An Underground Network

You may be forgiven for believing, as I am sure I once did, that the badger is one of our only underground-dwelling mammals. Sure, they pop out at dusk for a dig around the field or you might regrettably see one by the side of the road but, for me at least, the word “badger” conjures images of mysterious holes into a unknown subterranean wonderland and underground warrens with badgers curled up in beds of dried grass and moss, their bodies curving to match the well-worn chambers of Earth that they themselves have created. Indeed, we’ve had these images pressed into us. ‘Mr. Badger’ from ‘Wind in the Willows’ does not get a handsome dwelling such as Toad hall – he is given a labyrinth-esque sett complete with buried ancient relics. In ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’, the titular fox, while hiding underground runs into his old friend ‘Mr. Badger’, never pictured appearing from beneath the earth.

 

Juxtapose this with the images conjured when you say “fox”, “otter” or “mouse”. For the fox you may be picturing a sleek orange blur disappearing behind a tree in the woods or, if you are of a certain outlook, a pesky thief raiding the street bins or chicken coop. The otter, seldom seen, you may be imagining curling and diving off the coast or weaving its way up a country river in search of fish. The mouse, wee timorous beastie, you might picture scampering through the grass on a hot summer day or a less than welcome guest in the kitchen. Whatever you’re thinking, these mammals certainly don’t lead one straight to think of cold dark underground holes in the same way that “badger” does. Don’t get me wrong, badgers are not thought to be alone by any means. Rabbit and mole share the same muddy connotations. Well known inhabitants of the ground beneath our feet.

 

These three are however not the only ones. Fox, otter, mouse, rat, beaver, vole, stoat, mink, weasel; All of these and more spend large portions of their life underground in dens, burrows and tunnels etc. Granted, the fox may choose in the summer months to live outdoors on the move and the mink, mouse, rat, stoat and weasel are not picky about what makes up the dark crevices they abide in. The mouse and rat are even happy living in man-made structures. I would however, be happy enough saying that all of these species will be well versed and comfortable with a life underground.

 

Fox Cub
Picture of a fox cub emerging from a badger sett entrance. One of 5 cubs raised that year in what was previously a badger sett. Photo copyrighted for use here only.

 

And hey, if there are all these mammals kicking around beneath us, how much do we think that they actually interact? I first got inspiration for this blog a couple months back when I was contacted by a friend of a friend about a badger sett they had been observing with a camera trap. They were both bewildered and excited to see that their sett had been explored by an otter! Not just once, this otter had visited a number of times and had even gone down into the sett. I too thought this was pretty darn exciting, having never myself come across this. Speaking to Elaine, our project officer, she said that she had come across a couple of cases of otters being seen at badger setts but it was by no means a common occurrence. Which got me thinking, should it be such a surprise? Not just the slinking swimmer that we might first imagine, the otter is also an underground dwelling species and if a badger sett happens to be near water, why shouldn’t a passing otter fancy it as a holt? Saves digging a new one at the very least.

 

One of our very dedicated volunteers, Bill Winter recently had the same experience I describe above, a guest appearance of Mr. Otter at the badger sett he monitors. I asked him a few questions about the experience;

“Can you tell me a bit about the sett location; is it close to water for instance?”

“My sett is in a small coniferous woodland valley on a fairly exposed high plateau, at around 250m above sea level. At the base of the valley there is a very small burn, spring fed, but primarily land drain from surrounding pasture fields. The nearest water of any note which could support fish is around 6km away”

“From your description, it doesn’t sound like the place you may see an otter; were you expecting to see an otter on your camera footage? That must have been very exciting”

“In no way did I expect to see otter. Excited? I just about chocked on a cup of tea I was drinking whilst going through the clips! I didn’t believe what I had seen in the short clip and had to show it to several other members and Elaine to confirm what I had indeed seen.”

“Have you got any ideas for what to look out for now that you know the otter is about?”

“I haven’t been able to find any other signs but definitely keeping an eye on my camera clips and checking for prints and spraint that may indicate they are staying in the area”

So within a few months that is the second time I have heard someone give me an account of otters visiting an active sett – it must happen a lot more regularly than we think. Now whether an Otter would actually want to use any part of a sett as a holt is probably dubious – It would likely need some alterations at the very least. Maybe it would use it as a resting place however?

 

One species that we do know can live on in a badger sett is the fox. Foxes are well recorded to take kips in badger setts and have even been shown to share occupancy. See above for a photo of a fox cub leaving the den which has also moonlighted as a badger sett before. Famous for his pioneering studies on understanding badgers, and bringing them into the public eye, Ernest Neal recorded foxes, rabbits, rats, mice and even feral cats living in an active badger sett. Though it is unlikely that they would be best of friends, it’s hard to see huge levels of competition between badgers and these other species, the badger’s most common food source being earthworms which are perhaps too big for the humble mouse and too mundane for the fox. While badgers and rodents may not interact all that much, it is lovely to think of a fox and badger meeting down there in the tunnels and allowing each other to get on with their underground business, or even having some kind of interaction. Indeed, when these large mammals are growing up it is even possible to see them playing. Below is some lovely footage captured on a trail camera by one of Scottish Badger’s trustees; Ann Innes. It appears to show a fox coming along and giving the badger a quick nip on the back before sprinting off camera for the badger to give chase, which they obligingly do. Please visit Ann’s youtube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFXrfPKS4kV9F-BNLoCBqUA) for more of her lovely videos.

 

It is a charming thought – that these animals that we know so well as separate, wild, entities do meet up in that unseen world and share interactions that we will can only guess at. Have a badger and fox ever cuddled up to each other for warmth? Ever protected a sett together? Has an otter ever extended a badger sett to include a nice river entrance? I daresay the Mr. Badger wouldn’t be too amused if, instead of exiting into a field as presumed, he found himself swimming down the Clyde. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to anthropomorphize these wild animals. Well, not too much. From a behavioural perspective, if species are sharing a space, there must be some times where they species meet and have to decide how to act with each other. Whether their neighbour is friend or foe. While I cannot many offer gems of wisdom into how these two species actually interact, I am keen to highlight that it is a lot more likely than you may have originally thought. Certainly more likely than I thought. Badgers and moles are not our only underground species. In fact it must be more weird for the hill-seeking deer and tree-hopping squirrel that they do not share in this secret club, this underground network. Many of our beloved species know two worlds where we only see one. They have the dark world of safety, comfort and family and also our world of food, open spaces and danger. While we may be keen to know what goes on in that underground world, I am very glad that these creatures have their own space where we cannot go. Where humans should not intrude. A space all too rare and that should be protected.

 

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