Badger (Meles meles): Earth moving machine.
I'VE NEVER SEEN AN ANIMAL GO BACKWARDS FASTER than it can forwards, but this is one claim to fame that can unquestionably be bestowed upon the badger, for ol'Brock (the archaic English name for the badger) has an uncanny ability to move at surprisingly close to the speed-of-light in reverse gear, retreating into the safety of its underground home in an act triggered only by the slightest noise or unexpected happening as the mammal tentatively emerges from the shadows of its sunken home: on this occasion, the click of a camera's shutter did the trick. In hindsight, it couldn't have retreated any faster if a vortex were to suddenly form in the belly of the subterranean chambers and suck the animal, cartoon-style, back into the tunnel's abyssal gloom.
Kenneth Graham describes Badger (in his book The Wind In The Willows) as curmudgeonly, and portrays him as a stern, steady sort of chap: I'm not sure this is really a fair character assessment: brusque, business like perhaps, with a propensity towards nervousness and belligerence in equal measure, the badger is a grafter, nature's very own JCB, capable of moving vast quantities of earth and flint in a summer season, always striving to improve and expand its underground living quarters, known as the sett. Indeed, this residence can be quite vast, containing more than 30 entrances with tunnel networks (including passing-places!) in excess of 300-meters long and covering an area of ground larger than that a football pitch: dug out in well drained soil, normally on a woodland edge and sometimes over 400-years old, it is no wonder that the animal is sometimes referred to as the oldest land owner in Britain, the sett masquerading as its stately home, passed on from generation-to-generation and in existence long before roads and rail networks ever came into being.
Stout, wiry and built for hard work (the boars weighing up to 12kg) with course outer fur that repels dirt and grime, the badger is a member of the Mustelidae family (the weasels) that contains otters, polecats, martens and skunks to name a few, and shares with them the characteristic must gland under the base of the tail, used for the territorial marking of boundaries and in the case of badgers, each other: during an evening's observation, it is possible to watch them backing into each other, anointing fellow clan members with the family's own brand of eau-de-cologne. A wealth of clues can be detected and used to determine whether badgers are using a particular area (usually well wooded in Norfolk with plenty of adjacent pasture and heathland for foraging) and often the best indication of their presence is the uprooted remains of bluebells and wild arum in the Spring, when the badgers are after the energy laden corms hidden just below the surface of the woodland floor. Other prominent pointers include well-used latrines -- small scrapes dug out at strategic points within the clan's territory -- containing faeces that might betray fruit stones, beetle wings and cases, even mammal bones (rabbit, rat, and sometimes a hedgehog).
Once an active sett has been located, stealthy observation is absolutely critical to get the most from your efforts. Arrive at least 2-hours before sunset (armed with a cushion) and sit downwind of your chosen tunnel's exit point, then don't move, remembering that the sett's network of passages may only be 1-meter below ground level, and you could be sitting right on top of them! Your best ally after darkness falls will be a red filtered torch or the rear light of a bicycle, switched on as the gloaming descends: our mammal friends are less likely to be disturbed by the glow of red light.
It is highly likely that a badger deals with a hedgehog meal in much the same manner that an otter will dispatch and eat a toad; turning the victim on its back and scooping out the soft underbelly, leaving nothing but a perfectly skinned corpse with head and legs still attached. The otter does this to avoid eating the poisonous glands embedded in the toads skin, the badger to avoid swallowing a mouthful of prickly spines.
Ever alert for curious noises that may spell trouble, a badger tentatively sniffs at a large flint on the woodland floor, expectant of finding a tasty morsel beneath. This will be one of many stones to be upended during a night's exploration.
Emerging from the depths of its underground lodgings, a badger glares back at the unusual presence waiting for it outside the sett. A night time of foraging for fruits, bulbs and earthworms will come to an end well before the sun rises.
The badger clan's winter months are sedentary affairs, spent deep in the safety of the sett's cosiest chambers, with only the occasional out of doors foray on milder days to stretch, or top up diminishing fat reserves. It isn't until early spring that activity levels rise and the nagging itch to start excavating becomes overwhelming once more, doubly important now, to replace fetid winter bedding but also to keep the latest arrivals, 3 - 6 new born cubs, safe and warm during their first weeks of life. Born during late January or early in February, the blind and helpless cubs (eyes open after 5-weeks) will be suckled by the sow for their first weeks of life and won't start exploring the labyrinth called home for over a month yet: their first ventures into the outside world might not be until late April or May. It is interesting to note that only one female per clan will normally breed, mating with the dominant boar in the spring or summer months and delaying implantation of the embryo into the uterus for up to 10-months: gestation is usually a 7 - 8 week affair.
The telltale sign that badgers are present at an active sett -- distinctive footprints left in sandy soil or drying mud. Often, only four toes show-up well in prints, yet the five digits seen here are characteristic of the animal.