I enjoy a puzzle, especially a natural history one. A real teaser arrived a couple of weeks ago in the form of a photograph. It was sent by our nephew who has a small holding near Kendal and showed what looked like a large nest of dried grass jammed against a stock-proof fence in one of their fields. This structure, we were told, was about 18 inches across, the central depression about 8 inches wide. What was it, who made it – and why?
The only creature I know capable of – and keen on – collecting such a large ball of this kind of material was a badger. Conscientious housekeepers, badger spend a lot of time and effort in collecting bedding material – straw, bracken, old bluebell leaves and, by first choice, dried grass. I’ve watched individuals doing this, scraping a large bundle together, securing it between lowered chin and chest, moving rapidly backwards in a series of humping jerks and reversing neatly into the chosen burrow. It’s slightly comic but also impressive. Often several journeys are made and the return journey is unerring though the animal never checks to see where it’s going.
There is an active sett on our nephew’s land. It’s in a bank along, and partly inside, a hedgerow and when I last visited showed lots of signs of activity – earth moving, well-trodden pathways and traces of old bedding material. Perhaps the collector got tired, sat down on the pile for a nap and then was disturbed or just lost interest? However, the central depression is rather small for a badger’s bottom and the sett is some distance from the mystery nest.
I decided to consult the badger-watcher’s bible – “Badgers” by Ernest Neal and Chris Cheeseman. They emphasise the badger’s passion for bedding collection; moreover they refer to records of material transported 230 metres to the sett. February is a peak time for this activity. Badger cubs, born late February–early March, are virtually hairless so the nursery chamber needs lots of insulation. So, though I can’t be sure I’ve solved the conundrum, I like to think of those cubs, kept underground by anxious parents till late Spring but then ready to emerge and entertain their human hosts as April turns to May: but perhaps by now a quite different explanation has been found!
In return for story and photograph, nephew asked if I’d add a plea to dog-walkers to keep pets on the lead in sheep country while ewes are in lamb – an anxious time.
Image by Jenny Dixon’s nephew