Early signs that spring’s on the way
The Celts celebrated the beginning of spring midway between the winter solstice and spring equinox in the Gaelic festival of ‘Imbolc’, associated with the pagan goddess of fire, Brigid.
Peasants processed across the fields bearing torches and calling for fertility of the land. Christians replaced the torches with candles in churches and the whole ceremony evolved into Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, on 2 February.
To provide blooms for such a special day, monks are thought to have introduced ‘Candlemas Bells’ or ‘Mary’s taper’ from Europe during the 15th Century. Escaping from their gardens to the damp woodlands and hedgerows, we all love to see Snowdrops as an early promise of spring.
The grey-green leaves of this ‘Snow piercer’ have tips specially hardened for breaking through frozen ground and are soon followed by the demure flowers of ‘February Fair-maids’ with their bent heads. The three pure white spreading sepals are longer and more convex than the three inner greentipped petals.
Seeds only set in the mildest of winters, when insect pollinators are around, and the colonies mostly reproduce by division of the bulbs in Britain. It is uncertain if any snowdrops occur naturally on our islands.
Imbolc was traditionally a time for weather divination, especially the severity of the remaining winter. In Europe, if you see a badger on Candlemas day, it is a sign that spring is just around the corner. Badgers do not hibernate in winter, but they spend the coldest weather snuggled up asleep, emerging from their underground setts at dusk during milder spells to grab a welcome meal.
Badgers are omnivores in the weasel family. Earthworms plus other invertebrates, insects and vegetation (roots, fruit and bulbs) make up the bulk of their diet – leaving behind lots of ‘snuffle holes’ where they have been digging – but they are opportunistic foragers and will take small mammals, amphibians and birds eggs.
They have a special articulation of the lower jaw enabling them to maintain their hold with the utmost tenacity – dislocation is all but impossible – but limits jaw movement to hinging open and shut.
Their short, fat bodies and short legs with spade-like paws are built for digging. The French ‘becheur’ means digger, and may be the source of the word ‘badger’. Our ancestors commonly called a badger ‘Brock’ from the Celtic ‘broc’, meaning grey – the predominant impression you gain from the animal glimpsed at dusk. Seen up close, you realise the grey is really brindled black and white bristles, which were traditionally used to make shaving brushes and sporrans.
Badgers live in family groups in a series of underground chambers called setts, which are often used by successive generations. Deciduous woods and hedgerows are the usual locations for setts, especially if these are on slopes bordering pastures.
They can cause significant damage if they decide to set up home in a canal embankment. Each sett has several entrances, at least 30cm wide, with a large accumulation of excavated soil outside, sometimes together with old, discarded bedding. Badgers make themselves comfortable underground with nests of leaves and grass which the badger gathers with forelegs and chin, dragging it backwards into the tunnel. (The same manoeuvre is used in reverse to remove excavated soil.) You can often see signs of fresh dropped bedding in the entrance of active setts.
There is a lot of activity going on underground in early February when the majority of badger cubs are born. The cubs, up to five in a litter, grow quickly and start coming into the open after about eight weeks to play, though they remain dependent on their mother until the autumn. Not long after giving birth the sows become ready to mate again, but delayed implantation means that only one litter is born a year.
Let’s hope that we see the badgers are out and about by Candlemas.
‘Badgers do not hibernate in winter, but spend the coldest weather asleep, emerging in milder spells to grab a welcome meal’