When we were out and about at favourite playground last month, we noticed that the entrance into the old badger sett had been cleared. The sight of bundles of fresh bedding materials outside the entrance was one of the clearest signs of current badger activity. We planned to keep an eye on this. We were on our usual weekly visit when Mr. Greenman mentioned to us that badger cubs were out and about in the open, wandering along the path. Whoop…whoop. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, they’d gone back into their sett.
The next day, Babe went back to check the sett when I was at work. He along with a few photographers were very lucky to have had close encounters with 3 of the most adorable badger cubs. It was amazing to think that the sow, has had cubs since February. They were already several weeks old and safely tucked away in a labyrinth of tunnels, known as a sett or den. The sow had nursed her tiny young cubs through one of the coldest months of the year. To preserve energy she had lowered her own body temperature and been quite lethargic. By late March, the cubs had begun exploring the tunnels and chambers inside the sett and, two months after they were born, begun to venture above ground.
The mother was usually close by, making sure her cubs were safe. A cub's first tentative trips outside usually took place late at night, and they do not go very far from the sett entrances. Gradually though, the cubs got braver. They ventured out earlier, stayed out longer, and wandered further away from the entrances. New born badgers showed hints of two dark eye-stripes in otherwise thin, silky fur, and by the time they left the sett they had developed full adult coloration. Badger cubs were full of energy and were very playful, as seen from the photographs. I was green with envy just looking at them.
Badgers and their setts were protected by law under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. These lucky photographers had to let them wandered close and let them chew on their shoelaces. What!!! They were playing and exploring in the spring afternoon sunshine, leap-frogging and being king-of-the-castle. After being underground and in the dark, they were desperate to play. They were running round each other in circles. They were so overjoyed to be out and about. It was so heartening to see their boundless energy. It was mid-spring and the cubs were still small, about the size of Babe’s size 9 boots. They looked like a cross between a humbug and an old fashioned loo brush that had been backcombed . Simply adorable.
Unfortunately due to the close proximity to the path, their mother had decided to move her family somewhere else. The cubs had created a sensation and people who were either unaware of the law or just don’t care were getting too close to them. We think we knew where their new home was and we were glad that they were still around. By 12 weeks old, they were being weaned and started learning to forage for themselves alongside their mother. By the time they were 15 weeks old, the cubs were quite happy to go foraging alone. By autumn, they would be nearly as big as the adults. They played much less, and spend more time eating. They needed to build up their body fat so that they would survive their first winter, when there wasn’t much food around. If they lived through the winter, they would have a good chance of growing into fully adult badgers, and having cubs of their own.
Badgers were nocturnal. The white head with black nose and two broad black stripes running from behind the muzzle to behind the ears gave them their distinctive look. They had an overall grey appearance because the long guard hairs on their back and flanks had a white base and tip with a black band in the middle. They were stockily built with short, powerful legs, strong claws for digging and a small bushy tail. They were omnivorous and opportunistic feeders, taking a variety of whatever foods available. Earthworms formed the largest part of their diet but they also ate beetles, slugs, frogs and small mammals such as rats, mice and hedgehogs as well as nuts and berries.
When Carl Linnaeus wrote the first description of a Swedish badger specimen in 1758, he thought it was a species of small bear. Its scientific name used the Latin for badger, meles, for both parts. There were a few explanations for the origin of the badger's English name, one of which was derived from the 16th century word bageard, a reference to the striped face or ‘badge' of the animal. Another suggested that badger was derived from the French word for digger ‘becheur'. An old name for badger was ‘grey’, alluding to a rather odd attribute. Its body and leg fur was mostly pale grey: only part of the longest, wiry ‘guard’ hairs is black, producing the overall grizzled appearance.
Pushing the wedge of his body
Between cromlech and stone circle,
He excavates down mine shafts
And back into the depths of the hill.
For the digger, the earth-dog
It is a difficult delivery
Once the tongs take hold,
Vulnerable his pig's snout
That lifted cow-pats for beetles,
~Michael Longley (For Raymond Piper)~
I was working hard when I got a phone call from an excited Babe who was at our favourite playground with the badger cubs. There was a new arrival and it was bringing all the birders, photographers and twitchers to the nature reserve, except moi . The piece de resistance was an osprey, seen fishing on the River pool which was adjacent to the River Avon and from where it gets its water. According to Babe, it was standing room only at River Pool and Teal Pool hide, which also overlooked River pool. After catching its lunch, the spectacular fish-eating bird of prey flew to a nearby tree to have its meal.
Then it flew back again to the pool showing off its dramatic fishing technique by soaring or hovering above the water’s surface before plunging at 30 mph with wings swept back, talons thrust forwards at the last minute to snatch a fish below the surface. Its dense plumage, dislocatable shoulder joints, underwater vision and fleshy nostrils that closed enabled it to plunge unaffected and then immediately flew with its catch. The success was nearly certain, due to the spiky scales on its talons and an opposable toe it rotated to allow a two-toed grip on either side of a fish. It carried fishes weighing half its weight, rotating the fish so its head faced forward for a streamlined flight. It was a successful angler as the pool was teeming with fish. Ospreys eat fish and nothing else; they were piscivores.
Seen in flight from below the Osprey had white or slightly mottled underparts. The long wings were angled, bending at the 'wrist' which had a black patch contrasting with the white wing linings. Ospreys could reach a length of 26 inches and a wingspan of 71 inches. It must be en-route from its wintering quarters in West Africa, hunkering down here to fatten up, before flying to its breeding grounds in England (Rutland, Cumbria, Northumberland) and Wales. It was fantastic to see the bird stopping here on its journey. It would be lovely if the reserve could be more than a bird service station but unfortunately the artificial nest platform that was erected near Ted Jury Hide had bit the dust.
The Osprey was an Amber List species because of its historical decline (due to illegal killing) and low breeding numbers. They were listed as a Schedule 1 species on The Wildlife and Countryside Act. The old English name was 'Mullet Hawk' which was a pretty good idea what their main fish prey species in the UK (and actually, where they nested) was before they were persecuted to extinction by 1916. For centuries, they had also been praised in literature. Written 2,500 years ago, China’s oldest, most celebrated poem, “Guan ju,” began “Guan guan trill the ospreys on the islet in the river.” The Corps of Discovery expedition team recorded them in 1803, Lewis noting a “white-headed fishing hawk,” and Clark describing “the Crown of the head white, and back of a milkey white.”
I was gutted not been able to see this amazing bird on my own local patch. But I’d already seen them at Rutland Waters and at the Dyfi Osprey Project. Unfortunately, they were miles away. Fingers-crossed, when it migrated back to West Africa in early autumn, it would made another pit stop.
with its narrow
and its cupidinous eyes
from a leafy tree
to look into the lake – it looked
a long time, then its powerful
shoulders punched out a little
and it fell,
it rippled down
into the water –
then it rose, carrying,
in the clips of its feet,
a slim and limber
silver fish, a scrim
of red rubies
on its flashing sides.
All of this
to look at,
so I simply stood there,
in the blue morning,
when the fish was gone forever
and the bird was miles away,
I came back
and stood on the shore, thinking –
and if you think
thinking is a mild exercise,
I mean, I was swimming for my life –
and I was thundering this way and that way
in my shirt of feathers –
and I could not resolve anything long enough
to become one thing
except this: the imaginer.
It was inescapable
as over and over it flung me,
without pause or mercy it flung me
to both sides of the beautiful water –
to both sides
of the knife.
~ Mary Oliver~