Nature Notes

Earth and Sett

The vixen has moved her cubs, spreading them out into separate holes and chambers. They are growing up. She returns each night with food, calling from 100yds away along the down, tempting them out, building their confidence and independence.

Around the earth, the foliage is crushed, flattened or worn away with their games. Feathers, sheared-off and gummed with saliva, are everywhere; a pair of disembodied wings are jammed down one hole.

The earth is in the midst of a well-established badger sett. Foxes must make difficult neighbours for fastidious badgers, who eat their meals out and air their bedding. Foxes bring dinner home (particularly when there are cubs) and the earth is strewn with the Saturday-night take-away detritus of gnawed bones and pheasant carcasses. Astonishingly, there are also the remains of a muntjac, its head (minus ears, eyes and antlers, which have been chewed off) still attached to the snaking vertebrae of neck, spine and sprung ribcage. The vixen must have found it dead, trapped, or injured and severely weakened, but it must have been a real prize: one worth the considerable effort needed to drag it here.

The smell of fox and the distinct sound of blowflies echoing up from the holes, are sure signs the foxes are ‘in’ – but if I were in any doubt, an impertinent cub has placed an upright poo on the badgers’ spoil-heap doorstep; it points skywards like a rude gesture.

I return later with my daughter.  It is a difficult earth to watch, built like a castle keep, but we creep up through the valley, quietly skirt the wood and sit to wait.

My daughter spots them first, away from the earth-sett we’re watching. Under the hill is a long ridge of hawthorn, flint-seam, root and – now we see – doors into the down itself. Badgers. A broad, humbug-striped head puzzles our outlines, uselessly scenting the wind blowing towards us. Unhurriedly, she trots her long, low body along the down. Her body seems to go on and on – and she is towing a cub! Clamped firmly to her tail, in turn, it tows its sibling, whose muzzle rests on its rump. They form a rippling, linear flow of silvery badger; a narrow, luxurious rug being pulled along by a thread. The sow stops to quiz us again and the cubs take the chance to suckle briefly. It may be one of the last times: they are around 12-weeks-old and will soon be weaned. Quickly out of patience, she shakes them off and the cubs follow her down a hidden entrance, pouring like molten lead, into the hill itself.  

The foxes never do come out.

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