing ‘beak’ is used for feeding on the juices of dead insects (including those caught in spiders’ webs). The end of the male’s abdomen has a projection which looks rather like a scorpion’s sting.

The flower-head of a giant hogweed plant viewed against the backdrop of a beautiful blue sky.

One of several different species of damselflies which I saw and photographed at Fawsley Park, possibly a female blue-tailed damselfly, Ischnura elegans.

A view across the largest of Fawsley’s lakes, the aptly named Big Waters.

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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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