On the 29th of March 2016, I was asked by Somerset Badger Group to attend a site where a landowner who was overseeing the moving of a manure heap had discovered two badger cubs. I attended the site just after 13:00, and the landowner explained the events earlier that day. The site was a smallholding with a few horses. There had been a manure heap adjacent to the stables, which had been in place since the early winter.
A contractor had been employed to move the manure, and he arrived at around 09:00 with a large tractor/loader and a trailer. The landowner did not suspect a sett within the manure heap, and his concerns and actions later would reassure me that he was badger friendly and had genuine concerns for the welfare of the cubs. As the contractor dug into the manure and loaded a trailer, an adult badger was seen at the rear of the heap. The badger walked off very calmly into the adjacent hedge and was not seen again.
They concluded that this badger had been making use of the heat from the manure and was asleep on the heap and not in it. The contractor hitched up the trailer and left the site to tip the manure at his farm five miles away. While the contractor was away, the landowner heard a distress call and initially, he thought it was a group of Magpies. As he walked down to the field, he noticed on the open grassland a badger cub within a small pile of manure that had either fallen from the bucket of the tractor or the trailer. He placed the cub in a basket and checked the rest of the manure for any evidence of badgers.
The contractor returned and removed the remaining small pile of manure. As he was about to unload the second trailer at his farm, he heard a distress call coming from the first pile of manure. He investigated and dug into the manure to find another badger cub buried. He contacted the landowner, and he immediately came over to the farm and placed this cub with the other earlier cub in the basket. The cubs were returned to the original site and placed in a small amount of manure within the hedge line at the rear of where the manure heap had been.
I examined the cubs and found them to be approximately six weeks old; both were (amazingly) unharmed, one being male and the other female. When handled, they were very vocal, which, based on my previous experiences with cubs, helped to indicate that were in reasonable condition. I handled them with surgical gloves to prevent scent transfer and concluded that if the cubs could be kept warm, safe and undisturbed, there was a real potential for the sow to return and take the cubs to another sett (of which I had established that there were many around the land).
Their current location was ideal for a sow to approach them undetected as the hedge was wide and reasonably thick. It was on the axis of two other hedges; this provided sheltered access through the fields if required. I also observed a latrine within the hedge line that had recent use by, I presumed, the sow while attending to the cubs. I also observed badger paths radiating from where the sett had been through the hedge line when the sow must have gone off foraging before the disturbance. However, the cubs were becoming cold and the manure, whilst offering some protection from the wind, was damp.
I immediately got a hot water bottle from my car and filled it with “warm” water. I had been away from the cubs no more than eight minutes, and when I returned, one of the cubs had been taken. This had to be the sow, as the general level of disturbance on the site and the movement of people, coupled with my scent on the ground around the cubs, would have dissuaded any other wild animal except a determined lactating sow. I concluded that the sow was laid up nearby, and by handling the cubs and their vocal reaction, she had investigated whilst I was away (filling the hot water bottle).
I made the remaining cub safe and warm by placing it in a small hay-filled wicker basket, which the cub immediately buried itself into. The basket offered more protection from the wind and prevented it from rolling about if it decided to wriggle. Based on previous experiences, I knew the physical presence of the basket would not dissuade a sow from taking her cub if she approached the location. Some hours later that afternoon, the sow returned and took the remaining cub.
Despite the total destruction of the sett and the trauma the cubs and sow went through, the sow was prepared to re-engage with the cubs. The protection of the hedge and its connectivity with other setts in the locality enabled her to move the cubs in daylight hours.
If the cubs had been admitted to the rehabilitation centre (SWWR), I see no reason why a second attempt at reuniting the cubs could not have been undertaken the following night, providing that the sow had not ignored the cubs on the first attempt.
For advice on the return of cubs to the natal sett, contact Andy Parr at firstname.lastname@example.org