The footpath we walk daily is edged now with straggling clumps of faded hawkweeds, willow herbs, groundsel, blackened forget-me-nots, and dead grasses that spill their seeds onto the tarmac to the delight of a sharp-eyed family of sparrows. It may look shabby – but this is actually the annual time of plenty, a bonanza of wild fruits and seeds – inviting birds and animals to feast in preparation for the lean times ahead.
As they trawl our gardens for windfalls, seeds and invertebrates, hedgehogs are solidly building up the reserves of brown fat that will sustain them through their deep hibernation My own garden is no longer visited by hedgehogs: badgers have supplanted them. Badgers don’t hibernate, but, in bad weather, they prefer to stay snug below ground so they, too, need to build up body mass. To watch my most regular visitor, a large boar, as he feeds on scattered peanuts and honey sandwiches is a delight. He quests about, sensitive snout aquiver to search out the smallest crumb, then mobile jaws lip it up and on to the next, till not a morsel is left. Larger crusty bits are snatched up and carried over to the flowerbed to be dealt with in cover, and he occasionally breaks off to listen attentively to sounds from neighbouring gardens – but mostly it’s solid eating.
About three weeks ago, he arrived accompanied by a smaller animal, a sow. He finished eating first and proceeded to delicately remove parasites from her coat. That finished, he mounted her – she busily munching the while – and tried to mate, all the time crooning to her in a loud purr, easily audible through our double-glazing. Eventually she seemed to notice what was going on and resisted, and quite a scuffle ensued till, with an irritable snap in his direction, she squirmed free and raced off. A pause, then he trotted after her. Badgers are known to mate at any time of year. I have seen it twice this year – in May and August. However, after an initial cell-division, the fertilised egg, or blastocyst, remains in the uterus, not becoming implanted to develop further until around December. So all badger cubs are born in late February or early March. A pregnant sow needs to use late summer’s bounty to sustain both herself and, potentially, her developing family. Yes, eating is a serious business.