Weasel Family

There are many badger setts around and beyond our cottage. This is the European Badger (latin name Meles meles), part of the Weasel family. It evolved over 2-4 million years, since the end of the Pleistocene era. Researchers have speculated that the ancestor of the Eurasian badger was Meles thorali, which had a Palaearctic distribution during the late Pliocene (about 3.6 to 1.8 million years ago).

The bear, wolf and lynx were killed to extinction to keep livestock safe; now the largest carnivore left is the badger and it tops it’s food chain.

The badger doubles its weight from around 7.25 kgs in spring to 14.4 kgs in autumn, and measures just under a meter in length, nose to tail. So just now it is heavier as it rummages around the landscape turning over the ground with sharp claws to find earthworms in the main, and insects and grubs. They also eat small mammals, amphibians, reptiles and birds, as well as roots, fungus and fruit. Badgers rarely drink; instead they obtain most of their water from their food. There is a plentiful source of food around just now but winter will test their survival chances (but then, winter tests all of us).

The only threat to badgers is man and his activities. In the south of England populations are at their greatest while in Scotland their frequency varies from common to scarce the further north you go, and as the altitude increases and the availability of food decreases. We live nearly 900 ft above sea level which does not seem to worry the local community of badgers. They are members of the stoat and weasel family, and there are plenty of them running around too.

At night we know they are busy using their keen sense of smell and excellent hearing. Their eyesight is poor, as might be expected for the animal who lives below ground sleeping all day. We have seen them through the day though, no doubt searching for food in the spring when their cubs are born. These will stay underground from around mid February until a couple of months later. Like the fox cubs, they will then learn to

The sandy soil and trees around us are ideal for them to construct
tunnels and chambers. As they can make a home over 10 meters long from the entrance we can never know how near or far from us they are at any one time. We can quite expect they are digging the foundations of our cottage away, but nature will always take back what is hers.

Badger territories, the area of land collectively defended by a clan, are determined by the quality and quantity of foraging in any given area. Good quality – small territory, poor quality – large territory.

The latrine areas around badger setts provide favourable habitat for Elder bushes (Sambucus nigra) and nettles (Urtica dioica) because as the badger dung decomposes it releases nitrogenous components into the soil; elder and nettles have a preference for nitrogen-rich soil. We have elder trees and plenty of nettles around our cottage!

Like the deer, has delayed implantation and the fertilized egg develops into a blastocyst which isn’t fully implanted into the uterus until mid winter when badger activity is at its lowest. Badger life is hard and less than 50% survive to their second year.

The badger has no natural predators (which in itself is unnatural) and has only man to fear, and generally speaking it is through ignorance rather than design that most persecution occurs.

It is estimated that road traffic accidents account for up to 30% of badger mortalities. Insensitive developments do much more damage to wildlife than first thought which is where knowledge of clans, territories, foraging areas, and in fact all wildlife movement are most important.

Another member of the Weasel family is the Otter. There are two sections of the burn, which runs north by our cottage, where otters are known to be active. I have never seen one myself, but again, they are nocturnal. We have trout in the burn which the Dipper and Heron are often seen in position waiting to snap up their prey. The otters will be similarly engaged at night in the clear waters, which, the further you go north reach high into fells with various tributaries feeding into the burn. The more isolated the land, the safer the otter will feel.

There is scientific evidence to suggest Otters have been on Earth for the past 30 million years. In order to survive that long though they have had to evolve in a variety of ways. It is speculated that the Otter as we know it today may have evolved significantly about 7 million years ago. The European otter (Lutra lutra) can be located by its ‘spraints’, or droppings. These are left under bridges (which have recently been built over the burn in three places up the glen) and footprints are often found along the banks of the burn. When the otter shelters in daylight it finds a ‘hover’ which, as it sounds, will only suit whilst it is safe.

Otters have been hunted for centuries for their pelts, but now mostly to remove competition for fish. Today the hunting of Otters is severely limited by law.

However, people continue to hunt them for sport. They are small enough to conceal and following a river course can lead to their presence. If caught, these hunters may be prosecuted and either go to jail or have to pay a huge fine for their barbaric act.

Gavin Maxwell endeared us to the Otter when he wrote ‘Ring of Bright Water’ in 1960. It was Maxwell’s own story and was made into the film of the same name which I saw many years ago. Of course, it was a tear jerker as he made a pet of the otter which he purchased from a pet shop (what a terrible thought that a wild animal could be for sale). Whilst away from home he leaves the pet with his partner who is exercising the animal and a ditch digger kills it. I always fear something will happen to my pets if I leave them. Indeed, when I have had no option but to leave them, more often than not something awful has happened.

I am happy to know there are otters where I live and do not wish to see them or disturb them if I can help it. I used to see the deer and now they are shot by the gamekeeper. I feel superstitious that if I see an otter someone will kill it. The hunting fraternity killed the fox cubs when chased by the hounds, vehicles hit the badgers on the roads. I hope I never see a dead otter.

About borderslynn

Retired, living in the Scottish Borders after living most of my life in cities in England. I can now indulge my interest in all aspects of living close to nature in a wild landscape. I live on what was once the Iapetus Ocean which took millions of years to travel from the Southern Hemisphere to here in the Northern Hemisphere. That set me thinking and questioning and seeking answers. In 1998 I co-wrote Millennium Countdown (US)/ A Business Guide to the Year 2000 (UK) see https://www.abebooks.co.uk/products/isbn/9780749427917
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