SOME OBSERVATIONS ON THE BADGER (.MELES MELES, LINN.) NORAH
FOR several years I have had wild badgers under close Observation at a number of Suffolk setts. My method is to study the setts by daylight for information and to find where the badgers are ; then to sit up by night to watch them. Field notes are written as soon as possible afterwards, and always record the date, place, weather, wind-direction and phase of the moon. If certain behaviour is believed to occur only in certain conditions, observations can be checked back for several years. Mammalogists will know Dr. E. G. Neal's expert monograph The Badger (first published by Collins in the New Naturalist series, and now available as a Pelican Book at 3/6d.) and other writings on the subject, so I shall continue from there and offer one or two observations and suggestions which I believe to be new. It is known that on moonless nights a torch screened with red can be used without alarming the badgers. Or one can sit some way back from the sett and use binoculars, which gather the light, and enable one to see much later than with unaided eyes. As a rule, however, I sit as close to the badgers as possible, without a light, and have evolved two methods of concealment which are highly successful. (a) With a screen of bracken, weeds, or old branches behind me, to break the Silhouette, I sit up against the trunk of a tree, and dig a groove for my legs which are buried in leaves or pine needles. Thus, from the animals' point of view, there is no hide or pile of rubbish which could conceal an enemy. I am part of the tree trunk, and badgers will come within inches by daylight. I have had also the sharp-eved roe (C. capreolus) and fox ( V . vulpes) within a few feet of me. (b) As has often been stated, badgers' sense of smell is one of the keenest known. Therefore great care must be taken to prevent their getting the human scent. Although I always bear wind-direction in mind, I have found that one can sit upwind of badgers if the human scent is disguised. The watcher should be completely covered except for a small area of face. He should use some scented local weed or leaf such as eider (Sambucus nigra) crushed and scattered about him. In the absence of any leaf or weed, old mouldy branches pulled up out of the earth will do, or even just newly dug sand or leaf-mould. T h e human sense of smell is weak, but can be developed and trained to distinguish whether badger, fox or rabbit is using the sett, whether the animals are present then or have merely been there recently. Naturally one sometimes makes mistakes, but this
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ability, together with experience, reduces the number of blank nights when nothing appears. Again, to reduce blank nights at one large sett, where only a few entrances can be in sight at one time, I have tried to bring the badgers out near me by two methods, (a) by hanging a coat the other side of the sett, and (b) by running my ungloved hands round those entrances. Neither method was successful : the badgers were merely made nervous. The time I begin a watch varies with the time of year : sunset in the winter, an hourâ€”or even two hoursâ€”before sunset in the summer. It varies also with disturbed and undisturbed setts. T o avoid disturbance, all who wish to see badgers should walk absolutely silently by day and by night, avoid speaking near the sett, wear gloves always, and never shine an unmasked torch. By the above means I have been able to make a number of observations, and I offer the following suggestions as possible lines of research for other observers : ( 1 ) SIZE. Badgers vary so much in size, from those which cover a yard or more of ground (as I have recorded in my book KING TODD) to those apparent adults of both sexes which cover a mere eighteen inches or so, that I tentatively put the question : is it possible that there could be more than one species of badger in this country, as there are common shrews (Sorex araneus) and pygmy shrews ( S . minutus), S. minutus having been in earlier times mistaken for immature S. araneus ? I once saw three monster boars together at six yards by daylight, and was able to note where the head and tail of one of them came to, while the animal was stationary, broadside on, so was later able to take the measurement. He covered a yard of land, which would give about four feet over curves and he was not as big as the badger described in my book. My observations indicate that these huge badgers inhabit large forested areas on Sandy soil, and I have never seen one in the setts among normal small woods and fields where the smaller badgers occur. It will be remembered that in hilly districts, mountain badgers are said to be larger than lowland ones. (2) MUSK. Several theories have been advanced about the use of the musk glands. As badgers do not hold territory and are usually friendly to each other, the exact purposes of musking are not easy to determine. The laying of a musk-trail (begun immediately on leaving the sett) must surely be to teil some other badger where the first one has gone, or to lay a trail home in new country. But there is more to it than this. If a badger is frightened, it will dash off, leaving a strong smell behind it, as a cephalopod leaves a squirt of " ink ". Any animal hunting by scent would be misled by this patch of musk, while the badger made his escape. The ejection of musk could thus be either intentional or instinctive marking of a trail, it could be to mislead an enemy, a defence mechanism, or sudden muscular action due
to fright. I t could be because the scent-glands have filled owing to previous nervousness and must be emptied. I t could be sexual. Or just an inherited meaningless action f r o m ancient days when predators now extinct might attack the badger. M u s k i n g might be a result of all these reasons together. (3) HIBERNATION. A S D r . Neal has recorded, badgers i n this country do not hibernate. D ü r i n g the exceptional winter of 196263, I was able on one occasion to observe badgers i n snow. Although we had had several weeks of snow and near-zero temperatures, two half-grown cubs emerged w i t h i n an hour of sunset and began gathering grass for bedding quite near me. T h e y got it f r o m round the trees where the snow had come away. As they ran about, I could hear their feet breaking the frozen top-crust of snow. These cubs were on the small side, due perhaps to the severe conditions, but they were sleek, busy and cheerful. T h e y emerged without any precautions whatever, doubtless owing to the fact that no one had seen to the sett for a long time.
