WATER­SIDE WILDLIFE

Early signs that spring’s on the way

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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’

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