(4) LANGUAGE. Badgers appear to communicate information to each other, and I am trying to learn their simple language. One evening a boar that I knew quite well emerged, went a few yards down his usual path, remembered something, returned, put his face into the opening, mumbled something to his mate and cubs still below, then went off again down his usual path without looking back. Sow and cubs emerged later. T h e " moorhen-croak " (recorded by Neal and others) is made between sow and cubs. I am of the opinion that it means " Where are you ? " , and there is a throat-click, made w i t h the mouth shut, which apparently means " I ' m here". I t is frequently used underground, by itself, not necessarily in reply to any other sound, but also I have heard badgers using it to each other, underground, from different directions. There are many variations of this throat click, f r o m a whispered hiccup almost to a bark, and no doubt each means something different. I was not able to discover the meaning of a new and most astonishing noise made by two half-grown cubs immediately upon emergence, and heard on this one occasion only. I t was like the rattle of a whizzer used at football matches. But a similar, much quieter, noise is made by a visiting badger as he approaches a stränge sett. Recently I heard this noise before I saw the badger, he was making it from some way off—a light ruffling sound. Still making it, he put his nose into the entrance, then withdrew, silent, while he listened for a reply. There was none, for the sett was empty. Again he put his nose into the entrance, made the ruffling noise, again withdrew and listened. Finally, still making the noise, he entered the sett. T w o minutes later he emerged, silently, and went away. I t was quite clear that he was announcing his presence, was unsure of his reception, and asking permission to enter the sett.
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There are numerous other sounds, whose meaning I have not yet distinguished, and many of them are made with the mouth shut, or in the throat. ( 5 ) INTELLIGENCE. All who have studied badgers will have noticed that sticks are often pulled into the sett. One very dark night I watched a badger (on the bank above me in Silhouette against the stars) breaking off the lower branches of an eider bush (Sambucus nigra), and I could hear him dragging them along, though I could not see what he was doing with them. As the floor of that wood was covered with eider twigs and branches, many with marks of badgers' teeth on them, it would have been useless to look for those branches later. According to my observations, the sticks which badgers pull into their setts, and sometimes leave where they can be seen, are dead ones (presumably because they are more easily obtained) and they are not chewed. As there is often eider near the setts, the sticks are usually eider, but in pine forests, I have seen the dead small lower branches of Pinus sylvestris used. I presume the animals take whatever lies to hand.
It is not easy to find a badger sett to excavate. I person allv would never destroy any sett in use or likely to be used, even if the owner of the land were Willing for me to do so. As a rule, owners prefer to keep their coverts undisturbed. Also, badgers may return even several years later. I am now watching a disused badger sett being vigorously re-opened after four or five years. But if a long-disused sett were available for excavation, the destination of the sticks might be discovered. In the meantime, I offer the following suggestions as possible reasons why sticks are pulled in, and await further information from other observers. (a) Could it be that badgers have noticed that where there are roots, the sand does not fall in, and that sticks are pulled in vaguely for this purpose ? Pit props ? If so, this is rudimentary reasoning. (b) Are the sticks used in any way to help drainage ? (c) To chew underground ? (d) Do they become " mattresses " underneath the usual grass, bracken, leaves, etc., which badgers normally use for bedding ? If so, the sticks would hold the sleeping animals off the possibly damp soil. I would add that, though I have often watched bed-gathering, sticks have never been taken in at the same time. Still considering intelligence, I must record the following event : At one sett I once unwittingly alarmed the badgers. Thereafter, vvhenever I sat in that place, they were late out, nervous, and always looked straight towards me upon emergence. I tried to discover why they were nervous when I was there, and found a tiny openingâ€”three inches acrossâ€”which the badgers had drawn out just by my hand. They had opened it from inside, so no sand showed. I looked into it, and it connected with their tunnels.
They could thus teil from inside the sett that something was there but, owing to my precautions, they diel not know it was human or they would not have come out at all. Was this opening planned, fortuitous ? Was it for Ventilation ? A half-ready emergency exit ? It was in the middle of the sett, so this is notlikely. Was it already there in the first place ? I can only say I did not see it when I chose that place by daylight for a watching place, nor while I was arranging a few branches there for cover. I may have missed it, though I do not think so, for I saw it immediately I set out to find why the badgers were nervous. (6) FAMILY DISPERSAL. In my experience, eubs do not leave their parents, it is the parents who leave them. After abandoning the nest sett when the eubs are about twelve weeks old, a family often returns to it later. T h e half grown eubs may then spend their first winter in the sett where they were born, but the adults disappear. (7) USEFULNESS. Badgers are often gassed by ignorant people who consider them harmful to man's interests. Analyses of badger dung and stomach contents are available, proving their usefulness to man. As regards game, many pheasant nests hatch out untouched within twenty or thirty yards of the setts where I watch ; and during 1962 a pheasant safely hatched out her fĂźll clutch within the perimeter of an occupied sett.
Postscript 7th May, 1964 Since writing the above, I have been able to excavate a small disused (and gassed) badger sett which was never likely to be opened by badgers again. Some evidence on the use of sticks by badgers underground was obtained, but further observations are required before the use or uses of such sticks can be finally determined. T h e excavated sett was a small one, not at all comparable with a large main sett going into a hillside. It had been unoccupied for some time and may even never have been much used by the badgers. These points must be borne in mind when assessing the following findings. T h e sett was in flat land consisting of sandy soil containing many flints, in a plantation of young pines (Pinns sylvestris) with sapling beeches (Fagus sylvatica). There had been five openings, roughly m an oblong, with eight to twenty-five fect between one and the next. Of these entrances, one had apparently fallen in by itself some time ago, the others had been smashed with spades when the sett was illegally gassed by trespassers who have not yet been identified, although inquiries have been made. N o animals were killed by the gassing. I visited the sett on 7th January of this vear, and it was then still open but disused and with nothing in it. On 13th April, a few days after there had been an ineffectual attempt
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to gas another nearby sett, I visited all the diggings I knew in that area, and found this one (also one other unoccupied single hole) to have been effectively gassed and destroyed. One of the five openings to the sett in question had been subsequently reopened, with no evidence to show by whom or why. This could have been done by an animal, or possibly a gas machine had been used here. We opened the whole sett yesterday, and flashlight photos were taken of the interior. However, sand had fallen in upon the bedding, making accurate observations and photography difficult. Nevertheless, we took out fourteen sticks of appreciable size mostly P. sylvestris, but there were also some small pieces of eider (Sambucus nigra). The many smaller sticks, under six inches long, may have been bitten up from longer sticks, or may have come in by chance with the bedding. All sticks were dead ones, having almost no bark, and there were teeth marks on them. Almost all were found in conjunction with the bedding, apparently underneath it, and all seemed to have been bitten into short lengths. The longest was 20 J- inches, the diameter of the thickest was 1 | inchesâ€”a lower bough which had been previously trimmed from P. sylvestris, probably by foresters when " brushing". There were a great many pine cones, all well plastered with sand. It would appear that the sticks may be pulled underground in long pieces, as they are collected. I have frequently seen sticks, 6 feet long and more, lying half inside a sett entrance. It seems that they are then bitten into shorter lengths and used together with pine cones on the floor of resting rooms. Cones and sticks seem to be covered by the usual bedding. In this case, the bedding consisted of pine needles, moss and beech leaves, all local materials. The pine cones could have been taken in by chance with the pine needles, though there seemed to be too many for that, but if so then they could have worked their way down to the bottom among the sticks. We found a few pheasant feathers, one piece of pheasant bone and an unused blank rifle cartridge. These may have gone in with the bedding, or the pheasant remains could have been taken in by a fox, since badgers never carry food home, but eat it where they find it. Food Ieft in a hole is usually the work of foxes, but sometimes a poisoned carcase may be inserted, or pheasant remains left in or near the sett in order to obtain permissi on to gas the place. The excavated tunnels (from 9 to 12 inches in diameter) went down to 2 foot 9 inches below ground level. There were seven hollowed domed Chambers or passing places, the largest 20.' inches across. Further information by other observers gleaned from disused setts would be needed to confirm or Supplement these preliminary observations on one of the uses of sticks by badgers underground. I need scarcely appeal to other naturalists not to disturb setts which are inhabited, but to allow these interesting attractive wild animals to lead their useful lives with as little persecution as possible.